Friday, April 15, 2011

Tourism: Trinketization and the Manufacture of the Exotic

Tourism has several modes in which, more often than not, its cultural charge is impoverished. As a huge global industry it spans the world, and makes objects of people, places, meanings and experience. A vast publishing apparatus promotes this: visitor’s guides, travel literature, holiday brochures, route maps and itineraries. As pleasure- and treasure-hunt, tourism commodifies in several ways; it can be presented as educational horizon, since we have to take seriously the ideology that travel broadens the mind, and this has its privileges; as market for the strange, the curio, the souvenir and the remote, tourism brings all “Chinese Walls” battered and bruised into the guidebooks and snapshot albums of the bargain-hunting hordes. The reduction and destruction that tourism visits on the peoples and places of the ‘under-developed’ world are not the only ills of globalization for sure; and some may make the case for tourism as a force for cultural preservation; as opportunity for exchange; or tourism as solidarity and as a kind of charitable aid. On the whole tourism suffers a bad press upon, what some call, a lonely Planet

Tourist sites and experiences are glossed in promotional literatures with a well known and now instantly recognizable code: sunsets over palm fringed beaches; temples and monuments in jungles or deserts; curious modes of transport – the camel, the elephant, the auto-rickshaw or canoe; smiling cherubic youth; feathered warriors or remote Masai women in costumed dance. The adventure of tourism in the so-called ‘third world’ mixes these exotics with pleasure getaways, luxury resorts (swimming pools just meters away from pristine beaches seem clearly excessive); home comforts and promises of safety, running water or fully-catered treks (with Nepalese Sherpers perhaps to carry any real weight; with political concerns safely tucked away in the non-tourist peripheries – alarmingly increasing, as the ‘axis of evil’ expands).

The trouble with much tourism literature has been that it must ignore politics, commodification, inequality and exploitation at the exact moment that these matters are the very basis of the possibility of ‘third-world’ tourism in the first place. If there was not a wealthy tourist elite (or relative elite) looking for leisured rest and/or exotic experience outside of their everyday world, there would be no tourist economy. In a competitive market the travel magazine version of the world of tourism must present the beach, the pina colada, the ‘interesting’ cultural life of others as a packaged for ready sale. The educational dimension of culture then becomes benign. Inequality is reduced to cultural difference, and may sometimes be presented as something the tourist economy can even alleviate. In Denis O’Rourke’s film “The Good Woman of Bangkok” you can hear sex tourists brag that their custom keeps Thai women from a life of poverty. In the Americas, ‘spring-break’ festivities in the Caribbean or in South America occlude a more urgent educational agenda. In South East Asian hotels, the artist of Wayang Kulit and Gamelan, not to mention less salubrious traditions, are maintained through nightly performances for businessmen that pay top dollar for entertainments they need not fully understand. Or rather, they pay for the experience of difference, of not understanding otherness. The exotic is its own reward – does it matter that these traditions are reduced in cultural importance by the way? Some would argue against such traditionalism.

The benevolence of tourism and charity work
A guilty secret resides at the heart of third world tourism. Holidays in other people’s misery seem inappropriate and yet – the beaches are beautiful; the tsunami a tragedy. The equation can be resolved by charitable donation or by the presence of the tourist themselves. After the Asian tsunami of 2004, rebuilding of destroyed tourist resorts in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia were soon followed by calls for the tourists to return, as part of the reconstruction. There is a cultural maintenance aspect here that deserves attention: in circumstances of dire wealth disparity and limited economic means, the tourist economy provides cultural workers with an expressive outlet. Ritual forms morph into entertainments, but are nevertheless preserved – albeit in museumized forms. This is a difficult evaluation to make – as many of the needed tourist dollars are not actually spent in the effected countries when one takes into account the destinations of profits from tourism after airline ticketing, charter and package tour bookings, hotel and food chains (MacDonalds and Coca-Cola all over Thailand for example) and even sale of travel guides and the market in television travel shows. Ultimately, there is a very small percentage of economic return left for local entrepreneurs in each case, and the structure of colonialism prevails.

In recognition of this, some travelers (a sub-category of tourist, also known as backpackers, eco-travelers, or development workers) seek out charitable works, a few days at a Mother Theresa clinic or volunteer washing of elephants at a nature reserve or similar. This kind of benevolence is authorized and approved in many travel guides, and in newspapers advertisements and documentary programmes, through the mechanism of a heart-tugging image of an (always smiling) child that would be the necessary motivator for even a gesture (‘send just a few coins’) of care or concern for dispossessed human beings. Clearly charitable activities, even where they ‘help’ a bit, are also part of the benevolent self deception of the tourist gaze; serving to deflect meaningful recognition of gross economic privilege and, along the way, turning guilt itself into a commodity form. One does a few days voluntary work in Calcutta (see Hutnyk 1996) to excuse a month of hedonism on the beach in Goa. Similar logics justify the carbon footprint calculations of even the most well-meaning environmental traveler – to walk in the pristine rain forest and leave a ‘soft-footprint’ is still to treat the planet as object for rapacious use. Locals be damned.

Tourists collect experience but we have to have mementoes to remind ourselves that the fantasy was real. The same photographs of the smiling kids; various nick-nacks and trash purchased from the local flea market, from the beach trader, from the state emporium or from the airport departure lounge. Thus, trinkets are then displayed on shelves at home, gathering dust, or gifted to relatives and friends not lucky enough to have been there. Postcards similarly gloat and preen. The overarching theme here is that world experienced is reduced to mere bric-a-brac. The complex global forces of capital, of work and leisure, of the division of labour and the vast networks of information and infrastructure – planes, hotels, servants, right through to Kodak processing labs and internet travel blogging – is miniaturized in handy squares or convenient packets that can fit neatly onto the luggage rack. The idea of the souvenir is reduction itself – the veneer of the trinket, the face, ironically, of exploitation write large. That we have learnt not to read these signs in any wider register is also part of the sanctioned ignorance that tourism authenticates.

Post tourism
But of course we are, many of us, fully aware of this hypocrisy. So much so that the inauthentic has become a part of the quest. Searching out the most gaudy plastic outrageous object proves one has not been duped by the exotica-merchants. To be in pursuit of the authentic is an essentialist trap, but to have continued past this to accept inauthenticity as part and parcel of the world leaves commodification intact. What kind of self-deception is this that extends tourist purchase to the most esoteric of objects at the same time as it can buy up the mundane? I have seen tourists purchase gaudy plastic tap handles for their metropolitan bathroom fittings, or plastic models of the Taj Mahal, with flashing lights, as a tongue in cheek, high kitsch, souvenir. The post-tourist irony here (Urry 1990) does not break with trinketization at all, but rather confirms the process, and extends it exponentially.

Trinketization will stand for the process of reifying the world downwards into trash. What the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss lamented when he saw the detritus of the West thrown back into the face of humanity has now become the detritus of all our lives, and we can even revel in it. Does this not suggest a political diagnostic? The argument here is not for an end to tourism, thoroughly unlikely that could even be considered and the planetary consequences are obscure, but might we look towards the remote possibility of a better tourism, an ethical and even revolutionary tourism? What of those travelers who expressly seek out meetings with the Maoists in Nepal, who march in hope of a meeting with the reds of the Himalaya; or those who travel to learn from the Ogoni in Nigeria of their struggle against the multinationals? There are travelers who go to seek sun and friendship, and this seems worthy, but others go further and seek out local authors, artists, performers: a cultural exchange programme is not a forlorn idea. I have seen a travel group barter performances with street musicians in a way that was only possible on the basis of the same commercial exchange that the critic of tourism in me deplores. Mass tourism is destructive, but there are those who take seriously the possibility of alternatives that do more than just talk the talk. For a new tourism perhaps?

What then of Tourism Concern etc.
Isn’t the solution to relax, to stop moralizing against tourism and against those who claim tourism could be better (soft-foot-printers)? For tourist resorts and pleasure peripheries to circumvent the attacks of critics there needs to be problem-solving of issues like employment security, wage reform (in many cases, actual wages would be a start), workplace regulation, civic responsibility, impact on water table (the beach hotels in Goa are particularly irresponsible, as in many other coastal areas), cultural uplift, political support, promotional drive, sustainable movement. Organizations such as Tourism Concern (link) aim to merge a critique of the destructive aspects of mass tourism with maintenance of the adventure of travel; it claims to ‘fight exploitation’ and seems to do so with a positive and progressive compromise that would mitigates destruction. In case after case I find this overly optimistic, but the orientation of the critique is perhaps the best we have. Coupled with consumer advocacy and environmental concern (vapor trails and aircraft pollution leads to global warming – ‘is that journey necessary’) there seems just the glimmer of hope that the exponential rise in travel may not destroy us all – but current forecasts seem bleak. Second only to the war economy as a site of expansion and investment, the global market of tourism strips all demand. The tourists hordes resemble an all-consuming plague and the planet is ravaged as if by locusts; thereby chewed into bits.

The trouble with making the case that tourism turns everything into trinkets is that a theoretical approach that pursues this line is in danger of becoming a part of the problem as well. The world becomes a kaleidoscope of fascinating sites in the same way that theoretical analysis can latch onto any example and use it for its argument. What would not be subject to post-ironic touristic exoticization. The Guardian newspaper today, as I write (December 20, 2006) reports the Mayor of war torn Grozny planning tourist visits and mocks the idea with the question ‘but will bullet proof vests be supplied?’. Yes, we can imagine how the war-devastated landscape of the Chechnyan city might become a stop on some adventure tour, which might also then take in other ‘dark tourism’ sites, not al of them inappropriate as places to visit – holocaust memorials, Iwo-Jima, former prisons and locations of famous battles (Gallipoli) might also be on the itinerary. To call this trinketization would miss the emotional purchase of such investments, despite the raw fact that investment is also behind the touristification of war. The problem with trinketization here is that analytical purchase is also often reduced to a façade in much of what passes for the study of tourism, as if replicating the gloss of the brochures also amounts to a diagnostic of the global predicament (see Clifford 1997 for several examples of this). What chance is there that travel really broadens the mind of the analyst also?

The Banana Pancake trail. From Cape Tribulation in Australia to Marrakech in Morocco there is the budget traveler phenomenon of the cosy guest house or traveler hostel in which trusted comforts from home are served up to weary travelers. This can be glossed as the ‘banana-pancake trail’ which serves as a shorthand – an obviously gratuitous reference to the ubiquitous back-packer snack – for the contradictory ‘adventure of experience of ‘otherness’ that third world travel can be. In search of otherness but in need of the comfortable trappings of home, backpacker discussion in the guest houses and lodges is so often about where one is from, what you would like to eat when you get back, how the food gives you ‘Delhi-belly’ or similar, the mosquitoes, the toilets, the rip-off taxis. Quite often such discussions go on while the traveler is served cola or chai or French fries or so by a 12 year old who has worked from dawn, seven days a week, sending money home to the rural periphery that the traveler will rarely see.

On Post-War Tourism: I am assured by the Swedish anthropologist Victor Alneng, who knows these things, that Lonely Planet impresario Tony Wheeler had his eyes set on Afghanistan for some time. As evidence Victor translated from a Swedish newspaper interview in September 2002 the following insights into the wheeler-dealer’s thinking: Wheeler: ‘When a place has been closed there is always a group of people that want to come there first. After them come the large hordes of travellers’. Reporter: ‘So what destinations will be the next big thing, after East Timor?’ Wheeler: ‘Angola and Afghanistan will come eventually. Maybe also Iraq. We were on the verge of sending one of our writers to Afghanistan as early as last summer, but it proved to still be very difficult to travel outside Kabul. Information ages quickly, so we chose to wait a little’ (Translation by Victor Alneng).

John Hutnyk
Goldsmiths College

*A version of this text appeared in: Battlegrounds: The media Vols 1 & 2 eds Robin Anderson and Jonathan Gray. 2008.


Alneng, Victor
2002  ‘“What the Fuck is a Vietnam?”: Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War)’ Critique of Anthropology, Vol. 22, No. 4, 461-489.

Clifford, James
1997  Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century Harvard University Press.

Crick, Malcolm
1994  Resplendent Sites, Discordant Voices: Sri Lankans in International Tourism, Harwood Academic, Chur.

1984  Guide To India, Frommers Guides, London.

Hitchcock, Michael and Teague, Ken (eds).
Souvenirs: The Material Culture of Tourism, Aldershot: Ashgate

Hutnyk John.
1996  The Rumour of Calcutta: Tourism, Charity and the Poverty of Representation, London: Zed books.

Jules-Rosette, Benetta
1984  The Message of Tourist Art: An African Semiotic System in Comparative Perspective New York: Plenum Press.

Lennon, J. John, and Malcolm Foley
1999  Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster, London, Cassell.

MacCannell, Dean
1989[1976]  The Tourist, reprint of 1976 version with a new introduction, Random House, New York.

MacCannell, Dean
1992  Empty meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers, Routledge, London.

Olalquiaga, Celeste
1999  The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience, London: Bloomsbury.

Phipps, Peter
‘Tourists, Terrorists, Death and Value’ in Kaur, Raminder and John Hutnyk Travel Worlds: Journeys in Contemporary Cultural Politics London: Zed books, pp 74-93.

Urry, John
1990  The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies, Sage, London 1990.

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