A tourist friend of mine recently told me how she had fled from a Kayan village in Thailand. It was to be one of those typical tourist attractions – a visit to a genuine tribal village where “time has stopped”*, the “locals live in harmony with nature” like “hundreds of years ago” and so on. My friend described the one-day outing organised by the tour operator as a visit to a zoo. Kayan women wear metal necklaces (which means they are exotic and authentic). In the tourist-visited village, “normal life” goes on – which means that the women, dressed in traditional costumes, weave and smile, posing for pictures, and the men are absent. You can also buy souvenirs and postcards. My friend held out for about five minutes and then fled to the neighbouring village where the locals, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, watched TV, sent text messages on their mobiles, and sipped Coke.
Nice port photo A. PerczyńskaThe precursors of today’s tourists were wealthy English aristocrats who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, would embark on the so called Grand Tour. They visited Switzerland, Italy and France, learning languages and becoming familiar with the continent’s culture, art and cream of society. They would take lessons in horse riding, fencing or dance. The Grand Tour was a sort of rite of passage where the young noblemen got some polish and made useful contacts before joining diplomatic or government service.
From Teetotaller Excursions to Oktoberfest
The emergence of mass tourism would not have been possible without the industrial revolution and such civilisational achievements as the railway, which inspired Thomas Cook to organise excursions. Cook was an extremely religious Baptist missionary who believed that the main source of the ailments British society suffered from was alcohol. During a temperance movement meeting, he came up with the idea of the first excursion in the modern sense of the word: in July 1841, he organised a train trip from Leicester to Loughborough, 12 miles away. The event proved a success and for next several years, Cook organised, on a non-profit basis, similar local excursions for Sunday schools. In 1845, he organised his first commercial trip. Several years later, he started offering train trips in Europe and the United States, in 1861 registering his Thomas Cook & Son. Today, Thomas Cook UK & Ireland is a corporation with 19,000 employees, an airline, 45 aircraft, and its own TV channel.
As an avowed teetotaller, Thomas Cook is probably turning in his grave knowing that he has contributed to the creation of an industry thanks to which hundreds of young Britons visit Kraków to get drunk, Poles go to Prague to get smashed on cheap beer, and Oktoberfest is one of Germany’s greatest tourist attractions.
Nepali masks in Kathmandu photo A. PerczyńskaCook gave the emerging middle class an occupation so that it had something to do with its free time. Since those first train excursions, the popularity of places such as London, Paris, Venice or Baden-Baden has been growing at a rapid pace. Today, according to the World Tourist Organisation, the world’s most popular tourist destinations are the US, Spain, France, and Italy, and the nations spending most on tourism include Germany, the United States, Britain, and China. Tourism is the world’s fastest growing industry. Every year, over 800 million people travel for tourist purposes – and the number keeps growing. Even totalitarian countries, such as North Korea, publish ads promoting themselves as tourist destinations (although in this case one can hardly believe this is for real). The effects of mass tourism range from economic (stimulating local economic growth), through social (cultural integration, but also prostitution and crime), to ecological (environmental pollution, but also the development of eco-tourism or sustainable tourism which aims to minimise the negative and maximise the positive impact on the environment and society).
Why Go on Holiday?
Every summer we are flooded with “last minute” ads from travel agencies promising “France in a week”, “A weekend in London”, or “Seven countries in 14 days”. The typical summer holiday ad goes like, “Blue sea, wonderful sun, great hospitality and hot Southern temperament”. Plus, there are the non-standard offers: extreme tourism, eco tourism, religious tourism, LGBT, or even poverty tourism, which enables you to visit Third World slums. Why do people take these offers?
I ask myself this question every time I see the typical tourist scene. Say, the electric mini-train that carries tourists around Nice in the south of France. They sit with sad faces in the small cars as a voice from the speaker tells them in different languages about what they can see outside the window. Some have enough energy to take pictures of the Opera building or the palm trees on Boulevard Anglaise. Others look completely resigned – like people who have been sitting in front of the TV for five hours trying to find something interesting (even those of us who do not have television know how tiresome channel surfing can be). Tired, bored, and devoid of hope, they will never sit down for a cup of coffee in a French café, will not watch the passers-by, will not exchange (un)pleasantries with the French waiters – they watch it all from a safe distance and from behind a pane of glass. As philosopher Elbert Green Hubbard put it, “No man needs a vacation so much as the man who has just had one.”
Sociologists and anthropologists have long been discussing the subject of tourism. Most scholars agree that the reason why a tourist goes on a trip is in search of authenticity. Watching TV shows like Strictly Come Dancing or spying on the lives of celebrities through gossip web sites does not satisfy our thirst for authenticity, so we go on vacation to see how Others live. Sociologists stress the incoherence, uncertainty, fluidity and shallowness of the postmodern cultural experience.
The Others, supposedly, have it different. We are told they live in harmony with themselves and with nature. They supposedly have an identity, expressed in their traditional dress, traditional tattoos, jewelry, language and customs. Think the noble savage Rousseau. In the globalised world, there are virtually no places untouched by Western pop culture, but the tourist industry continues to pretend there are – otherwise it would lose a lot of money.
Travelling to the exotic destinations where we can see the Others with our own eyes has been ever cheaper. The leaflets mention all kinds of attractions, from an elephant ride, through a visit to a local temple, a canoe trip and bungee jumping, to watching genuine native rituals. There actually exist travel agencies specialising in sending clients to “off the beaten track” destinations where you can meet “genuine“ natives – such as the Kayan women. This is also the message behind Bangladesh’s official slogan: “Come to Bangladesh Before the Tourists.” Who is being invited here if not tourists? “Real travellers?”
Natives on Stage
Sociologist, famous for his canonical The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (1976), an interdisciplinary study of the phenomenon of mass tourism. MacCannell discusses in it the staged authenticity of high- and low-brow culture, the product, the symbol, and the construction of the social reality. It is believed that the book achieved something that Lévi-Strauss deemed impossible: an anthropological analysis of modernity.
According to sociologist Erik Cohen, tourism has been replacing religion today: both the pilgrimage and a holiday trip are a quest for the authenticity of experience. Dean MacCannell puts forward in his classic study “The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class” the concept of “staged authenticity” where, for instance, we can, for a small fee, watch natives walking on red-hot coals. MacCannell alludes to Erving Goffman’s theory of the “front” and “back” stage of social life – the “authentic” tourist attractions pretend to be the “back stage” whereas in fact they have been orchestrated and tailored to suit the tourist’s expectations. The onstage places, objects, people and forms of behaviour are improved and styled to look “ethnic” in order to fit the tourist’s preconceptions and perceived needs. The tourists, in turn, consume these shows with their eyes, unaware (or?) that they have been tailored to their needs to be attractive and make them buy a souvenir and make a photo. John Urry wrote of the “tourist gaze” that it is the sum total of the tourist’s expectations towards the local population. The natives, who live off tourism, satisfy these expectations often by acting out not their traditions but stereotypes. On the other hand, by revitalising certain traditions, the “tourist gaze” can revive the sense of identity of the people acting them out. MacCannell points out that “authenticity” is becoming a product and that aids the “reconstruction of ethnic identity”.
Erving Goffman (1922-1982)
Canadian-born American sociologist. He developed a dramaturgical perspective for studying social interactions. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), he presented the theory that in interactions, the individual tries to control the impression they make on others. In social interactions, like in theatre, there exists the front stage, where the actors (that is, all of us), play the show, and the back stage, which is hidden and where we do not have to enact our social roles.
There are consumers, however, who deliberately choose “artificial” locations, such as Disney World or other such theme parks. Such arrangements have been designed and styled in precisely such a manner to appeal to the mass tourist. Maxine Feifer calls them (indeed!) post-tourists and says that they love the non-authenticity and artificiality of these worlds. These are conscious consumers who live in a hyper-consumption reality and know that markets, brands and images vie for their attention. The post-tourist knows that he has a choice and expects high-quality service, comfort and predictability. He does not care about the artificiality of the attractions he visits and tourism is just another form of entertainment for him. He does not delude himself that there exist any places or people untouched by Western civilisation.
Taking Away from the Buddhists and Giving to the Tourists
The post-tourist knows that cultural heritage has been commoditised, like everything else in the consumerist world, and thus turned into tourist attractions. The travel industry often appropriates space and redefines the meaning of cultural sites. A good example is the Buddhist temple of Borobudur, Indonesia’s greatest tourist attraction today. As Shelly Errington writes, since its “renovation” and listing in 1991 as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the temple has been fenced, entry tickets have been introduced, and the government has issued a decree that forbids holding Buddhist ceremonies there. Borobudur has thus been (symbolically and practically) transferred from the hands of the Buddhists to the hands of the tourists. Such cases where the slogan about “humanity’s cultural heritage” transforms temples, open-air markets or parks into tourist attractions, that is, products, are many.
On the other side of things
photo A. SłodownikA post-tourist would not fall for the authenticity of the Thai Kayan village that left my friend so disgusted. But even he would probably not think up the ethnic political thriller that is behind that tourist attraction. The Kayan, it turns out, are not from Thailand – they are refugees from Burma who have fled the military regime there. They have been granted asylum in Thailand where they serve as specimens in a human zoo (third-world Disneland?) that attracts some 40,000 visitors a year. They earn less than $100 a month. The owners of the “villages” do not allow them to use mobile phones – because it spoils the “native tribe” image that their business relies on. Some would be granted refugee status in, for instance, New Zealand, but the Thai government refuses them exit visas. Tens of thousands of other refugees from Burma get their papers without a problem or are sent back, but the Kayan have big commercial value so the government says no. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has intervened on the matter with the Thai authorities who, in turn, deny whether the refusal has anything to do with the value the Kayan have for the Thai tourist industry.
There are many cases like this one, and I don’t know about you, but I will certainly remember about them when browsing through travel agency catalogues offering excursions to virgin lands, off the beaten track, where I will see “representatives of various tribes in their everyday attire” or will be able to visit “authentic local villages” where, “spending time among the natives”, I will have a chance “not only to admire the beauty of Africa’s most beautiful women” but also to “learn a lot about local customs”.
*/ All quotations are from travel agency web sites.
translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak