Much as we may hate to admit it, let’s face it: we’ve all been that hated tourist who doesn’t have a clue where they’re going, is way too loud on public transportation, and holds up the line in the coffee shop. We’ve all been to tourist hot spots, slogged through tourist traps, and had our pictures taken next to monuments and statues and paintings. As anthropologists, we’ve probably also been those tourists who sneer at our fellow visitors because they clearly haven’t made any effort to learn the language, and definitely didn’t even try to read any serious ethnographies on the culture before they arrived. Tourism is also a popular subject for anthropologists to study these days, as evidenced by the papers and sessions on the topic at conference meetings like the AAA’s.
I recently read a blog post on Savage Minds by a guy who’s studying the politics of tourism development in Mexico. He had a lot of interesting things to say, but a few things especially resonated with me.
Ryan looks at who benefits from tourism development, and the consequences of remaking a community to serve the needs of the global market rather than the long-term needs of the community. So often, we look at international tourism as a bad thing, at development as an imposition of the Western world onto others. The tourism industry often has a bad reputation for callousness in regards to the environment and local communities. Of course, not all tourism development is so short-sighted, and some isn’t even imposed by outsiders.
In the course of my fieldwork in Fiji this summer, there was a lot of buzz about plans for tourism development on the rural island where I was staying. The island has several villages, a grass airstrip which is serviced once a week by a twin-prop plane (depending on weather), and a jetty for receiving large cargo ships. People there were throwing out ideas about building guest housing, clearing hiking trails, and providing activities and amenities that tourists want…all of it brought to the forefront by our archaeological survey that was generating some very interesting sites. But the mastermind of all this wasn’t some big Australian corporation or global hotel chain. It was a small group of business-minded men looking to bring jobs and resources to their little island.
And yet, it made me uneasy. I worried that this lovely island where people still did so many things in more or less traditional ways and where life seemed to move at a slower pace, would turn into a tourist trap. Into the kind of place with “cultural shows” and “village visits”. That it would cease to be authentic Fijian.
Then I took a step back. There are always at least two sides to everything, and ignoring the others in favor of one view will only ever get you into trouble. In this case, I felt I might be falling into the “noble savage” trap. Who am I to tell Fijians that they can’t develop tourism on their island because it would make them somehow less Fijian? This was a vision of a few people who live on the island and are looking for ways to simultaneously share their culture and beauty of natural resources with others while improving their own economic situations. We encourage this kind of thing in small communities in the United States all the time. And it’s hardly a secret that tourism brings in a TON of money for Fiji. Who can blame people for wanting a piece of the action? Pretty much everyone I talked to on the island was optimistic about the idea of bringing tourism there. And with only a few minutes’ brainstorming, I easily came up with a dozen ways the everyday people of the island could benefit economically.
As Ryan commented in his post, the topic of tourism development is complicated: “It’s not like it’s an easy choice and you can be simply for or against it. There are always drawbacks, but then there are also potential benefits.” I’m simultaneously fascinated and nervous about how this island’s tourism efforts will unfold. It may be yet another example of the politics remaking the community into the tourist’s image, or it may end up being a shining example of a community sharing its own perception of what it means to be Fijian with visiting tourists.
Either way, it would probably make a fascinating anthropological study!