Travel as Cultural Perversion

Starbucks in Phuket, Thailand

"Real" or "authentic" must be among some of the most over-used terms in travel marketing and travel writing. Below tourism expert David Jobanputra takes a fascinating look at the the myth that cultures have an underlying "true" core which should be protected from change.

Does tourism damage culture? In last week’s piece, I looked at the idea that international travel is a neo-colonial venture founded on domination and dependence. This expansionist regime, it was argued, restructures economies, transforms traditions and pollutes public morality, much as imperialism has done in previous centuries. At the end, we were left with a prickly paradox: does travel destroy the very cultures it purports to encounter?

On the surface, the answer seems clear. Anyone who’s holidayed abroad has at some point faced the awkward realisation that their presence, and that of others like them, has left a tourist-shaped blotch on the landscape. We see the clubs in Faliraki or the Brit bars in Bangkok or the child prostitutes in Mombasa, and we can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, there’s something a touch wrong with this whole tourism thing. “All this stuff”, as some gnarled traveller might lament, “all this Western, bourgeois stuff – this isn’t the real [India/China/Mexico/Wales]”. Implicit in this appraisal is the idea that buried below the tacky crust of Western materialism congealing across the globe is a panoply of ‘authentic’ cultures waiting to be discovered.

These bastions of authenticity are seen as traditional and timeless, pristine and primordial. Inside, we find simple folk, quaint and superstitious, the custodians of custom. All is perfect and lovely, then we come along…

Though seemingly self-evident, the assertion that tourism damages culture is in fact a product of Orientalist fantasy. It presupposes that cultures are static and bounded, and, moreover, that some (i.e. those in the East or the ‘developing world’) are innately ‘traditional’, such that tourists, as conduits of modernity, cannot help but sully them. But of course, cultures are not solid but fluid; they are always converging, intermingling. This flow of information and innovation has existed since time immemorial; it brought stone tools from Africa, farming from the Near East, industry from Britain and Starbucks from the States. Cultures, then, are always changing; there is no primal state, no ‘real’ India/ Africa/Belgium.

It is important to accept that shopping malls are as much a part of Indian culture as yoga, that cell phones are not alien to Africa, that Belgium has more to it than waffles. To believe otherwise is to endorse a vaguely racist worldview, in which Africa, Asia and parts of the Americas are seen as essentially primitive or backward. From this standpoint, cell phones, shopping malls and other accoutrements of modernity, though legitimate in the West, are perverting to the Rest, as if our ‘less developed’ cousins were children who must be kept apart from grown-up vices.

If cultures are always mixing, if they blend and bleed like liquids, then clearly they cannot be damaged: tourism can’t ‘harm’ culture any more than a teabag can ‘harm’ a cup of hot water. Fair enough, you might say, but what about Majorca, where each year the population of 850,000 is swamped by some 6 million holidaymakers, or Vang Vieng in Laos, a one-stop-shop for bawdy backpackers – surely here we have signs of travel’s perniciousness? Again, though, one must bear in mind that in the period before tourism (B.T.) these sites did not exist in some pre-contact vacuum, hermetically sealed from history and the winds of cultural change. 2000 years ago Majorca was occupied by the Romans, and later by the Vandals, Moors and Byzantines, while 100 years B.T. Laos was a French protectorate.

Clearly, these cultures are always in flux. What some may perceive as a problem with tourism is in fact a problem with change itself. This is interesting for a number reasons, not least because cultural change is a fact of life, but also for what it says about the Western (postmodern) condition, born as it is of temporal ruptures and a sense of paradise lost. But putting aside our own histrionics for a moment, let us think about this from our hosts’ perspective. For most in the ‘developing world’, cultural change means improved infrastructure, higher wages, better access to healthcare and so on; it is something to be desired. While tourism undoubtedly changes livelihoods, it may also offer a path to development that we in the West, though increasingly disillusioned by material ‘progress’, have no grounds to deny anyone. In next week’s piece, I’ll look at this, the emancipatory potential of tourism, in more detail.

About David Jobanputra

David Jobanputra is a writer and anthropologist specialising in development, cultural change and environmental ethics. He recently completed a PhD in Social Anthropology at University College London, which looked at grassroots advocacy and eco-development in the Aravalli mountains of Rajasthan, India. In addition to living and working in the subcontinent, David has travelled extensively throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, including overland trips from Tibet to Scotland and Beijing to Java. David recently returned from 18 months living with a tribe in the Rajasthani desert.

Main Image by Flickr User INeedCoffee

Comments (5)

  1. Fascinating piece, David, and one of the most interesting debates in travel (at least in my point of view).

    I agree on a lot of points. The search for 'authenticity' in a destination has always been flawed.

    However, the difference with Romans and other colonisers is that - rightly or wrongly - they were living in a place and building a civilisation. In some parts of the world today (including parts of Majorca, where the Romans once were), it's the opposite. Some tourists are there to do things they wouldn't do at home and often have no engagement with the country whatsoever. Change (and debatable progress) is one thing, but wanting to recreate a hedonistic version of your own country in the sun - which you then walk away from after seven days - is another, no?

    Missing VickyBaker 13th December 2010

  2. This is a really fantastic read, and I agree with Vicky, this is one of the most interesting debates in travel.

    I'm pretty sure we're all guilty of engineering our travel experiences to fit preconceived notions of a culture, and are often unwilling to accept that they are in fact fluid, and always advancing. The fact that large parts of the world a becoming somewhat homogenous, culturally, is a rather inconvenient truth for the traveller.

    I agree with the idea that "tourism can’t ‘harm’ culture any more than a teabag can ‘harm’ a cup of hot water", in the sense that they are always converging, intermingling; but I disagree that anyone who perceives tourism development in places such as Majorca and Vang Vieng as a problem, simply has a problem with change. There will always be good advancements and bad advancements. Things do not always change for the better, and it is the lack of respect for historical learnings that I think many of us find frustrating about places like this.

    Stephen Chapman 13th December 2010

  3. Also loved this piece, it expanded my own thinking on the subject. I think I do agree with Vicky and Stephen, surely there must be such a thing as bad cultural change? In some cases tourism is insensitive and therefore destructive of cultures.

    But then is local culture really changed by what happens in Majorca or Vang Vieng? Perhaps by contrast it only serves to bind the local people & culture together in opposition to the bawdy scenes put on by visitors. It would be easy to argue that in the same way a preservationist can do more harm than good to a biological ecosystem, so could a traveller potentially do more long term harm by trying to be sensitive to local culture?

    Missing ben 13th December 2010

  4. Well, I agree with you all! But, I also believe that it would happen in a global society, with or without tourism.

    Jedse Esteves 14th December 2010

  5. Hi all,

    Thanks for your feedback. One of the things I'm interested in, both in the context of travel and in everyday life more generally, is how we fashion our own understandings of right and wrong, good and bad. So Stephen, when you talk about 'good advancements and bad advancements' I'd want to know how you'd define these (i.e. against what meter do you gauge their rightness and wrongness). The same goes for Vicky's implicit view that Majorcan hedonism is wrong (or at least less right than other changes).

    Ultimately, this article is intended to get us thinking about how and why we think what we think. Often, this is a very personal thing. [For example, Vicky feels an aesthetic disquiet when confronted with Majorcan tourists, but the tourists themselves see nothing wrong.] It is important to remember that there is no single standard of right and wrong (some grim things have been done in the belief that there is). This is not to say that the words themselves are redundant, only that their meaning is culturally and historically contingent..

    Sorry if this is a bit long-winded, but it's a complicated issue! I would be interested to hear your views on what constitutes 'bad cultural change' - this might shed light on how we make our moral worlds..

    David 15th December 2010