Travel as Cultural Perversion

"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


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