Can tourism save a culture?

When I was seven years old, my parents took me on a cruise in Hawaii. I remember three things from that trip:

  1. We ate dinner every night at the same table. There was a really cute girl who always ate at the table next to ours. The servers poured water in wine glasses for the kids, and I really wanted to impress her by pretending I knew how to drink out of a wine glass, but the first time I tried, I spilled water all over the table and food.  Her parents laughed.  I couldn’t bring myself to look at her table after that.  
  2. There was a beachside “native” fire dance that we went to see. I remember being almost offended that a bunch of tourists would be paying money to see a “native” ritual.  Didn’t they know that it was a sanitized, bastardised version of the real thing?  How could they ever think that they were seeing something that was somehow cultural or expanded their appreciation of the Hawaiian people?  I somehow knew that it was just a way for the locals to get money out of the tourists, and suspected that the locals laughed all the way to the bank.  These “cultural” performances were exploitative, and that was that.  
  3. While the cruise line had nice-smelling coconut soap, which I added to my extensive collection of unopened hotel soaps, I vowed never to go on a cruise ship ever again.  

I never got over my fear of embarrassing myself in front of cute girls, and I still retain a deep prejudice against cruise ships.  But last night, I completely changed my opinion on cultural performances for tourists.  

It was a process that started in Laos.  In Luang Prabang, there’s an incredible textiles museum, which is devoted to preserving information on the textiles and clothing of some of Laos’ minority groups.  The mannequins with outfits are fascinating enough, but the most impactful part of the museum was a single, small sign, that simply stated that minority groups are changing, just like the rest of the world, and they are in danger of losing many of their artistic practices because of this “progress.”  At the same time, we should not hope that they should stay the same, or maintain their cultural traditions in the face of progress.  For example, the Hmong can make clothes in the traditional way where they grow the cotton, pick it, spin thread, dye the thread, weave it into cloth, THEN sew their clothes.  Alternately, they can buy cloth from China.  The cloth from China ends up cheaper in both money and time, so what would you, Western Tourist, choose in their place?  The little sign gently implored Westerners not to bemoan the loss of these cultural practices and expect “ethnic” groups to stay static just because they have beautiful traditions that we want them to maintain – we, as outsiders who change behaviours every time a new fashion season starts, a new television show comes on, or a new Justin Bieber album comes out.  

It was both an incredible insight, and reassuring to realize that I’m not the only one who might mourn the loss of tradition in the face of progress and modernity and globalisation and a flattening world.  Other tourists clearly do, too.  The various ethnic groups are human, though, and they want the exact same things that the rest of us do: smart phones, cars, nice clothes, social acceptance.  They aren’t Disneyland characters, making things difficult for themselves just because it makes for better Instagram photos.  

Alice likes going to dance performances and concerts whenever we go someplace.  Sometimes I go along, but often I stay away, both because there’s stuff I want to do and I also just hate being surrounded by tourists who feel the need to videotape everything on their phones, and take flash photos in dark theatres and then look closely at the image on the screen, and talk during the performances about how “authentic” it is, and how “you can just tell they are real and they’re not doing it for the tourists, but for themselves.”  It’s always the 20 or 60 year olds saying these things, and I’d usually rather have my floating ribs removed with a claw hammer than be in these scrums.  But last night, we went to exactly that sort of performance – a song-and-fire-dance Kacak performance that was probably not all that different than the one I saw in Hawaii thirty years ago.  The audience, hundreds of people crowded around the stage, was entirely made up of tourists – not exclusively westerners, but certainly not locals.  As I looked around at the faces, illuminated by candlelight and childlike expectation, I had the thought: this might not still exist if tourists weren’t supporting it.  

The dancers and musicians need to make a living; if it was left up to the marketplace of culture, I suspect that most people would prefer to watch old Friends reruns, wear t-shirts with fake sports teams or university names, drink Coca-Cola, and text their friends with gossip rather than learn about cultural traditions that their great-grandparents embraced.  

Tourists, though, give these institutions life.  People everywhere shed the old for the new – in America, and China, and Ubud.  They also love “authenticity” and are fully willing to stump up several times a local daily salary to see people from a different culture chant, dance, and jump on burning coconut shells in bare feet.  These things seem to bind us to the cultural traditions of the place we’re visiting, and if we’re not visiting a different country to get insight into a different culture, what ARE we visiting it for?  To lay by a pool, in a walled-off compound, separated from the locals by guards and money, just to get a few brief days of sun before we return to our miserable existences of trying to make partner at work and fighting traffic and living out of cardboard salad boxes because we don’t have the time to make our own food?  Tourist money makes this preservation possible, in the same way that weaving traditions might be kept alive not to supply clothing for Hmong children, but to sell scarves on the side of the road to tourists who will overpay for the connection to the culture that they think they get from consumption.  If the world market can destroy a cultural tradition, the tourist marketplace can also save it.   

So yesterday, I had the realisation that the tourist industry can be used as a force for cultural preservation, as well as economic redistribution from former oppressors (us, in the west, especially Europe and America and Japan) and the formerly oppresssed (everyone else, more or less).  It can help maintain traditions, songs, myths, and legends.  And if the fire dancers end up kicking a flaming coconut husk into a handbag, searing the plastic of the Michael Kors or Coach interior to the glass of an iPhone, its flash still sputtering, well, that’s just the extra price we pay to participate.  

(I do note that Kacac was probably a 1930s German invention for tourists, but I don’t think that affects the argument.) 

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