Why anti-tourist pro­test­ers are miss­ing the point

Arab News - - OPINION - NEZAR AL-SAYYAD

Vis­it­ing other coun­tries en­cour­ages mu­tual un­der­stand­ing, and ob­ject­ing to it has po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic reper­cus­sions.

TOURISM has al­ways been an im­por­tant hu­man ac­tiv­ity and business. But to­day, con­demn­ing tourists is be­com­ing a trend with se­ri­ous sig­nif­i­cance for fu­ture re­la­tion­ships be­tween na­tions and peo­ple. This sum­mer there have been anti-tourist demon­stra­tions in Barcelona and Mal­lorca, Spain, with ban­ners declar­ing that “tourism kills neigh­bor­hoods.”

This new anti-tourist move­ment in Europe should not be ig­nored, par­tic­u­larly for those in­ter­ested in tourism and the built en­vi­ron­ment. Eco­nom­i­cally, these con­fronta­tions pit res­i­dents and neigh­bor­hoods against one an­other. Cul­tur­ally, they point to the rise of a gen­eral sen­ti­ment against peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent. And the po­lit­i­cal reper­cus­sions are great.

As in­di­vid­u­als, com­mu­ni­ties or na­tions, there are of­ten two con­flict­ing sen­ti­ments to­ward oth­ers and their tra­di­tions. In the first, we re­sort to tra­di­tion out of fear of change. But pro­tec­tion­ism against the un­known may of­ten turn into hos­til­ity, and some­times into fun­da­men­tal­ism. The sec­ond sen­ti­ment is of­ten the prod­uct of an in­tense cu­rios­ity about other peo­ple and their cul­tures and a de­sire to ex­pe­ri­ence those mys­te­ri­ous “oth­ers.”

The two sen­ti­ments, both le­git­i­mate, are not nec­es­sar­ily con­tra­dic­tory. In fact, they hap­pen si­mul­ta­ne­ously or al­ter­na­tively, based on time and place. Tourism al­lows us to see how built en­vi­ron­ments are of­ten pack­aged and sold in an in­creas­ingly global econ­omy of im­age con­sump­tion with all the prob­lems that re­sult from such en­coun­ters.

In this era of glob­al­iza­tion, na­tions find them­selves hav­ing to com­pete in an ever-tight­en­ing global econ­omy, forced to ex­ploit their her­itage to at­tract in­ter­na­tional in­vestors and for­eign tourists. Tourism devel­op­ment has in­ten­si­fied, pro­duc­ing en­tire com­mu­ni­ties that cater al­most wholly to, or are even in­hab­ited year-round by, peo­ple from else­where.

Of course it all started with European colo­nial­ism which gave us world ex­hi­bi­tions and “the grand tour,” when elites vis­ited the ar­chi­tec­tural mar­vels of Greece, Italy and some­times Egypt to con­firm their so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus. This al­lowed many to see and en­counter other peo­ple with dif­fer­ent lan­guages, cus­toms and tra­di­tions. To­day there are more peo­ple on the planet who have met peo­ple from other cul­tures and eth­nic­i­ties than at any other time in hu­man his­tory.

To­day, there are four types of tourist sites, each en­dan­gered by this new wave of anti-tourist skep­ti­cism.

The first are “dream land­scapes” that repli­cate his­tor­i­cal set­tings to cre­ate a Wizard of Oz-like place, where all con­flicts are re­solved and cul­tural as­pects are re­duced to their most ba­sic im­age. Au­then­tic­ity here is achieved through the ma­nip­u­la­tion of ex­pe­ri­ences. The ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple is Dis­ney­land Paris, which proves that even if her­itage is mim­icked, his­tory sells rather well.

The sec­ond type uses his­tory to sell it­self but also has a le­git­i­mate claim to an au­then­tic past. The at­tempt to res­ur­rect such places by re­mak­ing them in their for­mer im­age may at­tract tourists for fi­nan­cial gain and cre­ate “banks” for the na­tional mem­ory. Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg and the Bas­takia quar­ter in Dubai are good ex­am­ples of such sites. A replica of the cap­i­tal of Revo­lu­tion­ary-era Vir­ginia, Wil­liams­burg is a great pub­lic-his­tory site for Amer­i­cans. But its le­git­i­macy de­pends on its claim to a “real” his­tory, em­bod­ied in build­ings and spa­ces. Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg has of­ten been dis­missed as a sim­plis­tic pa­tri­otic theme park be­cause it can never ad­e­quately cap­ture the African Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence of slav­ery, which is es­sen­tial to pro­vid­ing a holis­tic snap­shot of this site.

The third type of tourist sites are the casino cities of Las Ve­gas and Ma­cao, where cul­tural her­itage is in­deed de­ployed, but the claim to any pro­nounced or unique his­tory is non-ex­is­tent. Here the dis­con­nect be­tween cul­ture and his­tory is ap­par­ent. Quite sim­ply, in or­der to op­ti­mize the de­sire of pro­duc­ers to man­u­fac­ture cul­tural her­itage and the tourists to con­sume it, it be­comes com­mon for both groups to give up any claim of re­al­ity or au­then­tic­ity al­to­gether. Per­haps this is why many Amer­i­cans skip the real Eif­fel Tower in Paris and set­tle for the Ve­gas knock­off. Yet be­fore rush­ing to dis­miss as kitsch, con­sider that in Las Ve­gas there is no hid­den agenda. Las Ve­gas presents an out­right man­u­fac­tured her­itage, based on the con­cept of copy­ing the tra­di­tional forms of ev­ery­where for the con­sump­tion of ev­ery­one.

The fourth type is “hype-real” cities such as Hong Kong and Dubai, places that have ac­quired a global pres­ence based on prece­dents drawn from else­where and are in a con­stant race, with their his­tory fixed al­most ex­clu­sively in the present. They are places whose frame of ref­er­ence ceases to be a fixed mo­ment in his­tory, and be­come in­stead a con­stantly mov­ing tar­get that le­git­imizes cur­rent aes­thet­ics. In such places the real dilemma is, how does one ex­pe­ri­ence built en­vi­ron­ments that have no con­nec­tion to the ge­og­ra­phy or the his­tory of the places in which they ex­ist?

At a con­fer­ence in Cairo in 1998, I met an Amer­i­can aca­demic on the Giza plateau at the foot of the Pyra­mids. He was look­ing down to­ward the Sphinx. “Oh, but it is so small,” he said, dis­ap­pointed. His com­ment puz­zled me, un­til I re­al­ized that he was a teacher at the Univer­sity of Ne­vada, Las Ve­gas. His city housed the fa­mous Luxor ho­tel and casino, built as a glass pyra­mid with a dou­ble-sized Sphinx as its en­trance. The man of­ten parked his car in a lot that faced the gi­ant Las Ve­gas Sphinx.

He was dis­ap­pointed in Giza, not be­cause the re­al­ity did not live up to its im­age, but be­cause along the way the re­al­ity ceased to be rel­e­vant when the im­age – and its copy – be­came the prin­ci­pal frame of ref­er­ence. Will this be how we view the built en­vi­ron­ments of the 21st cen­tury?

Nezar Al-Sayyad is Pro­fes­sor of Ar­chi­tec­ture and Plan­ning at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. ©The Marks News

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