Anti-tourist sen­ti­ments gain global mo­men­tum

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - Nezar AlSayyad, pro­fes­sor of ar­chi­tec­ture and plan­ning, Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­ni­aBerke­ley. NEZAR ALSAYYAD

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 past sum­mer wit­nessed demon­stra­tions against tourists in the pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions of Barcelona and Ma­jorca, Spain, with ban­ners declar­ing that “tourism kills neigh­bour­hoods”. This new anti-tourist move­ment in Europe should not be ig­nored, par­tic­u­larly for those in­ter­ested in tourism and the built en­vi­ron­ment, oth­er­wise known as man-made en­vi­ron­ments.

Eco­nom­i­cally, the out­come of these con­fronta­tions pits res­i­dents and neigh­bour­hoods 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 towards 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 of the prob­lems that re­sult from such en­coun­ters.

In this era of glob­al­i­sa­tion, na­tions find them­selves hav­ing to com­pete in an ever-tight­en­ing global econ­omy, forced to ex­ploit their her­itage to at­tract in­ter­na­tional in­vestors and the tide of 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” — where elites were ex­pected to visit the ar­chi­tec­tural mar­vels of Greece, Italy and some­times Egypt in or­der 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. And yet all types of tourism to­day may be im­pacted if this new­found hos­til­ity to tourists spreads; fur­ther pit­ting one com­mu­nity against an­other, of­ten in the same city. In­deed the econ­omy of many of these places de­pends sub­stan­tially on the tourism in­dus­try.

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

The first type is what can be called “dream land­scapes” that repli­cate his­tor­i­cal set­tings based off of us­ing his­tory to cre­ate a Wizard of Oz-like place, where all con­flicts within a given cul­ture are re­solved, and where all cul­tural as­pects are re­duced to their most ba­sic im­age. Au­then­tic­ity here is de­sired, and is achieved through the ma­nip­u­la­tion of ex­pe­ri­ences. The ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple is, of course, Dis­ney­land and Rata­touille out­side of Paris, France, prov­ing 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 serve to at­tract tourists for fi­nan­cial gain; serv­ing as “banks” for the na­tional mem­ory. Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg, United States and the Bas­takia quar­ter in Dubai, UAE 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; 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 very ap­par­ent. In or­der to op­ti­mise 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 au­then­tic­ity. 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 not a hid­den agenda. Las Ve­gas presents a man­u­fac­tured her­itage, based on the con­cept of copy­ing the tra­di­tional forms of ev­ery­where for the con­sump­tion of every­one.

The fourth type is “hy­per-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, whose his­tory is 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 le­git­imises 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.

To il­lus­trate this point, I will in­voke a per­sonal anec­dote. At a field trip that was part of a con­fer­ence I at­tended 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 was say­ing, in dis­ap­point­ment. His com­ment puz­zled me, but I soon re­alised that he was a teacher at the Univer­sity of Ne­vada, Las Ve­gas. His city housed the fa­mous Luxor Ho­tel and Gam­bling Casino, built as a glass pyra­mid with a two-times-en­larged sphinx as its en­trance. The man of­ten parked his car in a lot that faced the gi­ant Las Ve­gas sphinx. When he was in Giza, he be­came dis­ap­pointed, 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?

There are four types of tourist sites, each im­per­iled by this new wave of anti-tourist scep­ti­cism.


A demon­stra­tor holds a ban­ner read­ing in the basque lan­guage, ‘Tourism = a poverty salary’ dur­ing a protest last month against mas­sive tourism in San Se­bas­tian, north­ern Spain. The res­i­dents claim the in­flux of tourists has in­creased rent.

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