For most of us, going on an overseas vacation has a fairly straight-forward objective: to see the world and have novel experiences. We want a break from the familiar sights and sounds around us, and immersing ourselves in foreign cultures is the most obvious way of doing so. But as we go in search of the novelty of experiencing the “other”, we stumble upon the complicated issue of how tourism contributes to cultural commodification.
Cultural commodification is when the culture of a group of people – their traditional practices, artifacts, and way of life – is packaged as a good for the consumption of people outside the cultural group. Essentially, the rich tradition behind a cultural object is stripped away and reduced to a profitable good. This is part of a greater trend of the development of the “culture industry”: an industry that sells the experience of culture, be it art, entertainment, or the way of life of foreign peoples. In the culture industry, the focus is on the consumer’s experience and amazement, at the cost of the deeper meaning behind the culture itself (Adorno and Horkheimer). According to Marie-Francoise Lanfant, a sociologist who has researched the implications of tourism, “once heritage is transformed into a tourist product, its ‘cultural value’ is also transformed into a ‘commercial value’ (Shepherd). Tourism, while well-intentioned, is a mechanism of this commodification: as Urry points out, tourism is inherently “the purchase of a […] social experience”. This purchase taints the meaning of the culture, and turns what was once authentic into something kitschy (Shepherd).
The idea of an ‘authentic’ culture deserves some scrutiny too, however. For a tourist in search of an ‘authentic’ cultural experience, there is an unspoken expectation of exactly what that authenticity looks like. This is because of the natural relationship that a particular culture or practice has within a certain context, such as a particular place or people. For this reason, we would consider a Balinese gamelan performance at a traditional Indonesian ceremony more ‘authentic’ than that same gamelan performance at a beach hotel in Kuta; and both these scenarios would evidently be more authentic than, say, American college students performing the gamelan (Shepherd). This “tourist gaze” is fueled by the one-dimensional portrayal of these foreign cultures in travel advertisements and in popular culture. People in this cultural group are also aware of these expectations, and will exaggerate their unique features to appeal more to tourists so as to make more money or to "value-add" (MacLellan). One marker of authenticity is language: it is the most visceral distinguishing factor of a foreign culture, and the so-called “first point of contact” (MacLellan). To highlight the uniqueness of the city, subway drivers in Munich are encouraged to speak with a Bavarian accent (MacLellan). In European Christmas markets, French-speaking Canadians are hired as salespeople for products like maple syrup and apple cider, as these are the things associated with Quebec (MacLellan). What appears to be authentic in these cultural experiences is actually contrived and played up. Authenticity, ideally, would be the state of cultural purity untouched by any external influences. However, as Shepherd demonstrates, this state of the “original moment” has never existed – if cultures are dynamic and molded by its interactions with external groups like traders, missionaries, or tourists, at what point in its history is it its most authentic version? The perception of authenticity therefore really depends on a set of arbitrary criteria defined by the cultural lenses of the tourist themselves (Shepherd).
Although most of us have been one at some point in our lives, tourists get a bad reputation. Each nationality has its own caricature of tourists who are rowdy, disrespectful and unappreciative of the hospitalities of their host country. The common narrative in anthropological studies of tourism is that tourists ruin the cultures that they partake in: the commodification of culture destroys the essence behind the cultural practice, turning the ‘sacred’ into the ‘profane’ (Shepherd). The sacredness of cultural practices lies in their exclusivity; when it becomes a commodity meant for mass consumption by people outside of the culture, it becomes watered down and loses its significance (Comaroff and Comaroff). An example of this loss of culture was observed in the local festival in Hondarribia, a small town in Basque, Spain. The Spanish Ministry of Tourism’s promotion of the festival as a tourist spectacle led to a loss of local interest in the originally meaningful act, as “the ritual has become a performance for money” (Shepherd).
The flipside of this is the argument that cultural commodification is a means of cultural survival, and that it helps to preserve traditional practices that would otherwise have been lost to modernization and globalization. Proponents of this view argue that the commodification of culture does not devalue it; rather, it treats culture as an asset. The Tswana people in South Africa view the promotion of their identity for tourism as a proud assertion of their culture, and as a way of reaffirming their ethnic identity (Comaroff and Comaroff). Dawid Kruiper, a San tribe-leader who is a resident of a game reserve where tourists can experience tribal culture, says that the only way that his culture can continue to exist is for it to dwell in the memories of the people who see it (Comaroff and Comaroff). As such, the sale of culture through tourism can help in sust
aining it. However, the pressures of fulfilling the customer’s expectations of ‘authenticity’ still stand as long as the culture is a commodity. For instance, the Mabaso tribe’s game park offers the “authentic African” experience of bow hunting, while in reality this was not practiced by the tribe traditionally (Comaroff and Comaroff).
The tension between the intangible – culture – and the tangible – monetary gain – is a familiar one. It is undeniable that the economic benefits from promoting a culture has a clear positive effect of job creation, but at what cost? In Cozumel, a Mexican island famous for its Mayan cultural sites, it is widely acknowledged that tourism is essential for the island’s economic survival. However, problems still persist: from the uneven sharing of the economic gains of the tourism, to the environmental stress of supporting such a great number of people, to the continued political neglect of people of Mayan descent in spite of the valuableness of their culture to the economy (Jamal et al.).
As we gaze upon exotic sights in our travels, it would be wise to turn this gaze inwards and consider how we are complicit in this charade of authentic cultural experiences. We should be more conscious of the importance of the cultures that we are experiencing that we are unable to appreciate in our position as tourists. While it is unrealistic to prevent the commodification of culture, we can do our part in supporting sustainable cultural tourism efforts. Rather than enjoying it on a superficial level, we should take the initiative to learn about the cultural histories and traditions that we experience.
Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. Vol. Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944.
Comaroff, John L., and Jean Comaroff. “Three or Four Things about Ethno-Futures.” Ethnicity, Inc, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Jamal, Tazim, et al. “Tourism and Cultural Sustainability: Towards an Eco-Cultural Justice for Place and People.” Tourism Recreation Research, vol. 35, no. 3, Jan. 2010, pp. 269–79. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/02508281.2010.11081643.
MacLellan, Lila. “A New Way to Attract Tourists: Fake Accents and Dying Languages.” Quartz, 27 Mar. 2015, https://qz.com/368941/a-new-way-to-attract-tourists-fake-accents-and-dying-languages/.
Shepherd, Robert. “Commodification, Culture and Tourism.” Tourist Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, Aug. 2002, pp. 183–201. CrossRef, doi:10.1177/146879702761936653.
Urry, John. “Tourism, Culture and Social Inequality.” The Sociology of Tourism: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, Psychology Press, 1996.