5 JUNE 2002

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Tourism. Selling Malta as a product through photography; Illusions or reality?

Drawing false illusions of Malta are not helping Tourism argues Mario Schembri Wismayer

A potential tourist is leafing through some brochures in the comfort of his home. A number of photos catch his eye, making him think with gleeful anticipation of the superb holiday that awaits him.

His main motivation to travel could be one of several - he might be interested in sport, or culture, or in inserting himself into a world of sea, sun and fun. Perhaps he has a hobby, like for example scuba diving or golf.

As the potential tourist browses, his subconscious is slowly filled with images; images that he wants to ‘consume’ by experiencing what is captured in those photos. These pictures also programme him with certain biases towards diverse aspects of the country he plans to visit.

The potential host country, Malta for example, on its part has carefully identified what its most spectacular phenomena are and captured them on film. However, in doing this, it has been careful to present them in the best, most eye-catching way possible. It has concentrated so much on achieving this that it has stripped its features away from the reality and cultural context in which they exist. Something which might constitute an infinitesimally small fraction of a country’s ever-receding past, might be presented to give the potential tourist the totally false impression that this is a fact of everyday life in the potential host country.

The stage is set for the creation of a welter of misinformation, frustration and hostility, on the parts of both the inhabitants of the host country and the tourist.

On visiting the selected host country the tourist might frantically seek to capture for himself the images that were transmitted to him in the brochures. He might find this to be a frustrating experience.

The old, wrinkled lady making lace in a sunny corner of her village, together with her equally shrivelled and rustic companions is nowhere to be found.

The lovely beach where one can carelessly throw oneself onto the soft sand and there revise one’s English lesson while the sapphire-blue Mediterranean laps at one’s feet, turns out to be an overcrowded, oily half acre of land where one cannot even spread a towel. Unless, that is, one moves so far back from the sea that one cannot even see it through the forest of umbrellas and beach chairs that are aggressively supervised by a motley crew, composed entirely of hired beach bums.

What about the happy, simple natives, like the old lady in the picture? How come the natives turn out to be so arrogant and as well informed as he is, if not better? Why are they less then awed by his presence and evident, though perceived, superiority? Who gave them cellular phones?!!

The hosts find themselves subjected to open stares and frankly incredulous looks. Tourists, eager to realise the images they have seen, will unceremoniously open the door of an unsuspecting native’s dwelling, fondly imagining that being archetypically friendly, they will not mind this intrusion at all. When they are barked at for doing this they retire, muttering something under their breath about these bloody (and possibly ungrateful) peasants.

One cannot underestimate the effect that images, photos in particular, have on the expectation of the tourist and the reaction of the locals. Promoting Malta through images is intimately linked with the creation of illusions - illusions, because the selective nature of the images relay only a partial image of the whole picture.

Photos of Mdina or of Golden Bay really do show what actually exists, but they emphasise only particular and idealistic aspects of them. Photos of Mdina, for example, do not show the row of skips that used to lurk near the side entrance of the Silent City.

The truth is that photos in tourism can actually change what they purport to record objectively; the very act of recording something on film and promulgating that image abroad to attract interest will, in the long run, actually change that which has been recorded. This is especially true, not only of physical attractions like a temple, where the wear and tear is accelerated, but also where the recorded image concerns human activity.

In the latter case, the activity might actually be altered, or moved, for the sake of the visitor in that it could be repeated outside its naturally fixed seasonal frequency, or the alteration could effect the genuine behaviour of the locals - the old lady making bizzilla will start looking for strategically situated sunny corners to attract the attention of camera-toting tourists, and revenue in the form of tips or outright purchase of her wares. Carnival was at one point moved to May in order to attract more tourists.

This creates a totally false reality which is eagerly recorded by the tourist. It is a vicious circle. It is also instrumental in creating stereotypes of the visitor and the host.

This situation was perfectly captured in an Italian advert for frozen pre-cooked vegetables which appeared a few summers ago. The protagonist is a young gullible Englishman who is holidaying in what he believes to be a backward, little village, forgotten by time. He beams benignly upon his pretty young hostess and the aged village crone, naively assuming that they are bent upon traditional activities. The reality is that the crone keeps a cellular phone in her skirts and the meal he fondly assumes took hours to prepare and cook came out of the freezer in the local supermarket. The joke is evident but very telling.

Tourism and photography have a symbiotic relationship. Photography can be said to have become the main form of communication in the world of tourism. In the first place it is used to attract the tourist. It is also used by the tourist to record that which attracted him in.

Since photographs are merely a reproduction of an image which is then removed from its actual context, they constitute a subjective way of seeing. The very composition of the photo - the light , the angle, the elevation and so on is interpretive and not objective.

One of the main genres of brochure photos is the capturing of the past. Malta uses this type quite heavily to market its six thousand year history - images of temples, old towns with period architecture, medieval arms and armour etc. These images hoodwink tourists into making them believe that they can know a country’s historical past without actually experiencing it.

When tourists come to Malta they are taken to witness several spectacles - village festas, for example. They simply observe passively without going through the ‘effort’ of discovering for themselves a village festa that coincides with their stay. They are led like sheep to the square to witness, in the isolation of reserved seats, the emergence of the procession from the church or the band playing on its platform. They cannot even leave if they get bored because they have to wait for their coach to pick them up.

So they snap happily away with their cameras and record the moment. It is not an occasion they have shared with the locals that they are recording. They are simply immortalising their passive observance of local spectacles.

In appealing to the modern tourist’s sense of what is different, what is worth pursuing, a host of different spectacles are devised - these spectacles, however, misrepresent the cultural traditions and natural environments they purportedly symbolise - they deliver an illusion. Who for instance would in reality dance the ‘Maltija’ at a wedding, or during the festa, or at Buskett during the Mnarja. If the ‘Maltija’ were not kept artificially alive for the sake of the tourist it would die out. It is an illusion.

Tourism and its visual expressions make everyday fantasies appear real.

The relationship between Malta, tourism and photography is a complex one. On one hand we have the images that Malta uses to promote itself. On the other, we have the tourist, who having seen the photos comes over to visit. Is what he sees really there, or is he being fed an elaborate lie? How does the local fit in all this? Is he being seen by the tourist for what he is, or is he being simply relegated to one of several stereotypic categories and being photographed as such by the tourist? What does he think of the funny, but sometimes irritating tourist? Do the tourist and local ever genuinely meet? Is the tourist trapped inside his bubble, or is he happy to be there?

Depending on what the tourist’s expectation is, he can have a good holiday or a rotten one. Whether he has a genuine encounter with another, different culture than his own is a totally different matter which is intimately linked to how Malta ‘stages’ itself through visual images.



Copyright © Network Publications Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07, Malta
Tel: (356) 21382741-3, 21382745-6 | Fax: (356) 21385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt