07 AUGUST 2002

Search all issues

powered by FreeFind

Send Your Feedback!

Tourism and the commoditisation of culture

Mario Schembri Wismayer weighs the pros and cons of mass tourism and comes to the conclusion that despite several drawbacks, it does serve to keep certain aspects of our culture alive, which would otherwise inevitably die out. Whether this is a good thing or not, is another matter altogether. On the other hand, one niche conspicuous by its absence from the local market is that of alternative tourism.

The development of railways and steam transport by sea in the mid-19th century brought travel within reach of the masses. Agencies came into being with Thomas Cook spearheading their rise. Mass tourism was born. Countries began to make a lot of money from tourism. However, mass tourism soon began to have several negative impacts on the societies which became open to it.

Take Malta, for example.

It is all very well to have millions of tourists tramping through our small island and leaving their money here, but are we really weighing the cost, other than in financial terms?

The way cultural patterns in Malta have been altered as a direct result of cultural tourism is very evident. It is enough to mention that for a long time, carnival was shifted to cater for a greater number of tourists. The existence of some otherwise extinct traditions like the dance of ‘il-Maltija’ exclusively inside the tourist bubble is another pointer.

It is enough to see the effects of mass tourism on the village festa. Some anthropologists believe that the commoditisation of culture, in this case the village festa, causes no great harm. On the contrary, they hold that a number of positive results are obtained through this commoditisation. They argue that these factors give new meaning and assign new functions to the village festa, such as delineating parish boundaries and using the number of coaches as a new marker to weigh the success, or otherwise of a festa.

On the other hand, one could ask if these new attached meanings are relevant to the original tasks the festa carried out. Using coaches as a marker of success might be considered as a pointer that these post-industrial judges don't have the faintest clue as to the real significance that a festa has to the people who have been observing it for the last couple of hundred years.

Also, more often than not, far from providing neutral occasions for neighbours divided by politics to meet, village festas tend to be the instigators of factional tensions because one village often contains more than one band club and more than one patron saint, with all the associated rivalry that this creates. The fact that usually, the two rival clubs also contain an overwhelming number of members that are politically aligned to one of the two major political parties, doesn't help either.

It can also be argued that tourist attention destroys the culture it holds in focus by transforming natives into entrepreneurs and by destroying traditional tranquillity. This can easily be applied to festas. Jeremy Boissevain, anthropologist, observes "the arrogant, denigrating attitude of some visitors who derive satisfaction from looking down on others...."

Abroad, the same negative results of commoditisation can also be observed.

In several cultures, handcraft production is the result of a balance between the specific tasks performed by women, traditional production, and men - the sellers and go-betweens.
Often, because of development and tourism, the work and the women are exoticised and the men have to stray further afield in an effort to sell the produce. This development can reach the bizarre stage were the production is altered to suit the specific demands of the tourist. This can be seen in action with textile production among some villages in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The conscious move to produce what the customer demands is nothing less than disturbing, if one keeps in mind that originally, the production of textiles was simply to cater for the immediate needs of the community and to allow for a limited amount of trade.
What is, however, perhaps more disturbing is the pragmatic way that the villagers are catering for outsiders. "Well, you have to be really stupid not to know," as one Mexican puts it. "All you need to do is listen. For example if you have a lot of people ask for diamond patterns with blue colours...well, then you should be making blue diamonds." Or as another informer put it, "I look for trends in what my different clients want."

This kind of thinking is strongly echoed in Malta's lace-making industry. One only has to cross the sea to Gozo, to see Gozitan women industriously churning out traditional heavy, woollen jumpers, or dainty pieces of 'bizzilla' painstakingly produced using 'cumbini' by the thousand, far above and beyond what used to be needed by the village communities. The fact that all the artisan produce is as eagerly snapped up by tourists as it is produced has something to do with it. Having said that, it could be argued that artificial or not, tourist demand is keeping certain aspects of Maltese culture away from certain extinction.

One aspect of tourism which we are definitely not catering for and which would have less of a negative impact on Malta is alternative tourism.

Alternative tourism seeks to achieve mutual understanding, solidarity and equality amongst participants. This is perhaps a little idealistic. Rather than actually concentrating on the development of facilities, this conceptualisation of tourism gives more importance to improving contacts between hosts and guests. The European counterpart to this idea is known as soft tourism - it is characterised by the importance paid to environmental matters.

The trouble with alternative tourism is that it is still not very well known, to the point where it is rarely included in tourism typology literature.

Since alternative tourism stems from an ideological concern, it can be divided into nature, materialism and culture.

A very valid, though emotional, reaction to the effects that mass tourism has had on nature is the concept that the sophisticated tourist, having ruined his own environment and all that is natural, packs his proverbial bags and proceeds to flit hither and yon, consuming the environment of other countries.

One negative influence that alternative tourism seeks to neutralise is the universally planted concept of the modern culture as the ideal one in which consumerism is at a premium. A typical spin off of this false universality is that the chief beneficiaries of mass tourism development tend to be foreign capitalists and a few of the local elite. This materialistic concept leads to detrimental residues in host countries such as the loss of political and decision-making powers, negative socio-economic effects such as the commoditisation of indigenous life that we touched upon earlier, or the creation within the indigenous population of a desire for foreign goods such as foods and clothes which come to be perceived as being better and more desirable than the local dress and nutrition. One only has to observe the runaway success that international clothing and fast-food franchises enjoy in Malta to understand this last point.

These factors have led to the idea of sustainable development. The main problem with such an idealistic ideology lies in its implementation - the idea of forcing conventional tourism development to become more socially, culturally, economically and ecologically aware.

One way of achieving this could be through government intervention. Indeed this would seem to be the only way, since the sad fact is that alternative tourism, in its present form, cannot cater for the present demand of tourism. The truth of the matter is that if the right to travel and take holidays is a right, as indeed it has become, mass tourism is simply bound to continue to expand everywhere and especially in the Third World.

Given the situation it would seem more important for policymakers to promote sustainability by making mass tourism more environmentally, socially and economically sensitive.


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