Cultural "Authenticity"

No culture sees itself as having one among many possible versions of "reality." Cultural systems create genuine, authentic worlds that are experienced as "real." If this "reality" comes to be questioned seriously, it is a certainty that the culture is on the way to major transformation or collapse.

In contexts of cultural interaction, "realities" often are pitted against one another. The outcome is determined by the relative material power of the two groups. Under these conditions the dependent group usually experiences itself as "objects," of outsider observation, manipulation, and often of derision.

Dean MacCannell nicely captured an aspect of this problem in his concept "staged authenticity." This term refers to the staging of local culture to create an impression of authenticity for a tourist audience.

But not all tourism involves the staging of authenticity (e.g. "sun and sand" tourism) nor does the staging of local culture always lead to alienation among local people. Tourism is not a unitary phenomenon to be characterized in such a simple way.

Equally important, tourism is not the only arena in which authenticity is staged. All societies create traditions, accept elements from outside, invent ceremonies, and reinvent themselves for both sacred and secular purposes. All viable cultures are in the process of "making themselves up" all the time. In a general sense, all culture is "staged authenticity." If this is so, it is useless to argue that because tourism often involves the staging of cultural authenticity, it is necessarily a destructive force. We must come to understand when the staging of authenticity is a destructive force and when it is not.

A review of three cases will reveal how tourism influences cultural change. In each case the role is different, but the causes of these differences are not easily captured.,/P>

Case 1: Tourism as a Destructive Force: The Alarde of Fuenterrabia, Spain

The story told here is simple (Greenwood, 1977). Once a year, the people of Fuenterrabia staged a ritual reenactment of their victory in a siege in 1638. A community ritual carried out within the confines of the walled city for and by local people, it served to dramatize a time when the people of Fuenterrabia stood together despite class divisions and individual antagonisms. The Alarde was an intrinsic part of community life.

Because it was picturesque, the Ministry of Information and Tourism put it on their list of tourist events. The cramped physical structure of the medieval city made it difficult for non-participants to see the ritual clearly. The Ministry, therefore, ordered that the ceremony be repeated twice so more people could see it. This act effectively killed the Alarde. The people of Fuenterrabia had their ritual expropriated and destroyed.

What happened was a redefinition of the ritual as a spectacle for outsiders. The Ministry gave no thought to the difference between performances for participants, which are an intrinsic part of community life, and spectacles that are put on for wider audiences. Ritual activities in many parts of the world contain both types of ceremonial.

In Fuenterrabia there was great consternation. No one could quite give voice to what had been done to them collectively, but nearly everyone experienced it as a loss of something of great value.

Case 2: Haitian Voodoo dancing - Urban and Rural: Separate Authenticities

In a recent work, Suze Mathieu compared rural voodoo ceremonies with urban performances of voodoo dancing for tourists and other urban people in Haiti. The study's aim was to examine what happened to the voodoo dance forms and rituals under this transformation.

The requirements of urban staging dictated that the urban performances be quite different from those occurring in rural areas. They had to be brief; cues had to be obvious and even exaggerated. Rural ceremonies involving hundreds of people and lasting for many hours have a much more elaborate and subtle development.

Urban impresarios have developed their own choreographic styles, costumes and aesthetic forms to meet these requirements. While they self-consciously arise from and continue to be influenced by rural ceremonies, they are considerably transformed by the time they reach the urban stage. At the same time, urban performances for pay have not replaced rural ceremonies. Although some foreigners sponsor rural ceremonies, their overwhelmingly religious and communitarian aspects remain strong.

Both kinds of experiences have elements of authenticity. The heads of urban troupes are apparently concerned with trying to convey something of the meaning and beauty of voodoo to their audience. And the urban audience apparently gains a meaningful experience of Haiti that they may appreciate in a sympathetic way.

Is this experience necessarily or usefully viewed as a "false" one?

For the moment at least, touristic voodoo and rural voodoo activities coexist without apparent conflict.

Case 3: Cultural Revitalization and Tourism: Bermuda's Black Clubs

Under some circumstances, tourism can be a positive force in cultural revitalization and development.

Frank Manning carefully sets the stage for his Bermuda's history and the recent evolution of Black clubs out of previous mutual aid "friendly societies." In recent years, these clubs have become centers of recreation and opulence, advertising and embodying Black lifestyles that are both proud and sophisticated. Much of the wealth that enables these clubs to exist and the consumption styles upon which they are based are products of the tourism-generated wealth and of social encounters with tourists.

Manning realizes that this positive impact requires explanation and seeks to understand why tourism has not been disruptive in this case. He points out that in Bermuda Blacks do not see themselves as servants of tourists. He credits government planning and execution of tourism development as leading to minimal disruption of the natural and social environment of the area. Finally for a variety of reasons, the tourist encounters with natives were built upon relatively relaxed patterns of race relations. The result has been economic growth and a sense of cultural pride strongly stimulated by, and at least for now, compatible with international tourism.


What makes the difference between situations in which tourism is a positive or neutral force and those in which tourism produces genuinely negative consequences?

Some claim that the economic benefits of tourism are illusory, that it creates nations of waiters and maids. The big money goes to the international investors. They argue that the social and cultural impacts of tourism are so devastating that development bought at this price is not development at all.

Others believe that the economic benefits of tourism are real. They stress its stimulation of the local economy, the provision of new economic infrastructure, and the lack of viable alternatives in many areas where tourism is possible. On the social and cultural side, they emphasize demonstration effects, seeing tourism as a vast "school for modernization."

But, a differential in power and wealth alone does not always produce problems. "Sea and sand" tourism is not universally a positive force and "local color" tourism is not universally a negative one. Mass tourism is not necessarily more culturally destructive than elite tourism. Foreign versus domestically-managed tourism enterprises are not universally better or worse in their impacts on local people.

On the socio-economic side, tourism raises thorny but familiar questions of international political economy (class relations, appropriation, expropriation, and exploitation). The issue of authenticity, however, cannot be addressed until it is made clear that all cultural activities involve complex processes of both destruction and innovation.

What is thus demanded in the study of tourism is the examination of a range of international economic, social and political activities in concert with the study of cultural change. Sufficient historical perspective is required to avoid erroneous assumptions about the pre-tourism period. The question of tourism and authenticity will not yield to our efforts until we have met these larger requirements. Until then development policy recommendations regarding tourism seem unjustifiable guesswork.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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