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Looking at Tourism through Anthropology’s Lens

Just in time for summer vacation, Tourism Imaginaries: Anthropological Approaches will soon be available for purchase. This collection features a diverse group of scholars who dive deeper into the idea of “tourist” around the world, from Cambodia to Belize to the Netherlands. Following, editors Noel Salazar and Nelson H. H. Graburn give a glimpse into their work with the volume, their histories with the topic, and where they themselves like to “play tourist.”




What drew you to study the seductive draw of tourism?


Salazar: It may sound odd, but I became interested in tourism (as an object of study) while working for an NGO specialized in aiding refugees. At the end of the 1990s, the organization sent me on a mission to a remote refugee camp in northern Uganda, on the border with Sudan.

On the way from Entebbe to Adjumani, our small plane made an unexpected stop in Murchison Falls National Park to pick up a group of American tourists. After their wildlife viewing experience, next on the “to do” list was a visit to refugee settlements in and around Adjumani. I found this incredible, but I was even more surprised when I discovered that an Austrian entrepreneur had set up a lodge in a region that was in a state of armed conflict, mainly to cater for the staff of international NGOs and for “tourists.” Merely two weeks after the stay of the American group, Adjumani was bombed by one of the rebel factions. A justified question for me to ask was: “What is it that draws tourists to the most unexpected places?” And, related to the theme of this book: “Which imaginaries are at work in helping tourists to choose their destinations?”


Graburn: I was doing a community study of the Canadian Inuit in the 1959 and found them making steatite [soapstone] sculptures to sell to ship’s crews and occasionally visiting white officials (there were no tourists). For many years, these arts and crafts were exported by ship and later by plane to be sold in southern Canada and abroad, becoming symbols of Canadian “Northern” imaginary. These “tourist arts without tourists” were a kind of “tourism at a distance”; I first published “The Eskimos and Airport Art” in 1967 and an anthology Ethnic and Tourist Arts in 1976.

Invited to Valene Smith’s 1974 panel — which became Hosts and Guests (1977) — I have been involved in tourism studies ever since.



How do you think these “tourism imaginaries” have a positive effect on actors within the tourism market? Negative?


Salazar: As we argue in the book, tourism imaginaries play a crucial role in tourism and their “effect” can be either positive or negative, or somewhere in between. They usually invoke familiar ambivalences such as love/hate, fear/attraction, or noble/savage. It is important to make tourism stakeholders and scholars alike aware of currently dominant imaginaries. Whereas many academics have a tendency to criticize and merely stress the negative, we argue that it is important to actively create and operationalize new tourism images and discourses that contest and replace tenacious imaginaries.


Graburn: Tourism imaginaries are an embedded part of the multiplex flow of imaginaries within which we all live. Though we may criticize the more exaggerated or inaccurate forms of advertizing, imaginaries have many and deeper roots, in our family stories and upbringing, school education, word of mouth circuits, and multiple media. Anthropology is holistic in examining the total social facts embracing tourist imaginaries.



Where is your favorite place to play the role of tourist?


Salazar: First, it is important to stress that being a tourist is not a fixed identity but, indeed, a role people occasionally play (there are very few “professional tourists”). Rather than particular places, there are certain contexts in which I find playing the tourist interesting. This includes tourism packages offered in the margin of academic conferences. Maybe the most extraordinary experience I have ever had in this respect was the guided tour to a porn film studio in San Francisco as a way to “warm up” for the international conference on tourism imaginaries at UC Berkeley in 2011. While academics in general excel in criticizing the behavior of others, we are not necessarily the most exemplary tourists ourselves. If I really would have to pick a place in which to be a tourist, then it would be Brussels, the city where I currently live. I regularly take part in tours of Brussels, because this allows me to discover hidden aspects of the neighborhoods I usually pass through without paying much attention. It can be truly eye-opening to become aware of the multiple stories behind our daily surroundings and to realize that imaginaries are at work everywhere.


Graburn: According to MacCannell, the tourist is “modern man in general” and we fill our lives and our homes with the material and mental memories/mementos of our life experiences in a touristic way. Tourism is a self-conscious attitude of appreciation of life experiences, especially those that are “different” or non-routine, generally alternating with the daily grind of workaday life, except for intellectual workers and some others whose very work provides pleasurable experiences often of a kind that others have to pay (dearly) for. People have said to me “How dreadful, as an anthropologist of tourism, you have to turn your traveling and holiday experiences into work!?” to which I reply “No, I get a double pleasure from the vacation (-like) experience AND analyzing and understanding it as an anthropologist!”



What aspect of compiling an edited collection did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?


Salazar: It is always difficult to envision an edited volume based on mere abstracts. In this particular case, however, we were very lucky as editors to have access to full papers. Moreover, we knew all contributors on beforehand and were familiar with their work. We are very happy that we were able to include some of the most established scholars specializing in the anthropology of tourism as well as some of the most promising new talents. This creative mix of people has produced a volume that has truly surpassed our own expectations when we originally planned this project.


Graburn: I am happy with the very high quality of the contributions, which were culled from a much larger set. It has also been a pleasure to work with authors who have been enthusiastic to make the best of this collection and to be “on the same page” with us as editors and authors of the comprehensive Introduction. I am equally pleased with the scope of contemporary anthropology to dealing with illuminating many diverse aspects of “very modern” phenomena. The most challenging part was to convey the full scope of these research fields in the Introduction within a reasonable word limit!



Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?


Salazar: I am not sure if controversial is the right term, but we clearly want to break with the tradition in tourism studies to talk about “destination images” that are divorced of any history or contradictory interpretations. As the rich ethnographic cases in the volume demonstrate, it is because tourism imaginaries are socially shared and widely circulated that they are so powerful and worthy of critical scholarly analysis. The advantage of imaginaries, as an analytical concept, is that we it helps us to disentangle how images and discourses are formed and circulated, seamlessly reproduced as well as subtly contested.


Graburn: I don’t think this will be controversial. I think our Introduction and the case study chapters clearly explain and demonstrate the anthropological approaches to imaginaries as part of our lived cultures.



What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?


Salazar: Anthropologists studying tourism have traditionally focused on the relations between hosts and guests. The study of power issues in tourism, however, demands increased analytical attention to the role of brokers. Any analysis of host-guest relationships requires consideration of the many mediating agents and organizations active in tourism: government officials, planners, travel agents, tour guides, and travel writers (just to name some examples). Future research should pay more attention to the increasing intermediary role of information and communication technologies in tourism and to culture broker dynamics in the context of emerging tourism markets and destinations.


Graburn: While early anthropological interventions followed those of other disciplines, notably economics and geography, in assessing “impacts,” much wider emphasis on a whole array of stakeholders has become the norm. A parallel growth of the examination of tourism as a response to personal needs has come to embrace tourism as but one of a range of behavioral experiences in evolving contemporary cultures, leading us back to classical anthropological subfields such as kinship, religion, identity, social change and psychological anthropology. The relation of the personal to the social and institutional needs further investigation at the ontological and microhistorical levels.




Noel B. Salazar is Research Professor in Anthropology at the University of Leuven, Belgium. He is president of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (2013–2014), chair of the IUAES Commission on the Anthropology of Tourism, and founding member of the AAA Anthropology of Tourism Interest Group.


Nelson H. H. Graburn is Professor of the Graduate School and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his books and edited volumes are: Ethnic and Tourist Arts (1976), The Anthropology of Tourism (1983), To Pray, Pay and Play: the Cultural Structure of Japanese Domestic Tourism (1983), Tourism Social Sciences (1991), Anthropology in the Age of Tourism (2009), and Tourism and Glocalization: Perspectives in East Asian Studies (2010). He is a founding member of the International Academy for the Study of Tourism.