On Tourism

Our first week in India, it was hammered into us that we are not tourists, we are students, and must project this as much as possible. This is in part for safety reasons. If we use what little Hindi we’ve got, and dress in a way that’s culturally appropriate (and maybe even, *gasp*, Indian), we’re much safer and the likelihood of people not taking us seriously is much less.

That being said, I have clearly had many experiences as a tourist in India. They are awkward, exhilarating, and fun all at once.

Me in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar at sunrise.

My first real experience with tourism was in Dharamshala. I may have mentioned it in the previous post, but Dharamshala is actually FULL of tourists. Or rather, McCloud Ganj is. There are two parts of Dharamshala, and McCloud Ganj is the “upper” part of the city, the space where the Dalai Lama’s temple is. The streets all throughout the city are packed with street vendors trying to sell all kinds of Tibetan, touristy, kitsch and flat-out souveneire trinkets. It was the first place in India that I’d gone that I was, as a non-resident, not necessarily the minority. (There were still more actual residents of McCloud Ganj than tourists – I sincerely hope.)

There were many times, as I was walking through the city in my half-Indian half-Western wear, that I felt like the other tourists were judging me. There was definitely competition for authenticity – as students, we’re told that we have more of a right to be in a place, but as tourists, they were making their certain pilgrimage to the site very well known. Many tourists would walk around in half-casual, half-yoga, half-hiking gear. Either that or they would be wearing their hippie clothes, which many Indians find horrendously disrespectful. (It’s a cleanliness thing/perception of hippies.)

It was there that I was really hit with the difference between being a student and being a tourist – when I’m a student, I’m there to learn, and to experience the culture, to be as much a part of Indian culture as possible. When I’m a tourist, I’m just there for a very brief period, I don’t really talk to any locals unless I’m buying something, and I feel like I get a little shutter happy with my camera. It’s about the sights, which, unlike my usual interaction with Indian culture, is so outside of myself that it’s hard to believe it’s a part of my life.

Last weekend in Agra was an especially intense tourist debacle.

The self-conscious tourist.

Agra is basically just for tourists. I didn’t like much of the city itself, and everything that you can find in Agra (other than the Taj Mahal, of course) you can find in Jaipur. Except in Jaipur it is less expensive and getting around is less crazy. The quality is often better in Jaipur as well. In Agra, people expect that foreigners are tourists that don’t know much about Indian culture or how much things should cost, etc. And that’s easy to see, when you’re at the Taj Mahal and people are wearing short skirts and tank tops.

(I am, of course, jealous of them in those clothes – Agra is ridiculously hot.)

In no way do I mean to imply that seeing the Taj Mahal was not worth it, or to cheapen the experience. It was an amazing experience.

But being a tourist is, for me, a very uncomfortable experience. I don’t like having a guide – usually I can find cool stuff on my own, and read up on the monument before I go/while I’m there. I also feel like it’s much more peaceful, to tour things without a guide. I generally feel much more relaxed.

I can’t put my finger on what exactly bothers me about the tourism industry. A big part of it is worry that, when local economies become dependent on tourism, if suddenly the draw to tourism stops, the local economy suffers a major fall – sometimes past the point of recovery. Another part of tourism that bothers me is the commodification of culture. I’ve seen it in the American West – towns that are defined by things like Walldrug, ghost towns that people don’t live in, but are full of sidewalk stands selling their “authentic western” artifacts to people passing through, and the tourist stands of “Cowboys and Indians” lore and trinkets that people can grab on their way through South Dakota. Of course, the image of the Western is very much a part of real Western culture, but it seems to me a gross simplification of a very touchy issue, especially if you talk to any Native person living on a reservation.

These are all things that I’ve thought about and observed in the American context; in India, I’m witnessing some similar (though decidedly different) trends.

Yezmin with the tourists as a background.

Whenever I go to places that are for tourists specifically, my friends and I are bombarded by people selling crafts at very low prices. Many of the crafts that I’m approached with on the streets (Rajasthani puppets, hand carved wooden elephants, prayer wheels, mini Ganeshes, it changes based on where we are) were once very much a part of local culture, but are now reserved for special occasions, if used at all. The puppets are a very good case study. One of my friends’ host family is reputed to have said “No one cares about the puppets anymore.” And yet, that aspect of culture is being preserved, fiercely, and marketed to tourists. The puppets are beautiful, fun, and I would love to bring one home. And yet I wonder how much some of these trinkets that are being hawked are comparable to the dream catchers or beaded necklaces that you can buy at the roadside attractions in South Dakota – not so much authentic, as an artifact that was once authentic and traditional and is now a symbol of culture that has passed.

I haven’t done the research to back up these claims, as I haven’t really had a moment to do anything other than schoolwork, being with friends, or traveling. These are just feelings and thoughts, think of them as research questions, ponderings, that are not based on solid fact, but on impression. Soon I will have more researched, studied impressions of tourism.

I know that I’ll have more ideas about tourism because it’s what I plan to study in November. The program that I’m on has, as a major component, a month-long Independent Study Project, where all the students pursue a topic that they find the most interesting. I’ll be studying ecotourism in the Himalayas, and whether it’s a truly viable, sustainable option to traditional tourism.

Ecotourism is defined by the Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of people.” It tends to focus on:

*Local Culture
*Wilderness Adventure
*Volunteering
*Personal Growth
*Tourists learning about new ways to live sustainably on the planet.

What I’m particularly interested in is how people can maintain culture in the wake of their culture being a spectacle – in other words, how people maintain their authentic/meaningful culture while they are constantly being gawked at by outsiders/travelers.

And the Himalayas, as an ideal trekking spot, is one of the best places to do that.

This has been a LONG entry, and for those of you that finished it, thank you very much! I feel honored.

This is Abbie, signing out.

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2 thoughts on “On Tourism

  1. This is a really fascinating post, Abbie. And this – when I’m a student, I’m there to learn, and to experience the culture, to be as much a part of Indian culture as possible – is so the thesis of their argument for student > tourist. The pictures look incredible and it sounds as if you are having intense, immersive experiences from which you will glean wisdom.

    Another part of tourism that bothers me is the commodification of culture. – so much to be said there which you touch on with the example of the puppets – the risk of something only being valued so long as their is monetary value attached to it. The intrinsic value of things (spiritual value; cultural tradition) is easily lost in such an environment.

    I’m sorry I haven’t been following the blog more closely, but rest assured, you are in my thoughts. Much love.

  2. Hey Abbie,

    I’m sorry it took me so long to read this. I somehow missed or forgot the memo that you were using this blog for the India trip. I swear, one day I’ll start remembering more than a goldfish.

    You’re right about tourism being a touchy subject. I’m in the same “being a tourist sucks” camp as you. Part of it is that I really don’t like being told what to do, what to see, or what to enjoy. Especially when I know that there is so much more to experience than that. I don’t hide from the negative aspects of my own country, why should I ignore those in another country? In trying to portray a country as better than it really is, tourism not only damages a country, it damages visitor’s perception of the country. It seems very counter-productive. Visiting a country should entitle someone to an well-based opinion about that country, not a skewed skimming of the surface.

    I might be wrong, but I think that a lot of the shallowness of tourism stems from a belief that people should be safe from Any Form of harm while visiting another country. It’s not only physical harm though, now people are protected from any damage to their pre-existing conceptions of a country as well. Coupled with the economic and cultural damage to the visited country you went into, I have a really hard time not knee-jerking at anything that even smells touristy. Too me, if your reasons for travel are solely to have a good time inside a bubble of comfort, why bother leaving your country? It’s cheaper, and the experience will be largely identical.

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