History begins with tourism, which then pollutes the world


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South America » Ecuador » South » Loja
November 9th 2011
Published: November 9th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Sarah: “They say they have an intact culture, but they have volleyball, toothpaste, plumbing and I saw a guy with an Abercrombie and Fitch pullover.”
Zoe: “Yeah, the guide has a Lacoste T-shirt!”
Tony: “No culture is completely untouched.”
Sarah: “…oh yeah, I know; it was alright though.”

Indigenous people who fail to live up to the tourists’ expectations of authenticity run the risk of being labeled illegitimate and faux. The construct that equates indigenous authenticity with lack of Western goods lives on in contemporary public attitudes and was emphasized in this conversation between three tourists, as we drove back from a tour having just visited the local museum.

Here we see Sarah insinuating dishonesty, by highlighting obvious cultural in-authenticities. She implies the Saraguro are fakes; their culture cannot be “intact” despite what “they say”, since it has adopted such obvious outside contaminations. Zoe agrees and has obviously been mulling over the guide’s Lacoste™ T-shirt, as she enthusiastically adds it to the list of contaminations. Tony, almost by way of defending these “contaminations,” states that perhaps it is a bit harsh to judge them on such stringent criteria as “no culture is completely untouched”, and so maybe they are expecting too much, setting the bar too high. Interestingly, Sarah then rather defensively suggests that she is aware of this, and that she enjoyed the experience despite its inauthenticity – as though the other tourists may have surmised from her comments that her highlighting of these contaminations had the potential to ruin her experience.


At issue here is authenticity, the guide’s claims to the community’s authenticity and the tourists challenge to that claim. For a tourist it would seem that the guide in his Lacoste shirt has lost part of his authenticity and has been "contaminated” or has even surrendered somewhat to western culture. Not only is the guide’s clothing denied hybridization; if the Saraguro are claiming an “intact culture” their culture more generally is also denied any outside contamination, be that in the form of toothpaste or volleyball. Hybrid and heterogeneous objects are considered inauthentic and excluded from the pure category.

“Intact” denotes purity and purity means freedom from foreign elements or admixture. One foreign element contaminates the purity of the whole. Tony is right in suggesting that cultural hybridity is the norm, yet the local guide throughout the tour has attempted to claim
A polluting influenceA polluting influenceA polluting influence

My son Kiva aged 2
an “intact, traditional culture” for the residents of Gera, delivering what he believes the tourist seeks and fearing delivery of the wrong product or dream. Yet we also see here the risk of a claim to authenticity; such an impossible claim to purity immediately instigates a search for validation by the tourist, who begins sifting through what is bona fide and not. By claiming authenticity, the guide is placing himself and Saraguro culture on a pedestal; if contaminations are then sought-out and discovered, he becomes a liar or a fraud in the two poles of the true-false spectrum. This then ultimately risks the fall from grace suffered by the ignoble savage. Once the Saraguros step away from their traditional lifestyles they will cease to be of interest to visiting tourists, the culture will simply be staged, and the whole affair considered touristy.

This striving for, evaluation and recognition of toured objects as authentic is very real and very relevant to tourists. This “objective authenticity” involves an absolute and objective criterion used by tourists to measure authenticity. If one were to judge something for authenticity one would look for irregularities and anomalies. The lack of the foreign and unknown serves to authenticate. Yet for the tourist in a foreign land in search of authenticity the foreign, the unknown, the exotic is the authentic they seek. In an ironic twist, for the tourist, authenticity is the unknown or strange and the inauthentic is the known or familiar. The tourist doesn’t have an exact preconceived idea what the authentic actually looks like, so they match it against that which they know to be inauthentic and alien: “Western culture” or “modernity”. The native is the unknown, the foreign is the familiar. It is the only way the visiting tourist can have any bearings in an environment where they lack local cultural knowledge in discerning authenticity. The search for the inauthentic authenticates the unknown authentic; if there are no known in-authenticities then it must be authentic. Things appear authentic to visiting tourists based on their own prior perspectives and beliefs, which ultimately means authenticity is relative and negotiable.

This authenticity can be a projection of a tourist’s romanticized dreams or stereotypes onto the host. It is constructive authenticity, the result of social construction; and the tourist is ultimately in search of symbolic authenticity.



A mixture of cultures is no longer authentic. Any culture tainted by ours can no longer be authentic. If the reason to travel is to search for the Other, the exotic, the authentic, the tourist doesn’t want to find traces of themselves, their culture, that have already been there and eternally altered the Other. On one occasion a group looked through a selection of locally made jewelry assembled from tiny colored beads, everyone was quite enthusiastic until somebody discovered one of them had the name “Chris” woven into the design. This name was clearly non-local and its mere presence polluted the other offerings, rendering the whole lot inauthentic, and nobody purchased anything. On another occasion a tourist had been poised to buy a locally produced poncho until he discovered it was made of acrylic. In the eyes of the assembled tourists this rendered the poncho inauthentic, despite how, or by whom, it had been made, they believed the acrylic was most probably from China and therefore the poncho was tainted.

Annabelle, a tourist from Oregon told me she thought it strange that some of the adults wore traditional clothes yet their children wore “American clothes.” Sylvia, a Finnish tourist, said she had seen a man in short black traditional pants wearing a rock T-shirt. She said it was a strange mix and wondered why he was wearing the pants with the T-shirt, as if wearing the pants was a futile exercise in defining identity, when that identity had been clearly surrendered by wearing the rock T-shirt.

One Sunday I approached a couple from Ontario sitting at the local market in Saraguro; assuming correctly that they had perhaps been directed towards the “wrong” market (the weekly Sunday market), I became their guide. The husband said he hadn’t actually come here to see the indigenous people and besides which, from what he’d already seen the “indigenous people in Cuenca are more colorful with their red and purple skirts.” His wife said she “most definitely” had come here to see the indigenous people and had read about them beforehand. They were “more traditional” and “authentic” than those in Cuenca, and she could now see that many more of the younger people wore traditional clothes than in Cuenca, “or even Otavalo.” She said this would probably change though as they became more exposed to the outside world and became wealthier. She said, however, it still “shocked” her to see some of them using mobile phones, which speaks to the idea that, “the use of western goods becomes a symbol for cultural corruption and the loss of authentic, distinct, exotic indigenous identity” (Conklin 2010:132).

Here, in common with many of the other tourists visiting Saraguro, the “outside world” is the biggest factor contributing to “change” and isolation the antidote. She also saw poverty as maintaining tradition and economic prosperity as the death knell which would inevitably expose them to the trappings and temptations of modernization. Interestingly she is “shocked” on seeing what she considers a contamination, as such a profound symbol of modernity clashes so starkly with the indigenous attire, confusing and challenging the tourist’s definition of tradition and authenticity.

As if by way of using my perceived local knowledge in clarifying confusions and gathering more evidence to determine authenticity, I was asked repeatedly by visiting tourists if Saraguros generally used mobile phones. I would always answer that everybody I knew had one, explaining rather defensively that this seemingly high ratio was due to the fact that many people simply didn’t have the option of landlines. I was also asked about computers, and I conceded that this was harder to tell, but that the previous family I had stayed with had not owned one, though this current house had more than one laptop, and that if it was any indication my computer had detected Wi-Fi signals in both communities. I also often revealed that many people I knew were also using Facebook. One group said it was “funny” for them, because they’d all believed they wouldn’t have internet down in Ecuador but that all their host families in the capital city, Quito, had internet.

It seemed the tourist’s markers of modernity and progress reflected their own markers – mobile phones, computers and internet – yet nobody asked whether Saraguros had potable water, a much more pressing local concern. From this I assumed that people simply believed that in the pyramid of modernity, mobiles and internet were at the peak, and by default everything else that came before that was a given or a prerequisite. The tourists’ view of progress seems to emulate evolutionary development ideas that there is a linear path to progress and they were assumed to be on the path to becoming us.

Another signifier of authenticity for the tourist is language. Most tourists thought everybody in Saraguro spoke Kichwa “because of the way they dress,” and many were surprised when I told them that was not the case. The seemingly traditional manner in which some Saraguros dressed meant they should speak Kichwa, and in the hierarchy of signifiers it seems that the tourists believed that clothing would change first. The guides also reflected back that when asked if they spoke Kichwa, they were embarrassed to concede that they did not, much to the confusion of the tourists, leading them often to give the answer that they spoke “some” or “a little”.

When I first saw Yīng brandishing her camera as an appendage to her smile and poise, I instantly surmised from her posturing that she was an experienced photographer. She was a travel writer for a magazine in Hong Kong. Because she was born and raised in Hong Kong, she said she didn’t like to stay in cities, and said that she liked coming to these rural places to take pictures. She liked to couch surf whilst traveling, because she believed it put her in touch with the “real culture” of a country.

Like many other visitors to Saraguro, Yīng also ranked destinations according to the traditional/touristy dichotomy: although she had only been in Ecuador for a few days she had already surmised that it was “less traditional than Peru or Bolivia.” The main reason she gave for this was that Ecuador didn’t have its own currency, the Sucre, anymore (“If I am Ecuadorian I am very ashamed because I have the dollar”). The U.S. dollar, in this instance, was a contamination afflicting an entire nation’s authenticity. She felt uneasy when I told her that many indigenous people in Saraguro spoke Spanish – another foreign contamination – as their first language.

I spent one night with traditional people on Lake Titicaca, but they are touristy now. They learnt Spanish from a volunteer teacher. And now the girls there want to study English, because the tourists are very important …I think they should learn Kichwa first and then the Spanish. But if I lived here I would want to learn Spanish, to improve the living standards of my family. Hong Kong belonged to the British before ‘97, now we are part of China. I said to my mother ‘why did I learn Cantonese and English but not Mandarin?’ – She only taught me those – it is similar to here…maybe in ten years they will want to learn English. If I was born here I would want to learn Spanish and English…Kichwa is just an additional language for them…here you can see internet cafes, it is not totally traditional.




From personal experience Yīng can understand why people would want to learn other languages. Yet she, as a tourist, wants them to remain traditional; from this notion we can again extrapolate that the less traditional people become, the less appealing they will be to those in search of the authentic. Yīng held an almost schizophrenic double-standard when she was deciding what was best for these people. On the one hand as a travel writer/tourist she wanted their culture preserved, as if in a museum. Yet when she attempted to project herself into their situation, she wouldn’t want to live like that; she would want to learn Spanish and even English (which would help improve living standards) above the “additional” language of Kichwa. After all, since they have internet cafes now, what are they really preserving? The culture had already been contaminated – their traditionality, or authenticity, breached, the process of assimilation had clearly begun. I asked Yīng what image her magazine would want to see in a story from Saraguro.

I write an article – for me I don’t want any change for the village I want to protect the tradition – but if I lived here I’d want to change…I’m tourist, I don’t want change – keep it the same. I like Bolivia because they don’t want to change so much…for example the buses don’t have toilets and people pee pee everywhere.




Here the traditional is quaint and charming, yet more than that, poverty is romanticized. She admires the Bolivians for not wanting change, for “real Indians must be pure and poor” (Ramos 2001:14); like the stoical Noble Savage retaining his honor in the face of modernity’s temptations. She wants to protect “tradition” for no other reason than for her to look at it, and fleetingly live it. Indigenous culture is something to be consumed. She admits to being a voyeur, a “tourist”; it is her vocation and her passion.

Hartigan (1997) in his article, Unpopular Culture the Case of ‘White Trash’, notes how Vogue magazine documented a similar nostalgia for the domestically impoverished in late 1980s America:

While books, magazines, and TV have been wallowing in the lifestyles of the rich, richer, and famous, a counter-trend has evolved - downmarket chic. Part nostalgia, part condescension…now we want to spy on, gape at, fantasize about, and revel in the doings of the downscale and the déclassé.

(Jefferson 1988:344-5)



Gottlieb (1982) argues that the tourist is seeking an inversion of their everyday life, and so the working class will seek to experience pampered luxury of “King/Queen for a day” and the elite will search out the lives of the Common People to be “peasant for a day.” As a tourist, Yīng is able to drop down to view, and fleetingly “live” like these people safe in the knowledge that she can take the next bus, boat, plane out of there, an authentic experience in the bag, photographically logged, with the trinkets and diarrhea to prove it. She admits as much herself; if she lived there she would want change, she would haul herself out of poverty, but she isn’t living there and so she gazes voyeuristically at their plight, willing them to remain authentic in their romantic impoverishment. When we change, it’s called progress; when they change by attempting to progress it’s perceived as them losing their culture and themselves (Jolly 1992; Sahlins 1999).

There are some inherent paradoxes in tourism and the striving for authenticity. The very act of marketing culture for tourism, and (if successful) receiving tourists, begins a process of de-authentication, whereby destinations risk becoming denigrated as touristy in the eyes of the visiting tourist. In MacCannell’s mind, the quest itself is doomed to failure because wherever the tourist looks or whatever he touches, he commodifies and irreparably alters the authentic from its original state, like a mythical Medusa or Midas. In entering into the backstage the tourist contaminates by engendering a performance and therefore spoils the authenticity sought, rendering the backstage “profane.” This postmodernist approach is critiqued by Bruner because it assumes an authentic culture, and “is as if history begins with tourism, which then pollutes the world” (Bruner 1994:408).

However, if tourists on day-tours can be ferried between traditional villages to visit museums and partake in incaic ceremonies and rituals, through successful staging this illusory constructive authenticity can still be manufactured and experienced. Furthermore, and herein lies another paradox: tourism’s own dialectical impact on the commodification of culture can serve to insure that, that which is sold or staged is that which is most likely to be deemed authentic, a kind of placebo authenticity. Yet there is an inherent danger in the striving for authenticity to satisfy the perceived demands of the tourist. That is, in the placing of oneself on a pedestal, the search for inauthenticity in order to authenticate begins in earnest, and if the culture is deemed inauthentic it opens itself up to criticism; that it is fake, illegitimate, corrupted and touristy.


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9th November 2011

Music and Culture
It is still possible for a people to "modernise" and retain its culture. For example, travel to Kenya and you will hear Swahili Rap and Hip-Hop. Some would say that their culture has been polluted because they are not playing music that heralds back to the days before colonisation, but I do not share this view, as it is a music that is of great interest to many Kenyans. However, there are instances where a choice of music does not endear me in any way. I remember hearing Bob Marley at a restaurant in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt. Perhaps, Mr Marley was popular there, but I strongly suspect not. Another instance was a group of musicians in Jaisalmer, India, playing Frère Jacques to a group of French tourists walking past them. This was a song that would have no relevance or interest at all to the local people. In both these cases, the use of music to create \"tourist bubbles\" just to overtly pander to a tourist or traveller\'s whims (and their money) is something I view with disdain, whether it be in Australia, Egypt, India or elsewhere.
9th November 2011

Tourists always whinge about shit like this.Just because someone uses a computer,eats at McDonalds,wears western clothes.....dosn\'t stop them being authentic.Culture and beliefs go way beyond that.They always seem to think only they should have these things. Ask them where they are from.And then just say to them \"Oh,but you have McDonalds.Are you the real deal?\" Usually shuts the whinging fucks up.
15th November 2011

Much enjoyed
Articulate writing with voluminous vocabulary and sharp photography. Good stuff. I think this statement hits the nail on the head: "The tourist doesn’t have an exact preconceived idea what the authentic actually looks like, so they match it against that which they know to be inauthentic and alien: “Western culture” or “modernity”. Keep it coming!
16th December 2011

Your blogs are a 2011 TravelBlog favourite. :)
Check this out, and feel free to add 2011 favourites of your own. :) http://www.travelblog.org/Topics/30521-1.html
23rd March 2012

Here here
Spot on and I like your photo from behind of the woman holding the hat

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