Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Innocence and desire: Tourism and the continuing colonial project

A fortnight ago I had suggested an odious content to three posters that were used a year ago in a lottery competition in Portugal. Responding to this, two persons suggested that I was over-reading meaning into these posters. These individuals suggested that the persons who designed the posters and the ad campaign ‘were not that smart’ and that they were not drawing on nationalist and Lusotropicalist formula but international formula associated with tourism.

In response to this suggestion, my response was to acknowledge the possibility of over-reading on my part, but to also point out that tourism is not an innocent activity but one that is integrally tied to the colonial project. This column will elaborate on that argument.

Tourism is not an innocent activity. It is an activity that is firmly located within power relations. On the inter-personal level, it is one where the tourist is invariably economically superior to the host. On an international level there is invariably a power relation between the tourist who comes from the global North and travels to the global south. Travel for a long time was the privilege of the elite. In particular, within the international context, it was the privilege of the white elite. These folk traveled either to Southern Europe, namely Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece, whose people were deemed to largely be not-white. In these spaces they engaged in activities of leisure and pleasure-seeking. In this process, they created the image of the romantic and sexy Latin lover. These white folk, also traveled to Africa and Asia, where they ‘discovered’ strange lands and exotic peoples. The pleasure of sexual experimentation was not missing here either.

These images continue to populate the realms of tourist-speak today. Thus the largely white consumer is encouraged to come and ‘Discover India’. The colonial sub-text of the invitation is hardly hidden. India and a variety of countries in the global south are consistently marketed as ‘exotic’. And it is not some evil, neo-imperial foreign master who does this, but very often the neo-colonial national state that does so. Thus the Indian state, as the neo-colonial successor to the British-Raj, markets its own land and people for tourist consumption.

Tourism is not an innocent activity. It is an activity firmly located in the project of performing white-ness. Contrary to popular perception, white-ness is not only about skin colour. It is about social and geo-political location, it is about class, and it is about how one behaves and thinks. One can have ‘white trash’, only because skin colour does not make a person ‘white’. Social behaviour and culture does. Thus Southern Europeans were until recently not considered properly white. Thus many Indians, can and do attempt to pass off as white folk. In fact, tourism is one of the ways in which elite Indians attempt to produce their whiteness. To do so, they reproduce the activity of the white colonial masters. Thus if colonial whiteness was produced, among other things, by traveling to Southern Europe, then the elite Indian has holiday homes in Goa; her own piece of Southern Europe. That both Southern Europe and Goa have similar models of tourism – invasion by charter tourists from the European North, should indicate that there is more than just coincidence operating here.

Further more, travel continues to be a privilege of the elite, requiring not only surfeit of cash (or a favorable currency exchange rate) but also the ability to transcend geo-political boundaries that are selectively permeable. There is no denying that it is much easier for a poorer Briton to travel to India, than it is for a socially comparable Indian to travel to Britain. Leisure travel or tourism then, produces white-ness for larger groups of people, even as it creates black-ness for those who are unable to travel for leisure. It is no surprise then, that the advertising campaign that was referred to a fortnight ago held images of primitive ‘black’ people holding symbols of a ‘white’ culture, rather than some entirely different set of images.

To assert that tourism is not an innocent activity is not to assert that the project of tourism is animated by deliberate intention. It is for the large part not. These power-relations of race, class and power that mark national and international relations also mark tourism, and for the most part operate silently in the background. It is this silent operation that allows tourism to so innocently reproduce itself, and contribute to the fixing of peoples and locations in colonial imagery, even as sovereign colonial power has been replaced with sovereign national power.

As any initial student of economics will know, demand for a consumer product does not just emerge, but is cultivated in an individual. The seed of this desire is planted in our mind, it is watered and nourished and encouraged to grow so that we come to believe that some insatiable need in our life will be met by our consuming that product. The tourism industry operates similarly, it creates certain desires, or amplifies desires that lie in our subconscious. To do this, it draws, either consciously or unconsciously on ideas that already exist, or creates them afresh. Tourism sells to us our desire to be powerful and elite. It sells to us exotic dreams. Its allure lies not only in the possibility of sexual experimentation, but also in the knowledge that we are doing what Kings and adventurers, business tycoons and heroes did before us. It is for this reason that we should not really be surprised that tourism takes recourse to colonial imagery when selling us our tickets…

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 1 Dec 2010)

1 comment:

vikramhegde said...

I have been thinking on the same lines in a slightly different context. Pilgrimage is a way of non Bramhin castes Bramhinizing themselves. In one of the pilgrimage centres in Karnataka which was traditionally patronized mainly by Bramhins today one may see a lot of bare chests (this temple makes males take their shirts off). Admittedly my own sub caste had no tradition of worship at this shrine but now I accompany my parents almost every year.