Anthropologists see tourists as ‘an agent of contact between cultures. Explain

Anthropological interest in tourism began in the 1970s and today it is a well-established area of inquiry with hopeful signs of future development in both basic and applied research. As a subject, tourism fits easily into anthropological concerns as both the disciplines involve humans and their culture. The study of tourism in anthropology has arisen from an anthropological concern with cultural contact and culture change.

Anthropologists began to see the tourist, ‘as an agent of contact between cultures and directly or indirectly the cause of change, particularly in the less developed regions of the world (Nash 1989: 37). In their studies on tourism, anthropologists have tried to define tourism as a form of ‘leisure activity and tourist to be ‘leisured travelers’. With this preliminary understanding, it is now known that tourism is to be seen as a practice and tourists are seen as people who travel to other places where they encounter hosts and such a give-and-take affects the tourists, their hosts, and their home cultures. And also, this touristic activity can become a touristic system as it is embedded in the larger social context (Nash 1981: 462).

The anthropologists initially limited their concerns to the transactions between the tourists and the hosts, studied the cultural contact and its influences, particularly on the host society and this touristic influence had practical implications for host governments and international agencies who were involved in development. But further research revealed that it was this one-sided conclusion seen from a host country’s point of view, tourism was seen to have both good and bad sides. Cohen (1979a: 32) in his report on the impact of tourism on a Thai upland village, initially opined that the influence of tourism on the region was bad for the Thai host, but after the conclusion of his study, he was of the opinion that tourism would not have a destructive impact on the host society in the near future. Using the lens of tourism, anthropologists have asked many questions. 

For example, Nash (1981) has talked of cross-cultural meanings of work and leisure and according to him, tourists might be thought of as people at leisure and tourism as the activities they engage in while in this state. Nunez (1989) studied the dynamics and impacts of intercultural contact between tourists and locals and Mansperger (1995) showed how indigenous societies change as they become integrated into the tourism market. During the 1990s the shift was towards the issues of conserving natural areas and cultural traditions for the benefit of local host communities (Eadington and Smith 1992; Honey 1999; Lindberg 1991). The studies done by anthropologists can be divided conceptually into two halves, one that focuses on understanding the origins of tourism and the other that aims to analyze the impacts of tourism.

The studies are done about the origins of tourism (Adler 1989; Towner and Wall 1991) or why people travel as tourists in the modern era (Mac Cannell 1976) or why some tourists seek particular kinds of destinations or experiences (Cohen 1988) tend to focus on tourists and thus, we lack an understanding of the local host population. On the other side, when we examine the impacts of tourism the work tends to focus more on locals than on tourists leading to partial analysis.

For instance, studies have revealed how communities tend to change in the aftermath of tourism or how local economies tend to become either strengthened from employment opportunities (Mansperger 1995) or made more dependent on tourist dollars (Erisman 1983). Also, how the local traditions and values become meaningless (Greenwood 1977) or more significant (Van den Berghe 1994) once they are commodified in tourism.

While examining the impacts of tourism anthropologists have often written ethnographic accounts of how tourism has affected the host communities. The effects of tourism on the economic and socio-cultural landscapes of the host community have recorded signs like altered human behavior, changes in the infrastructure, employment and economic situation, environmental changes, changes in the built environment, etc. Based on the above-studied aspects let’s try to understand the socio-economic impacts of tourism in the next section.

Do you think that anthropological studies on tourism help us better understand tourism and the tourist? 

Previous Post Next Post