The notion of authenticity is closely linked to the commodification of the culture of the host society and has been much in debate in tourism studies. While on one hand it is argued that tourism promotes authentic experiences, it is also pointed out that it commodifies cultural assets into consumable goods that can be marketed as authentic. For instance, local cultural items that are visible through costumes, folk and ethnic art and jewellery are often made specifically for tourist consumption and are often distant from the original item that is in actual use.

In this way, many of these manufactured items lose their original meaning and are modified to suit the tastes of the tourists. The product might then lose its authentic value and utility in the indigenous culture and emerge as a mere showpiece. For example, the headgear of the Bison Horn Maria is still projected as their identity and something of great cultural value.

The reality on the other hand is that the symbolic value of prestige and honour projected by this headgear is meaningless to the now marginalised and dispossessed Maria Gonds, who mostly eke out their living as wage labourers and sweepers. The pride of identity embodied in their headgear is lost. Yet they are forced to wear them to perform dances that have lost their meaning with the loss of their livelihood and environment. This indicates that under the impact of forces of capitalist development and market forces the arts and crafts of many indigenous people have changed in style and form and also the purpose for which they were produced. 

Artefacts formerly produced for religious or ceremonial purposes are now produced for sale. The religious rituals and ceremonies themselves have lost their actual significance with the destruction of many lifeways.

While studying the relationship between tourism and culture, social scientists have attended to a few points:

  • It is argued that tourism can kindle a revival of local interest in their traditional cultural art forms thus providing locals that is the host giving it access to material benefits but;
  • It is warned that due to tourist demands the aesthetic quality of cultural products and traditions is lost thereby leading to cultural commodification.
  • With the destruction and transformation of original cultures, some of these cultural traits only remain as meaningless commodities, being produced and exhibited only for the benefit of outsiders.

However, not all effects of tourism on local cultures are negative. At times tourism and monetary incentives genuinely serve to revive or maintain some local traditions, skills and crafts. In India, the revival of local crafts and handloom products owes much to the market forces and the interest of outsiders including tourists, in this product.

Revival of traditional art forms- Graburn's (1976) study on the Eastern Canadian Inuit is an example of the positive effect of tourism on the arts and crafts of the host society. There have been refinements in the art forms of the Inuit and new ideas have been incorporated by the host community, the positive symbolic value of the product is maintained and trained craftsmen from the local community are engaged to make the products thus ensuring their originality. However, it is not always that the art and craft follow their original symbolic and cultural values. The tourist demand for souvenirs is an example where the products are solely made for profit by the host producer.

We can also take as an example, the demand for Indian handicrafts made by the wide variety of local communities in the country. The state has taken an active interest in the revival and marketing of indigenous handicrafts and many state emporiums and also specialised markets have been created for that purpose. Artisans, craftsmen and small entrepreneurs are encouraged to produce, develop and market products which are special to their region. 

Works on wood, brass, terracotta, and embroidery have survived through centuries in India and are in great demand in foreign countries. Each region of India uses local materials for making a variety of goods, like bamboo in the N-E region, brass in the South and terracotta in the Eastern regions. The government through various ministries promotes the development of these traditional handicrafts which helps in the survival and recognition of both the art and the artisan. However, not all of the material so produced is authentic.

The deterioration of traditional art forms- Graburn’s book, Ethnic and Tourist Arts: Cultural Expressions from the Fourth World (1976) is one of the earliest books on the study of the commercialisation of cultural traditions. Graburn and later Cohen have argued that tourism has accelerated the promotion of pseudotraditional arts. There have been studies that have portrayed a less positive picture and have shown that though tourism provided a market and helped to preserve the traditional art forms, it has also encouraged the production of pseudotraditional art forms which is also called the ‘airport art’. Much of the airport art is mass produced often by people with little knowledge of the traditional culture who may not be members of the society whose art they purport to portray (May 1977: 125). Although May’s viewpoint is extreme, it highlights the demands of tourists for cheap and exotic souvenirs.

It is argued that changes have occurred in the meaning of art and its social or spiritual significance. There are changes in the size, form, quality and material used in the production of the art forms which are often manufactured according to the tastes of tourists. For instance, Bascom (1976: 314) while studying African art showed that wooden masks produced by Zambian indigenes have lost their spiritual or inspiring value and it is produced to match tourists’ tastes. Arts that are culminations of the craftsman’s values, experience and meaning of life are sold as ‘native symbols of identity’ (Mac Kenzie 1977: 83).

But even these have lost their meaning and the old messages they earlier used to portray. Moreover, the tourist purchases are mostly fuelled by a desire to possess a piece of culture that they have visited, rather than any sincere interest in local culture, traditions or beliefs (Mathieson and Wall 1982:165-9). Seeing the demand for art products there is generally an increased production which not only leads to mass production and commercialisation of the (pseudo) art forms but also an increased role of middlemen. These middlemen act as intermediaries between the producers and the consumers where there is little or no tourist-host interaction.

This trend of mass commercialisation and the increased role of middlemen has been described by Evans (1994) in his paper,’ Fair Trade: Cultural Tourism and Craft Production in the Third World. This mass production of the ‘authentic replicas’ (Evans, 1994) or ‘tourist art’ (Graburn, 1976) are imitations of traditional materials and techniques; may be produced in factories in large quantities and marketed for tourist consumption in the local markets or even exported to foreign countries. Baum (2013) see these souvenirs as ‘glocal’ products. i.e. products that are simultaneously local and global. Apart from the artefacts, other elements of the culture such as dance, music, and special ceremonies/functions are also promoted as a commodity. Romanticised images of the destination areas, their dances and ceremonies are portrayed by marketers and these symbols are evident in travel brochures and advertisements as promotional literature to attract potential tourists.

Even heritage sites and monuments/ buildings are viewed as tourist commodities. In this way, the cultural assets of the host community are converted into consumable products. Traditional ceremonies, dances, customs and festivals thus acquire a new status and are transformed into entertainment sites or rituals and gradually become the characteristic feature of the tourist destinations. For instance, the traditional Kathputali dance or the way the local dancers greet us when we enter any hotel or resort in Rajasthan. The guests are greeted in the traditional way by putting Kumkum tika on their forehead at the main entrance of the hotel. The welcome/traditional songs which might be sung by local people on special occasions are now sung in hotel lobbies to greet the guests.

This depiction of the local culture and local people is very much visible in the tourist resorts and hotels but torn out of context and projected as fragments of culture. Another instance of the commodification of culture and cultural elements has been portrayed in the study of a Spanish public ritual by Greenwood (1977:174). The Award is a public ritual festival which commemorates Spain’s victory over the French in 1638.

The festival signifies solidarity and unity and the townspeople use to participate in the ceremony. The rapid rise in Spanish tourism and the timing of the A large during the peak tourist season led to the collapse of the cultural meanings of the ritual. The private ceremony of the town has become a public attraction through government and commercial promotion. Therefore, it is quite possible that the cultural forms lose their traditional meaning when they are modified for tourist consumption and further lead to staged displays or contrived experiences to attract tourists.

The staging of cultural attractions may have both positive and negative consequences. The staged attractions may help to preserve the culture, enhance the pride of the local community in their unique traditions and might also lead to increased awareness about the preservation of culture among the younger generation. Or there might be negative consequences such as manipulation of the traditions and customs to enhance the tourist’s experience. The staged displays like the traditional dances or certain rituals/ performances are superficial and may just be for economic gain both by the local and the tourist marketers.

Although such contrived experiences may usually be an honest attempt to portray local culture they may dilute the local cultural qualities from their real meaningful contexts. In the next section with the help of case studies, we would try to understand, how at different levels commodification of culture happens in the host site for the benefit of tourists.

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