book review: asia on tour: exploring the rise of Asian tourism

Recently Steph had an article at Overland, A short history of the dangers of travel writing. This is a part of how she wants to write more about decolonising travel, and you’re going to be seeing more of that here on No Award. Today, a book review: Asia on Tour: Exploring the Rise of Asian Tourism, edited by Tim Winter, Peggy Teo and T.C. Chang.

This is an academic book; however it’s very accessible. Even the chapters that include ethnographic studies and academic definitions are lacking in dense language. Published in 2009 it’s a little old, but as an introduction to talking about Asian tourism in Asia, and post-colonial travel regionally, it’s a great one. It’s also a good introduction to tourism studies in general, if that’s a thing you’ve been vaguely interested in but never tackled before.

Major themes in this book include the construction of identity for tourism (my favourite thing to talk about, as you know), changing power hierarchies regionally and domestically, the rise of the middle class, and the considered contrast of Western versus non-Western tourists.

Peggy Teo’s ‘Knowledge Order in Asia’ talks about power and disposable income, and reading this chapter (the second in the book) was when I knew I needed to own it.

As tourism destroys local features and replaces these by pseudo-landscapes that have a very weak history, life and culture of the people who live or work at the tourism sites, the conflation and contestation of history and memory that arise from the ‘selling’ of heritage have become an important truth.

Yes, amazing. Teo also talks about the role of theme parks as separate, playful pastiche for tourists without impact or knowledge of the real world, but at the same time needing a local identity as a core part of tourism. She cites Tokyo Disney as an example, of local identity worked into international themes.

Another major theme is tourism as a quest for the authentic. In ‘Destination Asia: Rethinking material culture,’ Tim Winter looks at the contrast between kitsch and ‘traditional’ arts, i.e., the ‘primitive’ arts of traditional societies. Tourism is a quest for the authentic, whether domestically or internationally. This chapter was primarily looking at the changing shape of souvenirs – Winter noted that a lack of tourist knowledge about a place changes the shape of tourism in a place, and maybe souvenirs change too. I finished this chapter with a number of questions: who defines kitsch? what does it say that attention is given to ‘ethnic arts’ but not to mass produced content, even if a place that’s being visited (say, for example, China) is a site where mass production is a part of the landscape?

There are several chapters on tourists from the Chinese mainland, both domestically and regionally. Chan Yuk Wah’s chapter, ‘Disorganised Tourism Space: Chinese tourists in an age of Asian tourism’, looks at the ‘impetuous’ fire of 旅游热 (the craze for travel), and defines historical Chinese tourists (in tour groups, per 改革开放) into two categories: Duckling tours, where they are led about, and Piggies, where they are cheated like pigs. There’s a changing attitude towards terms: ‘旅客’ is derogatory in some ways, as it implies a tour group, but there has been a move into the ‘free walk’, where mainland Chinese aren’t restricted by the tour group construct. In contrast is Francis Khek Gee Lim’s chapter ‘Donkey Friends’ in China: the internet, civil society and the emergence of the Chinese backpacking community’ and Robert Shepherd’s chapter,‘Cultural Preservation, Tourism, and ‘Donkey Travel’ on China’s Frontier’.

These chapters both look in-depth at the ‘free walk’ tourist, who, in contrast to the piggies and ducklings, is more likely to be highly educated, urban-based, and upwardly mobile. They might be backpackers, who are a recent phenomenon in China, and have been greatly aided by the internet. Lim notes that Chinese backpackers stress core values and behavioural codes (versus Western backpackers, who don’t have these websites stressing these codes), and their traveling is about continuous activities and movement – this might be challenging, like hiking, or pleasurable, like restaurants. They also search for folkways, which their urban areas have lost.

Lim suggests that these forums and social mores have come about in large part due to the changes and developments in civil society. Shepherd’s chapter complements that, suggesting that travel is a breakdown of the control of space. However his reflection emphasises more the idea that this tourism, whilst changing the control of space, is still a part of an acceptable narrative, with cultural heritage programs that are political or inform the national discourse. (Pal Nyiri in ‘Between encouragement and control: tourism, modernity and discipline in China’ talks about tourism as ‘indoctritainment’: “The Chinese state – as many others over the course of history – sees the correctly framed consumption of places as an instrument of strengthening national consciousness.”)

Such a thing isn’t exclusive to China. Singapore also engages in this sort of narrative. In ‘Singapore’s Postcolonial Landscape: boutique hotels as agents’, Teo and Chang highlight “[p]ast indignities of life in dilapidated shophouses are transformed into present-day heritage, and marketed as ‘one of a kind’ experience to the postcolonial visitor.” They suggest that the role of boutique hotels is in creating a heritage for overseas Singaporeans to return to and visit as reconstituted identity. This chapter also engaged in some fantastic shade of Western tourists: “When we planned the hotel…we chose something that is backward [sic: read ‘old’]. Most of the hotels they are modernised [but w]e choose Peranakan type of design, something that is unique. It takes us a bit of time to go and hunt down all those old wardrobes, those old…everything [which] Caucasians like it very much.]” There’s also this moment where they suggest that nostalgia-seeking Westerners find appeal in iconic buildings (i.e. Raffles) because tangible pasts and spectacles to be consumed which is such a sick burn on Western tourists in ex-colonies.

Other sick burns on Western tourists include Olivier Everard and Prasit Leepreecha in ‘Staging the Nation, Exploring the Margins: domestic tourism and its political implications in northern Thailand’, who talk about how foreigners are preoccupied with the search for authenticity – it’s implied that it’s in contrast to domestic and regional tourists who aren’t necessarily. In fact, Nyiri states that Chinese tourists often want to see the development behind the scenes, even in scenic spots, unlike Western tourists who want the authenticity and don’t want to see the sausage made.

Of course the consumption of national identity isn’t uncritical. Jamie Gillen, ‘Disruptions of a dialectic and a stereotypical response: the case of the Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, tourism industry’, highlights domestic Vietnamese tourism, and the ways in which Vietnamese tourists don’t like the construction of Ho Chi Minh City’s tourism because it’s about denying the Vietnamese Communist Party’s terribleness and being a mouthpiece for the VCP idealogical program. so players in tourism in HCMC don’t cater for domestic tourists because they don’t have the characteristics of tourists that they like.

Several authors mention the disregard of local tourism in Asian countries by tourism and government bodies. Maribeth Erb in ‘Tourism as Glitter: re-examining domestic tourism in Indonesia’ talks about this in more detail. Asian countries often ignore domestic tourism trends, but domestic tourists are more interested in reaffirming their national and smaller group identities vs Western tourists who try to discover and distinguish themselves as individuals in travel. As a result there can be a mismatch between domestic and international tourism and expectations of same. Domestic tourism is less subject to instability (such as political, national disasters, etc), which can scare away international tourists, but often these domestic tourists aren’t factored into tourism campaigns.

Okay I’m already at a thousand words but this book is so good, okay? I read it at the National Library of Singapore but I am trying to justify the expense of buying a copy for myself so I can annotate it forever. Denise Spitzer looks at ‘Ayurvedic tourism in Kerala: local identities and global markets’, noting that colonial powers pushed out Ayurvedic methods, and now there’s an effort being made to bring that back. Questions this raises: does it become a way of distancing from the colonial? Does this become a different form of ‘trade to find yourself’?

In a similar vein, K Thirumaran writes ‘Affinity Tourism: a case study of Indian tourists in Bali’, of the cultivation of a middle class interested in traveling from India to Bali in a form of religious travel. The rise of Hindu nationalism has contributed to this. If white people travel to find themselves, what do Hindus traveling to Bali do? This is a great example of traveling for cultural similarity – as opposed to cultural difference, which is usual for ‘exotic’ destinations. Thirumaran suggests that it’s a travel that creates, strengthens and recognises bonds, and that many Indian travelers to Bali are interested in creating exchange and connection with, for example, Balinese dancers.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no consumption of difference. Graburn in ‘Openings and Limits: domestic tourism in Japan’ talks about the consumption of foreignness, even domestically, specifically sighting the use of ‘Chinatown’ and minority groups in domestic Japanese tourism. Joyce Hsiu-yen Yeh in ‘Still Vision and Mobile Youth: tourist photos, travel narratives and Taiwanese modernity’, looks at the role of travel to assert identity, and in emphasising difference between Taiwanese and other Asian peoples, especially mainland Chinese.

Jenny Chio in ‘The Internal Expansion of China: tourism and the production of distance’ talks about the problem of sameness – if there are seven villages of Miao in an area, why would tourists go to all seven? By necessity, Chio postulates, tourism requires an ‘other’.

In summary, this is an interesting book. There’s heaps of stuff I haven’t mentioned, my notes were very comprehensive and for post-colonial travel writers it is essential reading. I want an updated version. Four and a half totally authentic kitsch souvenirs out of five.

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