Focus on Responsible Tourism

We greet hundreds of thousands of national and international visitors each year on the west coast of México where I live. For years I have promoted cultural and religious tourism to the State Secretary of Tourism, trying to encourage travelers to get beyond the beer and beaches to experience a bit of the “real Mexico.”

Recently, a colleague in Milan, Maura di Mauro, told me about a special film track she coordinated in May at the SIETAR Europa Congress in Dublin entitled, Focus on Responsible Tourism. She cautioned me about how the culture of Mursi villagers in Ethiopia was changing due to tourism. Thanks to an influx of camera-toting tourists willing to pay for photos, the villagers increasingly exaggerate their traditional practices and even falsely embellish them, to make them more attractive to visitors. She also told me about Chinese tourists descending en masse on a small village in The Netherlands. Many of the Dutch residents welcome the added economic boost such international tourism provides, but there are also downsides to such tourism and, again, changes to the host culture.

Maura got me excited and I can not WAIT to view these two films!

The first documentary Maura told me about is called Framing the Other” by Ilja Kok and Willem Timmers  (25 min, English and Mursi with English subtitles, €445 for the film in an educational package with guide and readings on tourism’s impact).The Mursi tribe lives in the basin of the Omo River in the south of the east African state of Ethiopia. The women are known for placing large plates in their lower lips and wearing enormous, richly decorated earrings. Every year hundreds of Western tourists come to see the unusually adorned natives; posing for camera-toting visitors has become the main source of income for the Mursi. To make more money, they embellish their “costumes” and finery in such a manner that less of their original authentic culture remains. The film contrasts the views of Mursi women and those of Dutch tourists preparing for a meeting. This humorous and at the same time chilling film shows the destructive impact tourism has on traditional communities. The film screening was followed by a Q&A with producer Ilja Kok. A preview follows:

The second film is called Ni Hao Holland: The Chinese are coming” by Willem Timmers (25 min, Mandarin and Dutch with English subtitles, €395 for the film in an educational package with slides and readings on understanding Chinese tourists). This is a documentary about Chinese tourists and their quest for the authentic Dutch experience. Cherry, the main character, has long dreamed of swapping her home city Beijing for the Dutch village Giethoorn. She has heard and read a lot about this mythical place. The day arrives that she and her friend hop on the plane in search of adventure. In the meantime, entrepreneurs from Giethoorn work hard behind the scenes to cater to this “Holland experience.” They want to make the most of the fast-growing flow of Chinese tourists to their village. How is this authenticity created by some and experienced by others? Below is a preview:

Maura also curated a third film for the festival at SIETAR Europa:Holi-days” by Randi Malkin Steinberger (50 min). If you’re interested in tourism and its impact on culture, it looks very worthwhile.
Why do we visit pilgrim’s places, art capitols and tourist’s paradises en masse? Traveling from Jerusalem via Florence to Las Vegas, Steinberger takes the answers to these questions to an increasingly general plane. In Jerusalem (welcoming three million visitors a year) we see tourists visiting the holy places, buying souvenirs, and putting themselves through torments that Jesus Christ once endured. What they are looking for is elucidated in short statements by pilgrims, tour operators, church leaders, guides, scientists, and souvenir vendors. All these opinions put forward a few basic ideas: tourism and commerce overgrow religion, and sacred places and objects give people the feeling that they are part of some higher order. We could look at Florence in the same way, where annually six million tourists drink in the best of Renaissance Art. The street interviews allow the same conclusion as in Jerusalem: people feel dumbfounded and overwhelmed. The countless tourists and the massive trade in souvenirs “have turned the city into a congealed moment in time.” The climax of this film journey is reached in Las Vegas. In this city, 36 million people a year enjoy replicas of famous cities and monuments, cinematic reconstructions of historical moments, spectacular shows, and dazzling gambling palaces. Here, the reality, which people also look for in Jerusalem and Florence, is better and more typical (and even more soulless) than in reality.