Tourism and Reality in Southeast Asia
by Vago Damitio
While watching the food channel the other day, I came across a disturbing thing. Initially, what caught my attention was a bald man in a southern China marketplace looking at the various foods being offered on a street vendor’s barbecue cart. I wasn’t disturbed by this, it was what made me pause from my neurotic channel surfing.
Several years ago, I had been in southern China and had eaten from many similar carts. The hardest part of eating from the carts was deciphering what the individual items were. My traveling companion at the time was shocked to realize that these were all meats from familiar animals, they just weren’t the parts that we were used to seeing cooked.
The man on television was pointing out the same thing. On the cart were chicken heads and feet, dog tails, cow eyes, and other Chinese delicacies. I wasn’t shocked by the foods, I was shocked by the manner in which the fat, bald, white, narrator was presenting cultures that I had both enjoyed and admired. The show was called something like “The Disgusting Foods of Southeast Asia” and while I’m sure that there was pork somewhere on the cart, the most obvious pig was the host of the show.
The point of all of this is not that the reality he was portraying was not the reality that I had experienced. While there are many foods that are disturbing to the Western palette in Southeast Asia, he was painting a picture that was far less real and more dramatic. In this case, one can suppose that his purpose was to promote his show and probably a book. Maybe he even has a business taking tourists to exotic places to eat exotic things. A tourist business. The point is that tourist businesses and tourism itself in Southeast Asia thrive on creating a perception of certain things that is not always an accurate rendition of the way things are.
Tourism has become a huge part of the economies of Southeast Asian countries. When one considers that the technological, environmental, infrastructural, and human aspects of tourism are generally much easier to meet than other revenue generators, it is easy to see why (Hitchcock 1993. 17). It is also easy to understand why it might be in the best interest of Southeast Asian nations to portray things in a way that will encourage tourism, even if the things they portray are not, strictly speaking, the way things really are.
Consider the various ways that Vietnam has packaged itself in order to appeal to international tourists. The image it projects to Australian backpackers is one of remote undiscovered beauty and the image it projects to American Vietnam veterans is that of finding resolution in memory. Neither of these images are anything like reality for the people that live there. Vietnam is balancing its domestic needs with the needs of international tourist perceptions (Biles 1999. 227). It is not the only country in Southeast Asia doing so.
Malaysia is also a country that differs quite a bit from the tourism image it projects. Malaysia is a country that is home to a large, conservative Muslim population. While it is important to project an alluring image to the world in order to encourage international tourism, it is essential for internal stability that Malaysia does not do so to such an extent that Muslims are offended. Tourism propaganda aimed at Western audiences has little to say about the conservative mores of Islamic Malaysians and instead tend to focus on exotic dance, Indian curries, and luxury hotels (King 1993. 113). Perhaps a future campaign for Malaysia and Indonesia could be “Visit the Friendly Muslims”.
Tourist dollars and national image in Southeast Asia are becoming more intertwined as tourism continues to boom across the region. This raises some interesting questions about the image projected and the reality as it exists. For instance, is the current reality of Southeast Asian society being molded by the perceptions created to draw tourists or create a specific national image? Singapore may be a good example of this. In Singapore, history, cultural forms, and heritage have been virtually erased in order to create a cohesive national image (Leong 1997. 80). In the process, Singapore has redefined itself and its citizens in a new, clean, and modern package to the world and to it’s citizens.
Of course, this kind of image creation can create internal problems. In Sulawesi, the efforts of the Indonesian government to draw tourists led to what can almost be described as the ‘branding’ of the Toraja culture on the island. Other minority groups had to adopt Torajan cultural practices in order to draw the economic advantages of the increased tourism. This has led to increased ethnic conflicts between the Toraja and some of their Sulawesi rivals (Adams 1997. 174). The promotions worked, but they had some unforeseen consequences.
On the whole, it would seem that tourism has been beneficial to Southeast Asian nations. In Bali, visitors seeking an exotic experience have created entire industries that thrive with individualism, revitalization of culture, and economic advantages (Geriya 2003). While the dangers of altering reality to fit with preconceived notions of what tourist’s want can be seen in the examples above, the benefits to the societies that foster responsible tourism can be immense. One can only hope that no governments stoop so low, however, as to promote themselves as the places where people eat things that make idiotic white guys on the television go “Ewwww!”
Adams, Kathleen M. 1997. Touting Touristic “Primadonnas”: Tourism, Ethnicity, and National Integration in Sulawesi, Indonesia. In Tourism, Ethnicity, and the State in Asian and Pacific Societies, edited by M. Picard and R. E. Wood. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press.
Biles, Annabel, Kate Lloyd, and William S. Logan. 1999. Romancing Vietnam: The Formation and Function of Tourist Images of Vietnam. In Converging Interests: Traders, Travelers, and Tourists in Southeast Asia, edited by J. Forshee, C. Fink and S. Cate. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Geriya, Wayan I. 2003. The Impact of Tourism in Three Tourist Villages in Bali. In Globalization in Southeast Asia: Local, National and Transnational Perspectives, edited by S. Yamashita and J. S. Eades. New York: Berghahn Books.
Hitchcock, Michael, Victor T. King, and Michael J. G. Parnwell. 1993. Tourism in South-East Asia: Introduction. In Tourism in South-East Asia, edited by M. Hitchcock, V. T. King and M. J. G. Parnwell. London: Routledge.
King, Victor T. 1993. Tourism and Culture in Malaysia. In Tourism in South-East Asia,
edited by M. Hitchcock, V. T. King and M. J. G. Parnwell. London: Routledge.
Leong, Laurence Wai-Teng. 1997. Commodifying Ethnicity: State and Ethnic Tourism in Singapore. In Tourism, Ethnicity, and the State in Asian and Pacific Societies, edited by M. Picard and R. E. Wood. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press.