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Literature review

This literature review is written by Claire Bougot as part of her NHTV Master in Tourism Destination Management.

The issues ofauthenticity in relation to the commodification of culture are present in many sectors of the tourism industry (e.g. heritage tourism, ethnic tourism) and are relevant to most destinations worldwide, in the developing as well as the Western world (Chhabra et al., 2003; Gjerald, 2005; McIntosh and Prentice, 1999; Silver, 1993; Van den Berghe, 1995). This review will however focus on developing world destinations in order to highlight the power imbalance created by western defined criteria of authenticity in tourism and its subsequent staging. Since cross-cultural encounters have been designated as one of the drivers of the commodification of culture in host societies (Shepherd, 2002),the global context in which such encounters take place highlights the relevance of the debate on authenticity for tourism studies. Indeed, many host-guest encounters occur as a result of the tourists’ quest for authenticity as described by MacCannell (1973). Many authors have contributed to the debate on authenticity and the commodification of culture in the academic literature since MacCannell’s (1973) work. The debate starts around the definition of authenticity, a wide and complex concept used by academic writers with different meanings. This review will start by clarifying some of the uses of the term in the academic literature with regard to object, staged and emergent authenticity, but will be centredon the concept of the quest for authenticity. Once the concepts of authenticity used in this context have been clarified, the review will move on to consider the positive and negative impacts of culture commodification and staging authenticity, as well as the use of staged authenticity as a resistance tool by host communities. It will attempt to highlight the shortcomings of the literature in considering the impacts of culture commodification on locals existing outside the tourism industry and the need to update the debate on authenticity and culture commodification in the light of new tourism trends such as poverty tourism. The review will focus mainly on the perspective of the host (including both locals existing within and outside the tourism industry) to consider these impacts.

This review centres the debate regarding authenticity and commodification on culture. It is therefore important to define what is meant here by the term ‘culture’. Culture will include both the ‘arts’ perspective namely “performances of theatre, dance or music and displays of fine art, and other expressions of culture” (George and Reid, 2005:89), as well as Meethan’s (2003:13) definition of culture “in a more holistic sense to a ‘way of life’”.

The issue of authenticity in tourism starts with the tourist quest for authenticity as claimed by MacCannell. Because tourists are concerned with the shallowness and inauthenticity of their everyday lives, tourism becomes a quest for authenticity, to be found in primitive societies (MacCannell, 1973).Handler (1986:2, as cited in McIntosh and Prentice, 1999) describes the quest for authentic cultural experiences as a search for “the unspoiled, pristine, genuine, untouched and traditional”.Connell (2007) also echoes MacCannell’s view and emphasises the ‘otherness’ and exoticism sought by tourists in primitive societies as part of this quest, which is grounded in the belief that western societies have lost this authenticity. Authenticity can however be found in many forms, in objects / events or in tourist experiences.

One of the angles from which the concept of authenticity can be considered relates to object authenticity, which Steiner and Reisinger (2006:299) define as “the genuineness of artifacts or events”. Object authenticity appears as a simple concept in which the real has to be distinguished from the false. It is however a subjective attribute, as the criteria for authenticity are set by tourists (Connell, 2007; Fesenmaier and MacKay, 1996; Steiner and Reisinger, 2006) from a western perspective in this context. Cole (2007) notes that the same western or ‘euro-centric’ perspective has been used in most academic studies on authenticity and cultural commodification. Since most tourism promotion portrays hosts and culture in developing countries in a post colonialist light as static and unchanged in order to maintain a power imbalance between hosts and guests (Echtner, 2002; Echtner and Prasad, 2003), modernity and change in indigenous societies are often considered as inauthentic (Connell, 2007; Green, 2002; MacCannell, 1999 in Olsen, 2002; Silver, 1993; Wang, 1999).

In order to fulfil those western criteria, host populations often resort to staging authenticity. Modernity is excluded from staged performances (Connell, 2007) to fulfil the tourist’s quest. Staged authenticity can be seen as inherently inauthentic, in the sense that the objects [also referring to cultural performances] lack the genuineness characteristic of object authenticity. However, this is not always the case. First, as authenticity is a subjective concept, its staging cannot always be recognised by tourists (Connell, 2007). In this case, the staged event / product can therefore still fulfil the tourist’s quest, as the authenticity of experience is not necessarily linked to object authenticity (Fesenmaier and MacKay, 1996).Additionally, Cohen suggests the concept of emergent authenticity, whereby “…a cultural product, or a trait thereof, which is at one point generally judged as contrived or inauthentic may, in the course of time, become generally recognized as authentic, even by experts” (Cohen, 1988:379), demonstrating that authenticity is not indeed static, but evolves in response to changing circumstances (Steiner and Reisinger, 2006).

In most cases, culture is staged to satisfy tourists in order to create an income for host populations. It is therefore commodified. Cohen (1988:380) defined the process of commodification (or commoditization) as the “process by which things (and activities) come to be evaluated primarily in terms of their exchange value, in a context of trade, thereby becoming goods (and services)”. This process of culture commodification is not without consequences, which have been repeatedly discussed in the academic literature (Cohen, 1988; Cole, 2007; Edensor, 2001; Fesenmaier and MacKay, 1996; George and Reid, 2005; Green, 2002; Medina, 2003; Steiner and Reisinger, 2006).The question of ethics in the search for authenticity can therefore be raised. In the words of MacCannell (2011:10), “authenticity as a substitute for ethics can be regarded with suspicion that it is either intentionally or unwittingly unethical “. Since the criteria of [object] authenticity are imposed by western perspectives, the ethical nature of such a quest can be questioned with regards to thepower imbalance involved, particularly when the impacts of staging authenticity and culture commodification are considered.

Extensive academic literature exists on the impacts of staging authenticity on tourist satisfaction (Connell, 2007; Pearce and Moscardo, 1986; Wang, 1999). However this review is primarily concerned with the impacts on host populations.Various positive impacts of culture commodification on hosts in tourism destinations have been noted by academics (Cohen, 1988; Cole, 2007; Edensor, 2001; Green, 2002; Medina, 2003). One of those impacts relates to the preservation of host cultures and traditions. By giving them an economic value, commodifying cultures motivates locals to revive, preserve and reconfirm belief in tradition for future generations (Cohen, 1988; Cole, 2007; Edensor, 2001; Medina, 2003). In that sense, commodifying culture does not destroy it, but simply changes it overtime (Cohen, 1988). The benefits of commodifying cultures has also been acknowledged beyond its economic aspect and considered for its power to generate pride for locals. Cole (2007) argues that tourism works as an authenticating agent generating a sense of self pride and identity for locals in marginalised primitive societies that have been labelled as isolated and backwards by their own society and government, while Green (2002) argues the worth of tourism to generate pride in host societies at a national level. Bruner (1991) also argues the sense of self hosts can gain through tourism, by displaying a culture they are proud of to the western world. However, Bianchini (1993, as cited in Steiner and Reisinger, 2006) argues that there are tensions between the use of culture for economic purposes and community identity expression in tourism settings. Such tensions mainly lie in the limits host populations put on what can be staged and commodified. Cole (2007) found that some host populations disagree with the idea of staging sacred, religious rituals for tourists, whilst staging other cultural performances such as dance displays is acceptable.

The literature also deals with the use of staged authenticity as a resistance tool used by locals in an attempt to limit the negative impacts of culture commodification and re-establish some balance in host guest-power relationships. This happens by staging what Goffman (1959, in MacCannell, 1973) has described as front regions [in which hosts and tourists meet] in order to make them appear as back regions [where tourists are normally not present], thereby protecting the true back regions from tourists.Some host communities use staged authenticity to prevent direct contact with outsiders (Buck, 1978 as cited in Pearce and Moscardo, 1986),since they see tourists as shallow and therefore not truly seeking authenticity (Maoz, 2006). In such societies, the possibility that a stranger might enter a back region is a source of concern (MacCannell, 1973). Connell (2007) indeed explains that the inauthentic nature of staged performances can be perceived by tourists, who will then attempt to enter the back regions of the destination to fulfil their quest for authenticity. Lau (2010) exposes MacCannell’s (1975:21) argument that hosts “who live their lives totally exposed to their relevant others” do not need to question the authenticity of their lives, as the very survival of their society demonstrates the victory of real over false (MacCannell, 1973). However, MacCannell’s argument does not take into account the western definition of authenticity imposed on developing countries destinations, whereby exposing locals’ lives also involves exposing levels of modernity and industrialisation which tourists do not associate with authenticity, pushing hosts to adapt their culture to western expectations. This issue is raised by Fesenmaier and MacKay (1996) who explain that locals often have to live a lie generated by false realities created by western societies, and thereby see their culture robbed of its authenticity. Boorstin (1961, 1964, as cited in Steiner and Reisinger, 2006) argues that hosts cannot be authentic since they must conform to tourist expectations, and see their culture distorted. Eventually, host society structures are changed as a result from the corrosive effect of culture commodification, and the traditional culture may even die and be reborn in the form of a new culture created based on the [western defined] icons of the traditional one (George and Reid, 2005).

Although the academic literature surrounding the topics of authenticity and culture commodification is broad, some considerations have been given insufficient attention. As previously stated, it widely considers how change and development (in the sense of modernity and industrialisation) in host societies can affect the success and attractiveness of the tourism product in developing countries. It also examines the extent to which tourism hinders the potential for host societies to develop and modernise themselves, but it frequentlymerely takes into account the participants in the tourism industry. MacCannell (1973) quotes Goffman (1959:590) to categorise the people who need to be considered when examining staged authenticity and culture commodification in tourism, namely: “those who perform; those performed to; and outsiders who neither perform in the show nor observe it”. The impacts of staging and commodifying culture on the latter category’s potential to develop and modernise their societyis often overlooked, although the locals existing outside of the tourism industry are also affected by the myths and stereotypes of primitivism associated with such processes.

Furthermore, the change and damage to rituals and traditions in host societies areaffecting the tourist’s quest for authenticity itself. According to MacCannell (1999, as cited in Olsen, 2002), this quest is bound to fail because the tourist, by his/her mere presence into authentic back regions, destroys what he/she was looking for (the authenticity of the object he/she has come to see). Nevertheless, tourists are still on this quest for authenticity, but the (western) criteria defining it have changed since the origins of the academic discussion on authenticity. For some time, as explained by Silver (1993), the representation of developing countries was based on escapism and obscured the inherent realities of these destinations such as levels of industrialisation and poverty, based on the principle that “one cannot sell poverty” (Mowforth and Munt, 1998:146). However, the debate on authenticity must be reconsidered in the light of relatively new forms of tourism such as ‘poverty tourism’ (comprising of slum, favela and township tourism), a trend that emerged in the 1990s (Meschkank, 2011). Poverty has only been recently recognised as part of the tourist quest for authenticity. Poverty tourists indeed seeks to explore the less visited parts, or back regions of the developing world (Mowforth and Munt, 1998). Additionally, slums, favelas and townships are relevant to the definition of object authenticity as they represent the real, genuine life of the destination. Meschkank(2011) has indeed revealed that the quest for authenticity constitutes a central motivation for poverty tourism, and concludes that authenticity and poverty are closely related. The debate on authenticity and culture commodification needs to evolve in the light of new trends such as poverty tourism.In this type of tourism, the traditional balance between positive and negative impacts of culture commodification can potentially change quite drastically. Although the economic benefits for the hosts can be debatedas poverty is then commodified, the generation of pride and (positive) self-identity is less inherent to poverty tourism than cultural or ethnic tourism. Moreover, the staging of authenticity is not relevant to poverty tourism (poverty is not staged), it cannot be used by locals as a resistance tools in a similar way to other types of tourism (cultural, ethnic). The impacts on hosts and the ethical implications of such new trends in tourism therefore need to be considered in the academic debate on culture commodification, as tourists move away from rituals and traditions to explore the back regions of the host’s living conditions to satisfy their quest for authenticity.


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