By Dean MacCannell

As tourism becomes the central drive, the unifying trait, in urban and regional development, it transforms itself and the world around it in ways that undermine and subvert the original motive for cultural travel—and even the original basis for culture. Accordingly, we must question every idea we have about cultural tourism and its effects. We must especially question belief in the continued beneficial effect of tourism on cultural and other conservation efforts.

It has been assumed by many that tourists—hungry to see historically significant architecture, pristine nature, or authentic native ceremonies, rituals, and dances—will automatically contribute money and rationale to the preservation of historical and cultural artifacts, endangered cultural expression, and ecologically fragile natural environments. This notion is wrapped in sufficient common sense that it easily can be taken for granted. Recently, however, it has been subject to authoritative criticism. One of the strongest intellects in tourism studies, Marie-François Lanfant, comments:

The discovery of heritage, by procedures such as restoration, reconstitution, and reinvestment with affect, in some sense breaks the very chain of significance which first invested it with authenticity, in that on subsequent occasions it is retouched and elevated to a new status. The object of heritage is reconstructed through this process of marking, and thereby it certifies the identity of a place for the benefit of anonymous visitors. Tradition, memory, heritage: these are not stable realities. It is as if the tourists have been invited to take part in a fantastic movement in which . . . collective memory is constructed through the circulation of tourists.

Architectural critic Michael Sorkin has commented along the same lines:

Today, the profession of urban design is almost wholly preoccupied with reproduction, with the creation of urbane disguises. Whether in its master incarnation at the ersatz Main Street of Disneyland, in the phony historic festivity of a Rouse marketplace, or the gentrified architecture of the Lower East Side, this elaborate apparatus is at pains to assert its ties to the kind of city life it is in the process of obliterating. Here is urban renewal with a sinister twist, an architecture of deception which, in its happy-face familiarity, constantly distances itself from the most fundamental realities.

Several years ago, I was involved in a film project that provided detailed documentation of the contradiction at the heart of cultural tourism. It was the case of Torremolinos, Spain, presented in segment three of the BBC miniseries The Tourist (directed by Mary Dickson and Christopher Bruce). Over the past fifty years, Torremolinos, on the Costa del Sol, changed from a mere place to a tourist destination. Its transformation is characteristic of places where the local and the global are linked through tourism.

Torremolinos, initially a place of work—the beach where small fishing boats were hauled out, nets repaired, today's successes and failures discussed, and tomorrow's activities planned—was reframed as a potential "work display" for tourists. The original tourists were to be German workers rewarded by Hitler's "Strength through Joy" program. The entire scene was to become an object of touristic consumption, an example of "the picturesque" with a message: traditional work is "natural," is "beautiful," is "picturesque." In the actual course of history, Torremolinos did not become a "Strength through Joy" program destination. Instead, as often happens, some famous people, or "beautiful people," members of the international elite leisure class, "discovered" "unspoiled" Torremolinos. After initial contact with the wealthy pretourists, it was no longer necessary for any fishing or associated activities to take place, as long as some of the boats, nets, and fishermen remained photogenically arrayed as a reminder of their former purpose. Eventually the picturesque elements were selectively integrated into the decor of the beach bars and discos, which today still retain a traditional fishing village theme. Thus work was transformed into entertainment for others.

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During the 1960s and 1970s, Torremolinos overreached as it reproduced itself and the markers of its heritage. Planned for German tourists and now overdeveloped, the place caters to "cheap and cheerful" packaged tours for British working-class vacationers who want the Spanish sand, sun, sea, and tokens of its former culture—without giving up their beer and chips, the enjoyments of home. Torremolinos has become a mélange of markers of Spanish fishing village traditions, working-class fantasies of jet set luxury, and Spanish versions of British fish and chips cuisine. The Spanish fishermen, or their children, are now integrated into the global economy as service workers for transnational tourists.

Elsewhere I have commented that it is harrowing to suggest that this kind of transformation is the creative cutting edge of world culture in the making. But such a suggestion seems inevitable, in that everywhere we look, local practices and traditions are hollowed out to make a place for the culture of tourism. This is happening even, or especially, in those places where the tourists originally came because they were attracted by the local culture, heritage, and traditions. And, as SorkinÔs comment makes clear, this type of transformation is by no means restricted to development for tourism that occurs at the edges of the global economy. It also happens in New York and in Orange County, California.

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It is evident that we cannot continue to study cultural tourism while holding on to empiricist assumptions that culture is somehow prior to and separate from tourism and tourists. Development for tourism has become the primary engine driving the growth of a new kind of metastatic anticulture that rapidly reproduces and replaces the culture that we once believed tourists were coming to see. This is evident on a small scale in new museum practices that substitute the display of artifacts with electronic entertainments featuring images of the artifacts as game characters. It is evident on a larger scale in the casino copies of older cultural destinations—The Paris Experience, New York, San Francisco, Luxor, Venice, Bellagio—as Las Vegas positions itself to become the symbolic capital of the 21st century. It is also evident in urban and regional redevelopment plans everywhere, in education, and in other cultural programming—all of which are becoming variations on a theme park. While this may be the only game in town economically, it is not a very human thing. It marks a moment when the people, via treachery or other means, have been made to give up on themselves as consumers of their own heritage, believing they must accept cultural assembly line work, making reproductions of their heritage and culture for anonymous others.

Is it possible to begin to undo the damage to culture that is being wrought by cultural tourism? Probably not by turning back the tide of tourists, though certainly some will adopt this strategy. Nor can one critic, curator, or conservator acting alone shift the current direction of cultural tourism. The thing is simply too big. What is needed are: (1) development of strong cultural theory, (2) education programs that create deeper understanding of the function and value of cultural heritage, and (3) reinvention of the museum, restored heritage site, monument, memorial, and every other representation of heritage, tradition, and collective memory. Let me suggest some general principles that might guide the development of such a program and indicate my willingness to work with others who share the same goal.

Minimally, tourist destinations should ethically demand that their visitors become implicated in an authentic reengagement with cultural heritage conceived as a gift that everyone can possess equally but no one can own. It is impossible to overestimate the difficulty of this demand, because the drive to distance ourselves from our own humanity is so strong. This drive is precisely what makes the obliteration of culture by cultural tourism and commercial tourism development so easy. To counter it, critics and curators must be honest about the origin and essence of cultural gifts. Cultural gifts are things passed on to the living by the dead and by their most creative contemporaries: useful and other objects, practical and high arts, and formulas for conduct, music, dance, poetry, and narrative. But what exactly is exchanged if no one can actually own them? The gifts are not the objects themselves but their symbolic meaning.

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Does symbolic meaning involve reverential awe or a gee-whiz factor? Perhaps a little—but this should not be overdone. Appreciation of cultural heritage should never be predicated only on the emotional impact of virtuoso cultural display. This approach leads immediately to the commercialization of nostalgia, sentimentality, and the kind of tourism development that buries culture and heritage. It is only when cultural heritage is received with a specific kind of attitude of respect and admiration that the grounds are established for symbolic exchange. What needs to be cultivated in tourists is respect for the gap between themselves and those who created their cultural heritage, a gap that can be narrowed but never completely closed. They must attempt to grasp the signification of cultural material for those who created it in the first place, knowing that they will never be able to understand it completely.

Stories can be retold, and the reteller can remember the circumstances of first hearing the story, and even the impact it had on his or her life. But when a story is retold, the one thing that cannot be conveyed is its full significance for the person who told it in the first place. The stories that stick with us are the ones we just don't quite "get"—the ones that must be retold over and over, precisely because no retelling is capable of exhausting their meaning. Tourists must somehow be taught how to act and made to feel welcome on this most hallowed ground of cultural tradition, even as it inevitably involves "not quite understanding."

Another way of saying this is that the only way a tourist can take in culture authentically is by assuming the subject position of a child. Tourists must learn that heritage is not something that is in a story, an old building, an often repeated traditional formula, or folk or high art. Rather, it is in a certain attitude toward the story or artifact, and especially toward the hero of the story or the maker of the artifact. It is this attitude that can be shared by those presenting the heritage event or object, and the visitors/audience/tourists. It is an attitude that renders the importance of the story or artifact as probably beyond our grasp. It is only when heritage is understood as probably beyond the grasp that it can renew itself by inspiring a second reach. Otherwise, people will slumber in ersatz cultural reproduction. "Importance beyond the grasp" is the surplus value of cultural heritage, a surplus value that can only accrue to an authentic human community composed of the living and the dead and their honored guests, and probably their plants, animals, spirits, and the places they inhabit as well. And it is precisely this surplus value and the possibility of sharing it that is obliterated by commercial cultural tourism development.

What tourism developers are calling "heritage" is a mask for the intensity and the pain—and the possibility of failure—that is inherent in all creation. It is a pretense that every object and sentiment from the past can be routinely reproduced; that the biggest break with the past that has ever been engineered is not a break at all; that Main Street at Disneyland is a mere repetition and continuation. We will not be able to stop the destruction of culture in the name of "cultural tourism" until we, as tourists, refuse to allow representations of cultural heritage to continue to function as a mask for the pain of origins.

What is suppressed by commercial tourism development always involves the beautiful and death. And it involves metaphysical embarrassment about the proximity of beauty and death in our cultural heritage and traditions. There may be psychoanalytic reasons why we voluntarily pay so dearly for the cover-up and delusion as cultural tourism blocks our access to cultural origins. The only antidote is to embrace heritage as a challenge to the living by the dead to keep on living, to try to fill the real gap or void of death, even though we know this is not possible—a challenge that must be met with full awareness of the impossibility of telling the same story twice, the impossibility of fully honoring our ancestors and our creative contemporaries and their accomplishments.

Representations of cultural heritage should also serve as a reminder that full speech and authentic meaning are constantly leaking out of human interaction. And the only way to plug those leaks is a certain type of artfulness that in its first enunciation would never be seen as "traditional"—but which very quickly moves to fill the void opened by tradition, and which is powerful enough to open a new void of its own.


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Dean MacCannell is professor and chair of the Landscape Architecture Program of the University of California, Davis. A founding member of the International Tourism Research Institute and the Research Group on the Sociology of Tourism, he is the author of The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class and Empty Meeting Grounds.