When tourism parodies places

McCarthy's Bar, by Pete McCarthy

McCarthy’s Bar, by Pete McCarthy

McCarthy’s Bar keeps revealing on-the-trail observations that chime with my own concerns about how some places seem to be losing the fight to maintain their character and distinctiveness in the face of tourism and “inward investment”.  His book was a “Number One Bestseller” so I may be among many others with similar concerns:

“Now the Irish economy is so driven by tourism, will every special little place end up like this, as they see what’s to be earned by marketing their idiosyncrasies, leaping aboard the Celtic Tiger, and getting the builders in? A successful tourism industry can quickly turn itself into a parody of itself.”

Clearly this is pre-“crisis” (the book is copyrighted 2000), but the same sentiments can be applied to other times and places.  Just think about the comments you have perhaps heard in relation to the charm of Havana, Cuban people, other places in Cuba, and what lies in store for them once the country “opens up”.

So why is it that when the money blows through some places–investment (chicken or egg?) or tourist cash (egg or chicken?) that it seems to get spent on making them poorer in terms of charm and interesting detail?  Is there some kind of underlying mechanism (“globalisation”?) that makes this inevitable?  How can a place–i.e. the people of that place–conserve its charm and distinctiveness without “selling out” to moneyed “others” and the tourism entourage?  How should destination managers and promoters best communicate the said  idiosyncracies of the place their livelihoods are set to be based on, if at all? Perhaps, in fact, these little sources of charm and distinctiveness should be left to personal discovery and real-world encounters, with communication being equally diffuse thereafter, via post-trip musings via the digital ether and maybe even…  in books.

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One Comment on “When tourism parodies places”

  1. Michael Haywood says:

    What you and many of us who love to travel have noticed for years is this quick descent into oblivion that comes from the sanitization of quirkiness, charm and character. The local vernacular is quickly marginalized as opportunities to generate additional revenues and offset dying economic activities become prominent concerns. The shift toward tourism tends to fast track developments often without adequate planning, integration and aesthetic oversight. As communities start catering to visitors, urgent commercialism dominates. Wide-eyed opportunities to earn revenues overrides sense and sensibilities.

    What’s on offer morphs from necessities of local residents to the trivialities of pampered guests. Locals escape as their places are invaded. As demand and popularity from outsiders intensifies, rents and prices escalate, resulting in further marginalization.

    Is this an inevitable turn of events? It needn’t be. For example, I am reminded of the former Prime Minister of the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who proclaimed “To Hell With Paradise”. He was appalled at what was happening in sister island nations and set out to develop tourism in terms that best met the needs and interests of the people living within the communities. Indeed this is exactly what all communities need to do. Tourism can be a powerful force for good as well as evil. But, it needs to be carefully planned and integrated into a community..

    As for what is happening in Havana, it appears as if gentrification is on the rise, spurred partially by need, opportunity and UNESCO World Heritage designation. On my most recent visit a few years ago I was noticing the efforts and money going towards heritage protection, but at the inevitable expense of charm. Essential modernization cannot help but destroy that patina of age and soul.


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