Authenticity and Commodification
What does it mean to be ‘authentic’? I put the word in quotes because the word has lost some meaning in that people, or tourists in the context of ecotourism, seek an ‘authentic’ experience, by which they mean to have some experience that is more authentic than the experiences they have in their day to day lives. And much of this understanding is based on the false idea that ‘modernity is associated with inauthenticity’ (Koot, 2013; MacCannel, 1976). There is a myth built into the modernized understanding that those who live more ‘primitive’ lives are somehow more ‘authentic’, thus many travel to places such as Africa, Asia, South America and such, to have a brief window into lives of the less developed, as their lives are seen to be more connected to nature or a truer form of what it means to be human. Authenticity as described above does not exist. There is no specific content ascribed to such a description, only an expectation that an onlooker has about what they consider to be authentic.
In the context of tourism, and ecotourism specifically, the quest for authenticity has driven the creation of mythical cultures that don’t exist in reality, but rather play to the expectations of tourists. As a result, many indigenous communities have marketed and ‘put on a show’ to meet these expectations and capitalize on tourist demands. So the tourist’ expectations are used as a format for the host cultures to model, thus creating a reenactment, not of actual life events, but of a created myth. “It is therefore outsiders who determine what really is authentic to the rest of the world, often not the authentic people themselves” (Koot, 2013, 54). Because of this, local people are further marginalized as such strivings for authenticity are manifestations of power relations, or pressures to conform to a particular way of being (Mowforth & Munt, 2003; Koot, 2013).
This power, or pressure from the outside, entails changes to traditional social relations. Cultural items/practices that previously operated outside a capitalist system and were perhaps exchanged freely amongst indigenous community members, will necessarily be adapted and change as they are appropriated and given exchange values. Such items/practices will be given a new context for operation and will leave behind their previous significance to some extent. The exchange value allows the item/practice to be incorporated in to a market based system and considered a commodity that can be bought and sold. This contrasts items/practices that merely have a ‘use value’, which are not commodities, but still serve a purpose in meeting individual material or immaterial needs such as physical, social and cultural requirements. Local medicines, dances, and practices are now viewed as having additional values that can be capitalized, especially in the context of tourism where outsiders are given access to such a market.
These cultural impacts as a result of interaction with the tourism industry highlights what should be a key concern for the Bhutan government, which so fervently strives for cultural preservation, as prescribed in the pillars of GNH philosophy. One example of this is a call from local Bhutanese to revive the traditional ‘Neypo’ sytem of hospitality. The Neypo system, a traditional practice of offering hospitality in Bhutan, consisted of a cultural understanding in which travelling guests could impose themselves upon a household to find shelter and food as they travelled from one place to the next. However, this practice seems to have diminished in many areas where tourism has been the dominant mode of production, where service providers find it more economically profitable to cater to tourists in which a higher exchange value has been applied to lodging provision. Such services, traditionally serving as a socio-cultural ‘use value’, have now lost their significance causing concern from the host population (Namgay, September 30, 2014).
While tourism is often upheld as a panacea for development opportunities, issues of authenticity and commodification should be critically considered to ensure culturally appropriate modes of development that avoid the deepening of inequalities.
Koot, S.P. (2013). Dwelling in Tourism: Power and myth amongst Bushmen in Southern Africa. African Studies Collection, 54. African Studies Centre.
MacCannel, D. (1976). The Tourist: A new theory of the leisure class. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Mowforth, M., and Munt, I. (2003). Tourism and sustainability: development and tourism in the Third World, 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge.
Namgay, P. (September 30, 2014). A Quest to Revive Neypo System. Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS).