Vol. 23, No. 4, Aug. 21, 2003
Travel writers tend to perpetuate cultural stereotypes for tourists
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —
Picture this: You’re
on vacation in Portugal, strolling through the winding streets of a quaint village,
described in a travel story you read in your hometown newspaper as an "enchanted
paradise … where time stands still." Suddenly you witness two locals
engaged in a loud, boisterous verbal exchange, which you perceive as some kind
In that situation, the average American tourist might get nervous, said Carla Santos, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "You would probably think they are fighting," Santos said. But in reality, the pair probably is having a friendly, though animated, discussion. The tourist’s disconnect with reality is easy to trace, however. That’s because, according to Santos, our perception of the culture is likely shaped by accounts of travel writers, who tend to perpetuate certain myths and stereotypes about tourist destinations, who rarely interact with natives of the culture, and as a result, portray countries and cultures in limited, unrealistic and sanitized terms.
Santos notes that travel writers are often subsidized by convention and visitors bureaus or other vested interests in the locales they write about. Therefore, their reports more closely resemble marketing and advertising, rather than objective reporting. And, as Santos observed in her research and analysis of travel reporting on Portugal, which she presented recently at a meeting of the Travel and Tourism Research Association in St. Louis, writers also tailor their accounts to their audience, framing their reports in ways that conform with the cultural expectations and biases of their audiences. The result, she said, is "negative effects for both sides" – tourists as well as native populations.
"We, as tourism researchers, need to call into question these interpretations," Santos said. "There needs to be a plurality of voices – including local voices – along with more education. Tourists need to be provided with alternative viewpoints. And if the goal is to understand the culture, you, as the tourist, need to go beyond narratives by travel writers. Otherwise we just have one big Disneyworld."
But, Santos believes, most tourists have little interest in digging deep into their host country’s economic, social or political roots and becoming acquainted with the everyday realities of its people. "Tourists want to be able to talk to locals in the context of servitude … for instance, ‘What can you do for me?’ The possibility for a political discussion, however, rarely occurs."
And that’s unfortunate, she said, particularly in light of what she refers to in an article scheduled for publication in an upcoming edition of the journal Annals of Tourism Research, as "the decline in amount and authority of international news, that has lead some to argue that our understanding of the world is increasingly produced and dependent on such non-fiction entertainment as travel writing. Since news media manufacture representations and images of the social world," she wrote, "then travel writing contributes to the definition of a destination’s social reality."
The key to reframing that reality, Santos believes, is increased media literacy among tourists.
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