All entries for Wednesday 01 December 2021

December 01, 2021

Politics of Tourism: Identity and Commercialisation of Culture and Heritage

Politics of tourism

Angkor Wat. Alain Secretan (ASITRAC), National Geographic Group

Written By: Suramya Srivastava

Tourism has been one of the hardest hit industriesdue to the global coronavirus pandemic, with an estimated loss of USD 2.4 trillion in 2020 alone. For many developing countries, tourism is a key sector that contributes significantly to their economic growth and development, providing revenue and employment alike. Due to the interlinked nature of all human activities and the different spheres within which they exist and interact - social (encompassing religion, culture, etc.), economic, and political - it is easy to see how tourism fits into the political sphere. It can be used as a political instrument by politicians and the state to gain specific benefits or influence opinions and behaviours, both at local and international levels. The East and Southeast Asian region is a rich case study for an understanding of the political nature of tourism. This blog will specifically delve into examining how developing nations within this region market their unique culture and heritage to draw in tourists. This links tourism to foreign policy, through which any kind of action (or inaction) from the government with regard to tourist activity can be analysed within the arena of policy-making.

When looking at a country’s culture and heritage, or its entertainment industry, tourism based on these aspects provides a means to develop soft power and influence. This is certainly the case in the three main Northeast Asian countries - Japan, South Korea, and China. Each of these three countries have used their entertainment industries and media to encourage tourism. Perhaps the most successful of the three is South Korea, with its hallyuwave (the term given to its substantial cultural capital and soft power associated with its entertainment industry), which drew in hundreds of thousands of visitors before the outbreak of Covid-19. However, Japan also has a long history of promoting tourism to showcase its uniqueness and cultural attractiveness. Additionally, the rewards from tourism—increased revenues and profits, boosting economic and political leverage—accrue not just for the receiving country, but also for the origin country, as seen with China, which has the largest growing outbound tourist market with an ever-increasing middle class eager to spend its money.

Outside of the entertainment industry, countries also commercialise and commodify their culture and heritage in order to attract tourists. This can be in tandem with promoting the entertainment industry or beyond it, extended to gaming and sporting events as well, all of which come under the umbrella of building a national image. Here, Linda Richterdraws on the example of the Olympics. Few of the Olympics games have ever broken even in economic terms, but their value lies in the demonstration of the host country’s strengths and achievements, building a national identity that the country can present at an international scale. The gaze of the tourist here is also important for the state’s presentation of itself and its cultural authority. This then forms a self-sustaining feedback loop of sorts, as the tourist’s gaze helps strengthen the national image, but it is also the tourism industry, working in collaboration with the state, that shapes and forms how the tourist’s gaze functions and what it perceives.

Accumulation of cultural capital and accompanying soft power can also be developed by focusing on existing cultural architectures and monuments.One example is Cambodia, which has used its own history, memorialised in museums and heritage sites, to draw in visitors. These heritage sites, like the Angkor Wat, have become national symbols. A particularly interesting aspect is that Cambodia’s commercialisation and memorialisation of its history occurred in the years immediately after the Khmer Rouge genocide, that occurred from 1970-75. The then Vietnamese-assisted Cambodian state, known as People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), was not recognised internationally as a legitimate and sovereign state. It thus turned to tourism to simultaneously establish its identity and draw in aid to help its development and recovery. The PRK granted visas for travel specifically to experts helping with reconstruction, journalists, aid workers, and representatives of sympathetic states and organisations, and during their trips, included a necessary visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum (infamously dubbed the ‘killing fields’) that documented the crimes committed by Pol Pot and his army. This was perhaps a carefully crafted strategy to gain sympathy, attention, and aid from the international community. Evidently, during the times of war, or post-war, as in Cambodia, tourism was more politically, than economically, driven.

On a larger scale, tourism’s effect needs to be understood within the context of the country, its governance, and the specific timeline within which certain tourism policies are employed. This is since many of the effects are due to the type of tourism employed, and the country’s governance environment. Therefore, for Cambodia and the PRK, the politics of its tourism needs to be analysed with acknowledgment of the specific kind of tourism it was promoting in accordance with its political goals. The PRK was specifically creating witnesses for Cambodia’s suffering, shifting the gaze and subjectivities of visitors from that of being tourists to that of being humanitarian actors. If further examined, this would also raise the question of how the PRK was taking a risk, walking on a tightrope recalling the “moral geographies of colonial philanthropy” by blurring the lines between tourism and humanitarian action.

Using culture, heritage, and history, and commodifying them to promote tourism can therefore also be a double-edged sword, as culture herein becomes a resource, which can be helpful during crises, but which may also itself become the source of conflicts. An example of this is Hong Kong and its pre- and post-1997 image construction. Before Hong Kong was handed over from its British colonisers to the People’s Republic of China, the role Hong Kong represented and performed was of the ‘exotic’ East mixed with Western colonial characteristics. However, post-handover, Hong Kong had to rework itself to maintain its appeal towards the West, while also showing itself as a site of Western cultural consumption for the increasing number of new tourists from the East. In this case, the ‘otherness’ of Hong Kong became its main attraction to visitors, and its ‘exotic’ appeal was taken advantage of by the tourism industry. Sum & Sorecount this with examples of tourist brochures, Hong Kong Tourist Association (HKTA), and tourist agencies co-opting cultural attractions. Hong Kong’s image was based on what would be politically advisable, as it was a partitioned state and had to play a balancing game between its portrayal in the eyes of the East and West.

In the international sphere, all countries partake in the use of tourism and its political outreach. Whether it is an explicit role that the state plays with regard to tourism, or more of an inactive official role, policy-making analysis shows that both are decisions consciously made by the state. Shaping citizens' views and constructing national identities and boundaries are done so in tandem with directing tourist activities. Even the commodification and commercialisation of culture, heritage, and entertainment done to attract tourists, while seemingly primarily led by economic goals, have underlying political goals. To ensure a smooth flowing global mobility regulation, political and economic goals must align, or at least find some common ground. Therefore, the aims and types of tourism differ, but the underlying linkage of politics to tourism is present regardless, whether it is with PRK and its tourism for aid and development, or China with its tourism for power and authority. With the pandemic still raging on in various countries, tourism is brought again into the loop of analysis with how decreases in tourism are negatively affecting dependent countries’ economies. Thus, future discussions would need to focus on what parts of their culture and heritage countries may begin using even more to market tourism as borders reopen, and how their foreign policies might work with vaccine diplomacy.

Author’s Bio

Suramya Srivastava has recently completed her Masters in International Development at the University of Warwick. She submitted her dissertation on “The Political Economy of Developmental Aid: A case study on the impact of Chinese aid and FDI in Cambodia.” Her areas of interest include international relations, sustainable development finance, and intersectional developmental issues, especially in the Asian region.


The Warwick Interdisciplinary Research Centre for International Development addresses urgent problems of inequality and social, political and economic change on a global level.

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