Photo Caption: View of tourists riding on elephants into Jaipur’s Amber Fort

By Page Law
Contributing Writer


I began to think about international tourism and how it operates as a site of power in relation to difference as a result of my two-week tourist experience last summer in India, where I was simultaneously privileged and dismembered, gazing and gazed upon as a result of my (privileged) positionality as a Korean/American who surprised both locals and other tourists by speaking relatively good American English and consequently challenging preconceived ideas of citizenship in regards to race and ethnicity. As I processed my personal impetus for travel, I grappled with unequal power relations among the locals, myself, and other tourists, who unsettlingly sought to “document” locals and places through photography as if they were historical vestiges. This project is a response to my travel experience, ultimately a recognition that tourism is “characterized by a transfer of images, signs, symbols, power, money, goods, people, and services” and that not all tourists are equal (Bruner 191).

Much of the literature discussing tourism has addressed it as a “leisure-time activity engaged in by choice and for its own sake” (Van Den Berghe 5). Although often seen as overlapping with other forms of travel that appear to be less dedicated to pleasure, tourism is infused with gendered and racialized ideas about “adventure, pleasure, and the exotic…deemed ‘private’ and thus kept off stage in debates about international politics” (Enloe 20). I discuss international tourism in order to highlight how the “private” is political and how tourism is continuing to engage in unequal relations of power in international politics. In this essay, I explore what Urry calls the “ tourist gaze” of those from the Global North in relation to ethnic tourism – the search for the authentic other in the Global South through which “the native…becomes…the spectacle” (Van Den Berge 5).

I argue that the tourist gaze in ethnic tourism produces the tourist and the other as differently raced, classed, gendered, and sexualized subjects through representations informed by Orientalist discourses. The construction of different subjects occurs as a result of the pleasure in consuming the commodity of the other and ultimately reflects the unequal power relations between the Global North and the Global South, or according to Stuart Hall, the West and the Rest. I conclude by exploring the implications and suggesting possibilities for subverting the tourist gaze.

Impetus for the Construction and Consumption of the Other

First world affluence has produced “conditions of work and life [in] such [a way] that leisure activity is prized” (Crick 25). The establishment of high levels of disposable income, especially made possible in the post-Fordism or flexible production era, has enabled mass tourism of bodies from the Global North to places in the Global South, which have ironically actually produced much of the surpluses that established Western affluence. Leisure and class privilege are exercised and expressed through the touring of places in the Global South that have already been “discovered (or created) by entrepreneurs, packaged and then marketed” (Crick 16). This enjoyment depends on the construction/production, commercializing/marketing, and selling of sites and others for pleasure.

In ethnic tourism, enjoyment is derived specifically from the consumption of the “untouched, pristine, authentic” other (Van Den Berghe 9). The Other becomes a commodity to be consumed for enjoyment through the tourist gaze, which is constructed through the difference between the “ordinary/everyday and the extraordinary” as well as the self and the other (Urry 1). The tourist gaze operates through binary relations of two opposing elements and consequently flattens difference and diversity in order to accommodate a sense of “us” from a sense of “them.” If the gaze is a visual experience, then places are chosen to be gazed upon due to an anticipation of intense pleasures or the enjoyment in consuming the commodity of the Other (Urry 3). However, as previously mentioned, this anticipation of enjoyment or pleasure relies on the representation of places and people.

Anticipation of pleasure through tourism occurs through the pretour narrative, in which temporary travelers have some preconceptions about the destination and its inhabitants (Bruner 22). Many of these narratives are often constructed and sustained through stereotypes or the collapsing of complex differences (“West and the Rest” 215) and “through a variety of non-tourist practices, such as film, TV, literature…which construct and reinforce [the] gaze” (Urry 3). Popular culture, such as films and TV, becomes a site that reflects, produces, and maintains the hegemonic discourse of othered, exotic bodies and places worth gazing upon. However, the discourses that inform pretour narratives and are reflected in popular culture rely on unequal power relations in regards to knowledge production. These pretour narratives can only exist due to the ways in which the West has been able to produce and maintain hegemonic knowledge on the rest of the world. These discourses about sites of enjoyment and the exotic other have a long history that can be traced to Orientalism. In short, pretour narratives are only one of the sites in which the tourist gaze produces differentiated subjects in regards to the tourist and the local.

Unpacking the Construction of the Other: Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Class

The tourist gaze has been able to produce the tourist and the local as different subjects in regards to gender, race, and class in part because access to leisure and tourism has largely been “conditioned by gender, race, [class, and]…location” (Shaw 19). For example, ideas of gender in regards to the home had largely privileged (certain kinds of) men to leave the home in order to engage in adventures and tourism while preventing (certain kinds of) women from leaving the home. However, the tourist gaze has produced a relation of imagined difference that can be traced to the discourse of Orientalism, which according to Edward Said:

Is never far from…the idea of Europe, a collective notion identifying ‘us’
Europeans as against all ‘those’ non-Europeans, and indeed it can be argued
that the major component in European culture is precisely what made that
culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea of European identity
as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and
cultures (7).

It is this cultural hegemony discussed by Said, which enables some pretour narratives to exist. It is also Orientalism that produces the tourist and the local as differently raced, classed, gendered, sexualized subjects: the tourist becomes coded as a masculine explorer who subjugates the feminine primitive savage. Certainly discourses surrounding ethnic tourism have parallels with the colonial discourse of “exploration, conquest and domination…strongly marked by gender distinctions and [drawing] much of its subconscious force from sexual imagery” (Hall 210 Modernity). Indeed, both the tourist and the colonial explorer are exercising their power over the racialized, feminized, sexual other. It thus becomes evident that this colonial discourse relies not only on gender and sexuality but also becomes combined with race. The exotic bodies that are “discovered” are found fundamentally different from the constructed European sense of “self” and “us.”

As Orientalism has produced new knowledge about “new” bodies and informed pretour narratives, tourists from the Global North seek in the Global South “a figment of their imagination – the exotic, the erotic, the happy savage…the trope of the vanishing primitive, the pastoral allegory, the quest for origins” (Bruner 191). Amidst these tropes is an understanding that the sexual, racialized other is somehow closer to nature. Sexuality, according to Stuart Hall, “was a powerful element in the fantasy which the West constructed, and the ideas of sexual innocence and experience, sexual domination and submissiveness, play out a complex dance in the discourse of the “West and the Rest” (The West and the Rest 210). Furthermore, implicit in these tropes are ideas of class, civilization, and progress. The exotic, primitive other is constructed as poor and backwards. Although Claire Jean Kim writes in an American context, she reveals that: “the term ‘underclass’ is conspicuously nonracial or colorblind on the surface, [but] it is the quintessential example of racial code, conjuring up images of Blacks” (Kim 121). Ideas of class and related terms like “poor” and “unclean” are already racialized and suggest binaries like uncivilized/civilized, poor/wealthy, and black/white.

Representing the Other

In ethnic tourism, the construction of the other informed by Orientalism can only be maintained through the politics of representation, which “fixes” the other through relations of difference. Representation relies on the “link between visibility and power…[as certain] human subjects [become] great spectacles (“Spectacle of the Other”195). Photography and narrative mastery are two of the mechanisms through which the tourist gaze can fix differences between the tourists and the spectacle of the other as well as reinforce violent stereotypes regarding race and poverty in less developed countries.

Photography produces knowledge about subjects and consequently engages in a relation of power as “to have knowledge of an object is in part to have power, even if only momentarily over it” (Urry 139). Photography’s power is derived from the perception that it “seems to be a means of transcribing [or reflecting] reality” (Urry 139) when in reality it constructs meaning of what is being photographed. Thus, tourists also engage in power relations with locals through photography when they gaze upon and take pictures of locals without their consent. The very act of taking pictures without invitation is a means of exerting power as well as representing the other.

Tourists searching for the authentic other can also achieve representation through their narrative mastery in which they “fix meaning, encapsulate and control the other, to stop motion and time, to exert power” (Bruner 195). Partially because the authentic other is voiceless and powerless in relation to how they are represented and remembered in the West or the Global North, tourists are able to “bring back a disembodied, decontextualized, sanitized, hypothetical Other, one they can possess and control through the stories they tell about how the souvenirs were purchased and the photographs taken” (Bruner 194). Indeed, for tourists in search of the authentic other, the tour is never over so long as they continue to engage in narratives of their temporary travels and discussions of exotic others.

Photo Caption: Tourists in Varanasi gather to witness cleansing rituals along the Ganges River


Global accumulation of capital has enabled the Western elite to “travel to the margins in the Third World, to the borderzone between civilized selves and the Exotic Other” (Burner 193). However, capital’s search for and construction of even cheaper and more productive labor have facilitated the movement of these othered bodies to the core and peripheries of the West. Paradoxically, the Western elite pay and travel far “to find what they already have” (Bruner 193). And ultimately, it is the anticipation of pleasure from gazing upon, consuming, and representing the commodity and spectacle of the other that continues to incentivize ethnic tourism.

Thus the tourist gaze of temporary travelers from the Global North in the margins of the Global South importantly mirrors structures of socioeconomic power and dominance. The unequal looking and power relations between the Global North and the Global South have ultimately enabled the West to produce and maintain hegemonic knowledge on the rest of the world. This knowledge in regards to ethnic tourism is maintained through coercion and consent: “what for the tourists is a zone of leisure and exotification, for the natives is a site of work and cash income” so long as the locals perform what the tourists expect to see (Bruner 192). Just as tourism makes certain representations seem “commonsense,” there is room for subversion and resistance. Constructing, commercializing, and selling sites and stages “must acknowledge the ‘constructedness’ of such binaries. This is why travel-tourism makes such binaries vulnerable while propping them up” (Minga and Oakes 13).

After disagreeing with a few white European tourists about their sense of entitlement to “document” locals, I could not afford to be unconscious of my tourist gaze in order to not commit some kind of epistemic violence throughout my two-week trip in India. I took a picture with a “snake charmer” outside the Amber Fort in Jaipur in order to highlight how the figure of the snake charmer caters to Western expectations of India. After processing my relationship to and investment in specific pretour narratives, I started to wonder whether tourism is inherently violent and what subverting and resisting commonsense representations look like. I have called attention to the politics of representation evident in ethnic tourism and shared my personal experience as a tourist in India as part of my intervention against ethnic tourism. With so much at stake in how the way bodies are represented affects the way they are treated, how do you imagine your intervention against the construction of the spectacle of the other?

Images Courtesy of the Author

Works Cited

Bruner, Edward M. Culture on Tour. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005. Print.

Crick, Malcolm. “Representations of International Tourism.” The Sociology of Tourism. Ed. Yiorgos Apostolopoulos, Stella Leivadi, and Andrew Yiannakis. London: Routledge, 1996. 15-50. Print.

Enloe, Cynthia. Bananas, Beaches, and Bases. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Print.

Hall, Stuart. “The Spectacle of the ‘Other.’” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Ed. Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications. 1997. 223-290. Print.

Hall, Stuart. “The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power.” Modernity. Ed. Stuart Hall.

Held, David, Don Hubert, and Kenneth Thompson. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. 185-225. Print.

Kim, Claire J. “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans.” Politics & Society 27.1 (March 1999): 105-138.

Minga, Claudia, Tim Oakes. Travels in Paradox. Oxford: Roman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.

Shaw, Gareth and Allan M. Williams. Critical Issues in Tourism. Oxforrd: Blackwell Publishers 2002. Print.

Urry, John. The Tourist Gaze. London: Sage Publications, 1990. Print.

Van Den Berghe, Pierre L. “Introduction: Why Study Ethnic Tourism?” Quest for the Other. Seattle: University of Washington, 1994. 5-20. Print.



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