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The Tourist is God

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on November 16, 2009 1 Comment

atithi_devo_bhava.163202507On Friday, November 13, Crispin Thurlow gave a talk at the Berkeley Language Center entitled Language, Tourism, and Banal Globalization, in which he “examine[d] some of the ways that language is commonly taken up in tourism’s search for difference, exoticity, and authenticity.” Using a Critical Discourse Analysis framework, Thurlow discussed “textual practices in which local languages are recontextualized, stylized and commodified in the service of tourist identities and the ideology of cosmopolitanism at the heart of tourism discourse.”

One of the axes along which he explored the arguments is by looking at how texts (understood not only as written documents) function to position interactions between “hosts” and “tourists.” This particular aspect of his argument fascinated me, particularly as to how one was to understand the term “host.” At one level one got the sense of this comprising the “local people,” and at another level it seemed to be referencing primarily service people encountered in the course of a touristic visit. This fascinated me in particular because I have had conversations back home about how tourists visiting India sometimes pass through our incredible country without ever really encountering “real people,” cocooned as they are by tour guides and organizers, who basically serve up an India that is “more” “palatable” and “visitable.” In other words, those catering to a kind of “bubble tourism,” where tourists experience very carefully crafted and mapped-out tours, and, most importantly, where there is minimal contact with “real” locals. So, in returning to Thurlow’s argument, who are the hosts?

Obviously, the answer has to be that this is context dependent, i.e., that it will vary from one tourist destination to another. In certain parts of India, tours entail more contact with locals than in others (I am thinking specifically of the urban/rural context here, but one can imagine this varying on the basis of, for example, regional language, English skills of the local population, kind of tourism, local customs and discourses with regards to “foreigners” or tourists, to name a few). It was while thinking of this, that I thought of the “Atithi Devo Bhavah” (Sanskrit, lit. “The guest is God“) campaign started by the Government of India’s Ministry of Tourism:

… which they claim, ‘A nation wide campaign that aims at sensitizing key stakeholders towards tourists, through a process of training and orientation’. This is what the minister for tourism says on this program, “’Atithi Devo Bhavah’ is a Social Awareness Campaign aimed at providing the inbound tourist a sense of being welcomed to the country. The campaign targets the general public as a whole, while focusing mainly on the stakeholders of the tourism industry. The main components of the campaign are training and orientation to taxi drivers, guides, immigration officers, tourist police and other personnel directly interacting with the tourists, while simultaneously creating a brand equity for the trained persons. “Atithi Devo Bhavah” involves Sensitisation, Screening, Induction, Training and Orientation, Certification and Feedback of key stakeholders of the Tourism industry in India.”

Here are some fascinating videos from the campaign: here (about rudely persistent hawkers), here (about the troubling disparity in taxi fares between foreign and domestic fares), here (about men getting “overly friendly” with foreign women, featuring Aamir Khan, the Bollywood superstar). This one is my favorite, called “Please don’t spoil Indian beauty,” and though it’s not specifically part of the Atithi Devo Bhavah campaign, it is a part of the larger Incredible India program, with similar goals as the ADB campaign.

Now the most telling part of the description above (see blockquote) is the line, “The campaign targets the general public as a whole, while focusing mainly on the stakeholders of the tourism industry.” While it is in the larger public interest for Indians to appear to be more “hospitable,” those targeted for training are primarily service personnel in the tourism industry, the ones who are most likely to be involved in an interchange with visitors. Those employed in service positions tend to serve as cultural and linguistic brokers, intermediaries, helping create, in most cases, the “bubble” effect for the visiting tourists.

So, this brings me back to the original question…who are the hosts? Need we treat them as theoretically distinct, or can they be managed as one category? What’s lost or gained in picking one theoretical organization over the other? And, as importantly, anyone got any more cool touristy videos?

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One Response to “The Tourist is God”

  1. daveski on: 21 November 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Very thought-provoking post! Living in the U.S., it’s hard to imagine a government sponsored campaign designed to train the ‘general populace’ in any way, shape or form to become more responsive and respectful to foreign tourists. Even the act of identifying this or that person as a tourist would become a site of huge contention, I’m sure (which isn’t to say that it hasn’t become an industry unto itself in certain places, I guess).

    the Atithi Devo Bhavah campaign is really interesting and raises a question I was thinking about with how you describe Thurlow’s work, and how he presents it himself. It seems on first glance to me that by aiming at “the general public as a whole”, it is imposing a type of “host identity” or a normative vision of “host-visitor” relations on people who may not have thought of themselves that way in the first place. That is, the campaign itself is ‘creating’ the hosts discursively, where they may not have existed before. And when you say that Thurlow explores how “texts (understood not only as written documents) function to position interactions between ‘hosts’ and ‘tourists'”, is it the interactions that are being positioned, with pre-existing “host” and “tourist” identities? Or do the texts themselves position people as “hosts” and “tourists” where they many not have seen themselves before?

    We seem to be ready to accept that when people are on tour they “are tourists” but when people are at home the notion that they “are hosts” is much more problematic. but it seems to me that BOTH of them are pretty contentious identities, and it’s how these identities get conferred that’s really interesting.

    my two cents anyway…and by the way, I’m not sure that last question is *quite* as important as the next-to-last one,…but I’ll look around! 🙂

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