Going on a trip without being inspired to go there by imageries? Coming back from a trip without any token photographs? It seems hard to image tourism without the interlinkage of imageries. Whenever I look on social media, walk pass a bus station or surf on the internet, I come across images of travelling people everywhere. I find it hard to imagine a place on earth which has not yet been visually represented and entered my sight. Not only travel organizations are spamming me with paradise-like imageries from places and people all over the world, it also seems like everybody on social media is constantly visiting the most beautiful places on earth. Sometimes it feels like I have already travelled all around the world and that I have seen every corner of it. However, I wonder whether all these places really are that beautiful and perfect. Is every tourism destination a paradise? How do all these tourism imageries I come across influence my view of these destinations? Are the tourism images a reflection of reality or are they consciously creating an absolute perfect image?
For this reason, this essay will discuss the multiple links between tourism, images and imagination, illustrating the conflicting ways in which people and places are (re)invented, (re)produced and (re)created in the tourism industry. Ultimately, the argument will be made that globalizing processes have intensified the friction between images and imaginaries. I will argue that tourism not only interlinks the circulation of people, capital and commodities, but that it also plays an essential role in constructing imaginaries about ‘the cultural other’ and ‘authenticity’. Ultimately, the neo-colonial representations of otherness and authenticity that are actively produced through practices of travel, implicitly reproduce an idealized and homogenized form of tourism representations and experiences.
The Indonesian Mentawai archipelago, is an extraordinary example of how the global flow of images has played a key role in constructing a tourist imaginary and a tourist gaze. The images circulating through the media have turned the islands into a mythical surf tourism nirvana, promoted by images (or imaginaries?) of an exotic tropical environment with perfect waves and uncrowded conditions. Ponting (2009, 175) argues that “within five years of the first exposure of the Islands’ incredible waves in the media a surfing tourist imaginary had discursively transformed this impoverished and depressed region into the most filmed, photographed, written about, and desired surfing tourism destination on earth.” To illustrate and embody the stated arguments of this essay, I chose the short documentary called Absolute Perfection (Potts 2015) of the Macaronis Resort as an exemplementry case to analyse the friction between the imaged and imagined and how the increased circulating global flow of tourism images has intensified this friction.
To build up my argument, I will firstly elaborate on the relationship between tourism, images and globalization. This will help to create a framework through which the short documentary Absolute Perfection can be analyzed.
In the era of globalization, travelling around the world seems easier than ever before. Not only people travel around the world, images geographically circulate with them and come to have an influence in distant places (Tsing 2000, 336). Inda and Rosaldo (2008, 5-8) argue that “globalization has brought even the most remote places of the world in contact with metropolitan centres” and that we life in “a world of motion, of complex interconnections […]. Images flicker quickly from screen to screen, providing people with resources with which to fashion new ways of being in the world; and ideologies circulate rapidly through every-expanding circuits, furnishing fodder for struggles couched in terms of cultural authenticity versus foreign influence”. This increased circulation of people and images in the era of globalization, goes hand in hand with the expanded growth of the tourism industry (Syvlian 2005). This intensified processes of global mobility and interconnectedness, however, do not come without complications for the lives, environments and well-being of destination communities.
The global flow (Tsing 2000) of images frequently collides with the contradictions and challenges inherent to local identity politics. Essentialized representations of indigenous people in the mainstream media are often difficult to distinguish from colonial stereotypes. In other words, it creates a particular idea of culture which creates a tension between the global forces, often perceived as homogenizing, and the of local cultures, generally experienced as heterogene (Syvlian 2005, 355). However, it would be narrow minded to conclude that an universal homogeneous mass culture is confiscating local heterogeneity. Syvlian (2005, 355) points out that it is much more the representation of culture, instead of cultures themselves, which are homogenized due to globalization processes.
Nevertheless, this argument against the homogenization of cultural goods, does not imply that there is no power asymmetry in structuring the flow of cultural representations. Global mobility and connections often is perceived as limitless and accessible to everyone (Inda and Rosaldo 2008, 29-33). Yet, global flows are considerably structured and regulated, and not all parts of the world have the same capacities to enter the global flow of mobility and interconnectedness, and to define how cultures are represented. “A booming global industry of […] tourism, which requires that indigenous culture be a suitable subject for photography, contributes a glossy finish to how a pristine culture looks in the global marketplace” (Syvlian 2005, 366). This quote illustrates that, thus, the global representation of cultures in tourism can not be seen without inequalities, exclusions and essentialism.
However, it is only since the twenty-first-century that scholars have emphasized the power of visual representations in tourism to (re)create and (re)construct destinations and people as the Exotic Other. There is no longer a deny of the influence of visual representations on the way places and people are perceived and transmitted to a mass audience (Bandyopadhyay and Ganguly 2018, 599-601). According to Salazar (2012, 865) tourism can be seen as an “image-making machinery” which is set in motion by exoticed representations and imaginaries of otherness and authenticity. She continues her argument by stating that “marketers eagerly rely on them to represent and sell dreams of the world’s limitless destinations” and that without these predominant seductive images “there probably would be little tourism, if any at all” Salazar (2012, 865). Nevertheless, visual images and representations in tourism should not only be seen as a powerful component in tourist destination marketing, it also creates the so called tourist gaze. The tourist gaze is defined by viewing sights with “an anticipation, especially through daydreaming and fantasy, of intense pleasures, either on a different scale or involving different senses from those customarily encountered” (Urry 2002, 3). Ultimately, tourists appreciate, or gaze upon the constructed reality of these representations (Jenkins 2003, 310-311). This ultimately points out frictions about whether people and places are imaged or imagined (Salazar 2009) and whether authenticity in itself is just another imaginary (Lozanski 2010, 742) in the increased circulating global flow of tourism images.
The notion of the tourist gaze makes it possible to elaborate more on the complexity of the relation between tourism, images and imaginaries. It shows that tourism converts cultures into objects of tourism and consumption, always in with the aim to meet the projected tourist expectations and desires. This supports the idea of tourism images as imaginaries, since the very process of going on a holiday is based on the human capacity to enter into the imaginings of others (Salazar 2009). Hence, imaginaries can be conceptualized here as “socially representational assemblages that interact with people’s personal imaginings and are used as meaning-making and world-shaping devices. The imaginary is both a function of producing meanings and the product of this function” (Salazar 2012, 864). Furthermore, the often stereotyped, essentialized, nostalgic and romantic nature of these tourism imaginaries is important to note here. Therefore the tourism images-as-imaginaries are perceived to be powerful because they not only enact, but also construct stereotypical, orientalist and neo-colonial impressions (Lozanski 2010, 742) and romantic fantasies about cultures and people all around the world (Salazar 2012).
I will now turn to the case of surf tourism on the Mentawai Islands in order to provide an example of the influence of tourism images-as-imaginaries on the creation of exotic other representations of places and people.
According to the short documentary Absolute Perfection, the best place on earth to visit and to catch the most perfect waves, are the Mentawai Island. The documentary shows beautiful imagery of the sea, the waves, surfers, the island and the Macaronis Resort. The male voice-over, with an australian accent, even promises the viewer “the best wave of your life”. Next to some beautiful shots of surfers riding this perfect wave, the documentary also shows the exotic and tropical environment and the happy inhabitants of the island. The Macaroni Resort is described as “beautiful” with a host that “puts his heart and soul” into the place, the other parts of the island, however, are represented as mainly untouched by western development. Additionally, the energetic popular music throughout the whole documentary creates a sense of freedom and adventure, in order to create a narrative of the surfer’s paradise.
“It is such an amazing wave, crystal clear water, warm, amazing setting… it is just perfection, absolute perfection. […] Macaronis is the most rippable wave on the planet. […] It is pretty much the most excitable place to visit. […] Macaronis resort is beautiful, simply put […] if you are patient enough, you will get one of the best waves of your life!” – Voice-over documentary ‘Absolute Perfection’
With all these different elements, Absolute Perfection inheres exactly what Ponting (2009, 180) conceptualizes as the “Four Symbolic Elements of Nirvana”. This concept investigates the relationship between surfing, the media and tourism, and points out that the media is primarily responsible for creating and constructing fantasies about nirvanic surf experiences. He furthermore points out, that these fantasies are exactly what drives the consumption of the global multi-billion industry of surf tourism. The logo of the Macaroni Resort in the beginning of the documentary, gives a first indication to the fact that the documentary is entangled in marketing purposes and “driven by profit motives to market an acceptable, albeit imagined, authenticity” (Lozanski 2010, 742).
This means that as shown above, the documentary can not be seen as a “neutral” representation of the Mentawai Island, but that the underlying aim is to satisfy the tourist desires in order to drive consumption. For this reason, it can be argued that, even though the documentary might appear unique in the first place, it contains all characteristics of “nirvanic” surf marketing which is (a) primarily responsible for projecting paradise to the surfing public, (b) reproducing iconic images of the people and places and (c) driving the mass consumption of surf tourism (Ponting 2009).
Reducing the geographical and cultural attributes of the Mentawai Island into commercial elements, the documentary can also be seen as an example of the disembedding process (Tsing 2015, 280). The documentary completely disembeds the surfing space from its geographic and cultural setting, since it only focuses on the commodification and visual representation of the wave without showing the whole picture of the physical and cultural features of the destination (Ponting 2009, 181). Only the voice-over indicates that what we see is something of the Mentawai Archipelago. However, no specific and unique cultural characteristics are imbedded in the narrative and thus, the destination is distilled down to homogenous symbolic elements. Despite its geographical and cultural disparity, the specific destination seems not important in the documentary (Ponting 2009, 182). The Mentawai Island even appears not to be different of any other exotic island.
The fact that the story of the “absolute perfect” macaronis wave is told by australian male voices, is another indication for the underlying power asymmetry of how culture is represented. In this very example, the perspective of the local community is nowhere included in the narrative. The local community is only shortly represented with some shots of waving, happy children. Ultimately, the documentary creates a “fantasized difference, which implicitly juxtaposes ideal types of objectified exotic cultural Others against ostensibly neutral, unmarked Western traveling subjects” (Lozanski 2010, 742). Furthermore, all the shown surfers are white males, no local surfer is seen anywhere in the documentary. This not only projects an essentialized image of the local people, but also of the surfers community, creating an homogene image of surfers as only existing of white, western males.
Another layer of essentialism is created of the environment itself. The glossy finishing touch of the marketing driven documentary, not only creates a fantasy of how the pristine culture looks, but also how the pristine, exotic and untouched by human development, environment looks like (Ponting 2009, 180). This not only turns the place of the Mentawai Islands into a commodity of tourism, but also turns the macaronis wave into an object of tourism and consumption to sell the dream of limitless joy and adventure. Through this representation and description of the macaronis wave in the documentary, an understanding of what a perfect wave looks like is socially constructed (Ponting 2009, 180). In this sense, one could argue that even the wave is represented homogenous and essentialized, especially when the voice-over says: “Macaronis is the most rippable wave on the planet” (Potts 2015).
This essay has elaborated the various links between tourism, images and imaginaries. It has pointed out the interlinkage of these three components through globalization, the marketplace, consumption and commodification. As there have always been visual representation in tourism, this interlinkage is not completely new. However, the processes of globalization and the increases mobility and interconnectedness of people and images, have created the possibilities of an increased “flickering of images from screen to screen” (Inda and Rosaldo 2008), and therefore tourism, images and imaginaries are getting more and more entangled. These globalizing processes have intensified this intertwinement and, as the case of Mentawai Archipelago has shown, created linkages full of inequalities, exclusions and essentialism. The analysis of the the conflicting ways of (re)creating, (re)producing and (re)presenting people and places in the short documentary Absolute Perfection, has pointed out the increased friction between the imaged and the imagined in the global flow of tourism on different levels.
Firstly, the narrative of the ‘absolute perfect’ wave on the Mentawai Archipelago in Indonesia, highlights the influence of the media in producing and constructing a dream imaginary of tourist destinations. The documentary contains all the homogenous symbolic elements which Ponting (2009, 180) conceptualized with his “Four Symbolic Elements of Nirvana” framework, a framework which shows that tourism spaces are disembedded from their geographic and cultural setting in surf tourism images. The commercially created nature of nirvana in the representation of surf tourism on the Mentawai Islands, exemplifies how the global flow of images has led to reductionism and homogenization in the visual representations of culture and nature in tourism. This has pointed out the friction of the power asymmetry of who and how people and places are represented in these images-as-imaginaries.
The australian voice-over and the fact that only white and western male surfers are represented, exemplifies the stereotyped, essentialized, neo-colonial and exotic nature of tourism images in order to meet the tourist expectations and desires. Ultimately, this shows that visual representations contribute to sustaining the tourist gaze and to the constant (re)construction of places and people as a tourism commodity. This exposes the friction between the different aims of the visual representations of people and places in tourism. Lastly, the interlinkage of tourism, images and imaginations has also revealed the frictions in the debates about otherness and authenticity. As Salazar (2012) argues, otherness and authenticity are the fuel for tourism imaginaries, and in such a way it can be argued that both concepts are imaginaries of the tourism industry itself, even though they often are perceived as meaning-making devices of reality.
Thus, the dreamy imagery (or should I say imaginary?) of the Mentawai Archipelago in the analyzed documentary can be interpreted as just another example of a socially constructed and idealized notion of a perfect, absolute perfect, tourist destination influenced by the contemporary processes of globalization.
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