Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Culture As Commodity and Short-Term Missions

In the August edition of American Ethnologist is an article entitled, Sharing Culture or Selling Out? The author looks at the tourist industry in general and Alaskan tourism among the Native-American Tlingit people in particular.

Tourism is big business for many countries, especially for developing countries and indigenous people. For the Tlingit, the summer Alaskan cruises provide tourist dollars and cash income that fishing cannot compete with, and a whole lot less work. But with every boon there is a bane. “Tourism is commercialized hospitality” (p 384) and while the tour guide provides the visitor with a look into the past, in the process he chips away at culture present and the demise of culture future. Of course culture change is inevitable, and perhaps one function of sharing culture is preserving its memory as well.

For a tour to be successful it must follow a certain script, a “tourist formula.” The tourist formula includes: “the greeting, the guide, demonstrated use of the heritage language, traditional architecture, a performance, a gift shop or souvenirs or sale, and often, demonstrations of traditional Native crafts” (p 385). The better one can master the formula the more successful the selling of culture as a commodity.

As I read the article on the selling of culture and the “tourist formula,” it reminded me of some short-term mission projects I know. The idea that, “Culture itself must be simplified for tourist consumption,” and “For [culture] to be marketed and sold, culture must be packaged according to consumers desires” (p 387) is true for many Christian/mission tour ventures. While the goal of short-term missions is certainly more commendable than secular tourism, if not careful, the promotion of missions can be commercial selling of culture and faith as well.