11.40 Utter (In)Difference: On the Use of Temporality in Tourism
Temporality is a key figure in contemporary tourism. Phrases and images such as “where time has stood still” or “past pristine landscapes” are commonly used to inspire potential travellers to “get away from it all.” Alternative tourism (ecotourism, pro-poor tourism, community-based tourism, etc.), which depends on a strong rhetoric of positive contribution and compassion, has been particularly keen to use temporal metaphors, and to incorporate heritage sites in their travel routes. Governments, non-governmental organizations, and heritage organizations (such as UNESCO) have largely embraced this rhetoric as a win-win opportunity to attract attention to heritage issues and endangered heritage sites, and at the same time make a positive contribution to marginalized communities.
With examples from a recent study of ecotourism at the heritage site Hintang in Laos, this paper will examine uses of heritage—as temporal metaphors and actual sites—in tourism, and discuss its real effects and consequences. The study (published in Källén 2015: Stones Standing – Archaeology, Colonialism and Ecotourism in Northern Laos) has revealed clear connections between the present discourse of ecotourism, and early-twentieth-century colonial discourse describing Laos as a “museum-piece of earthly happiness.”
Heritage sites such as Hintang are routinely used in the marketing of alternative tourism. They have the triple purpose of offering pristine serenity and authentic places of the past where time has truly been standing still; giving travellers the chance of a “real Indiana Jones experience;” and offering them an opportunity to pose as modern, knowledgeable, and generous by contributing to the safeguarding of these sites, which are often portrayed as under threat and insufficiently managed by the local communities.
It will be argued here that the use of temporality in alternative tourism has a distancing effect between travellers and “travelees,” creating “an abyss of evolutionary difference,” and ultimately a sense of indifference between them. The aim is to attract potential tourists by offering them a self-image as modern, adventurous, knowledgeable philanthropists, and endow them with a sense of meaningful contribution toward the less developed travelees. As an effect, the travelees and their material worlds are discursively back-projected to the distant past (being referred to as simple, close-to-nature, underdeveloped, or museum-pieces) in what Johannes Fabian has famously called “a denial of coevalness.” The long-term consequences of such use of temporality is a cynical cementation of old structures of exploitation that cunningly play with the travellers’ sense of empathy and compassion to boost the already flourishing tourism sector at the expense of already marginalized travelees.