Expectations vs Stereotypes
Before going to a foreign country most people will have some expectations of how the country will look, what the food will taste like and how what the culture will entail. It's not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes expectations help us to feel more secure in new situations and to cope with unfamiliar places. But there is a difference between an expectation-a mostly neutral assumption of what a country could resemble and a stereotype that can paint a negative image of a new place.
How Stereotypes Influence Travel
Stereotypes usual mean prejudices and negative consequences for the person or place that is being stereotyped. They also heavily influence the way the travel industry runs. For many countries, tourism is a huge contributor to the economy and therefore they try to attract as many tourists as possible. Often the way a country presents itself to tourists is based on what people in the West expect to see and experience.
Examples Of Popular Stereotypes
Expectations and stereotypes change how people present themselves and their culture. Often what we see is only a watered-down version of a countries authentic culture. In one example Victoria from vicadvisor.com who has Chinese heritage talks about her experience seeing Western tourists eat “traditional Asian” street food, more specifically insects on sticks. She further talks about how it's not actual traditional Chinese food and how unhappy it made her witnessing tourists eat this food. This is a prime example of how culture is changed and adapted to fit tourists’ expectation while detracting from its authenticity.
My Experience While Visiting South Africa
Having previously been to my home country-Cameroon, I was surprised at how Western South Africa seemed in comparison. While acknowledging South Africa’s history this makes sense but nonetheless, I was saddened when I was presented with a “traditional African dance show” while on Safari. While Cameroon and South Africa are completely different countries they do share some customs when it comes to music, dance and rites that most people would just consider to be “African”.
Seeing how deeply sentimental and important aspects of the culture were used to put on a show for tourists made me sad, as I’m aware of the deep meaning behind most of these cultural aspects. Rites like communal dancing in combination with music often symbolise important life events such as marriages, births or funerals. They’re not meant to be performed as a show for entertainment. This all plays into stereotypes that typically stem from colonial times with people from the African continent being seen as “exotic”, full of “music and dance.” Stereotypes such as this continue to be propagated by Western media.
How stereotypes affect local cultures
One effect of stereotypes is a loss of culture. When your culture, rites and customs are continuously put on display without their original purpose, they start losing their meaning. Culture becomes a means of business instead of a source of pride and historical heritage. As Anthony Smith, a British author and broadcaster said: “Tourism places the whole of the visited culture on sale, ...A culture...is turned from subject to object, from independent to dependent, from audience-in-its-own-right to spectacle.”
Tour companies and agencies that have no connection to local culture continue to commercialise traditions without taking into account the local people. They often present a culture without the input and consent of the people who belong to it. Local people are brought in and shown off to give tourists an “authentic experience”. They are often mistreated, exploited and paid low wages.
Another aspect to address is how stereotypes heavily influence the likelihood that tourists visit certain countries. Before choosing a destination what factors do you consider? The friendliness of the people, safety, cleanliness, how “exotic” the place is? Many of these factors are dependent on stereotypes and stop people from truly witnessing wonderful cultures in their genuine state.
What Can We Do As Travellers?
As travellers, we have a responsibility to look beyond the stereotypes we are confronted with both in everyday life and when we travel. Stereotypes and prejudices are something that shapes the way we think without us being aware of it. This means that we have to actively work to unlearn them. Researching a country before visiting and being prepared to immerse ourselves in a new culture while remembering we are guests is a good place to start. Research can be done by reading books and articles written by local people instead of guides written by (Western) tourists. Listen to the people talk about their traditions, what’s considered as rude and why some things may be offensive. It’s time to break the harmful stereotypes that so heavily influence the travel and tourism industry.
Post written by Bella Kama Welle