28/07/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 28/07/2017 03:59 SAST

Tourism And The Performance Of Staged Vacations

An entire informal economy has developed as a byproduct of the flourishing tourism industry.

Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters
Lawrence Rolomana (C with hat) talks to tourists in Motsoaledi.

Polynesia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa have all become increasingly dependent on the seasonal stampede of tourists swarming in from Western Europe and North America. These are the world's former colonies, demanded by the pageantry of tourism to don the thorny costumes of their pasts to accommodate the clichéd tastes of their former colonialists. They're forced to portray the happily hungry ancient people with wild animals as companions and a pre-industrial purity to their ways. It's a crudely staged extravaganza of global post-colonial geopolitics and everyone, including the audience, is in on the performance.

Tourism is the performance of power. Like a sanitised re-enactment of colonialism, it forces the visited to cater to the antiquated expectations of the visitor or risk extinction. The visited become ornaments in decorative worlds; worlds in which each element, whether inanimate or alive, is designed and choreographed for the consumable convenience of the spectator. If the experience contradicts the fetishes and cultural preconceptions of the visitor, the visitor becomes uncomfortable with these contradictions and everyone knows that the prime commodity of tourism is the comfort.

So the hosts are held hostage by portable versions of their histories. They're forced not only to observe but also partake in the spectacle as their once noble nations are turned into fast food drive-throughs of hippie spiritual epiphany and their people become living figures in an animated Gauguin painting, caricatures of their cultures populating warped cartoon planets of luxurious primitivism.

Nowhere else in the world, other than Asia, is this phenomenon growing more prevalent than in Africa. In Egypt, one of the world's most frequented tourist destinations with 15 million tourist arrivals in a year, the government and its people are forced to rehearse and perform the most marketable slivers of their history every day. Tourism contributes to 9.1 percent of the country's gross domestic product and is its largest foreign exchange earner ahead of petroleum products. The Sphinx has been reconstructed seven times since 1925. Three of these major restoration projects are now said by archaeologists to have contributed more to the detriment of the monument than to its preservation.

An entire informal economy has developed as a byproduct of the flourishing tourism industry. From the moment you arrive in Cairo, you're ambushed by slick-tongued mobs of souvenir salesmen and swindlers shoving miniature Sphinxes, pyramids and papyrus into your pockets. Just outside of the Great Pyramids of Giza, similar curio-pushing gangs are selling camel rides and selfies for an additional fee once you've already mounted. The whole experience is quite disenchanting, witnessing a people cornered by macroeconomic factors into exploiting every last drop of their ancestral achievements, the mass bastardisation of a magnificent history.

In Botswana, the Okavango Delta is fast becoming the Safari capital of the world. It offers the super rich the rare opportunity to spend their $4,000 nights in the belly of the bushlands with elephants commuting past their patios and giraffes galloping through their gardens. It's the sterilised experience of camping in the African wild, with air-conditioning, five-star accommodation, gourmet personal chefs and 24-hour protection from smiling guides armed with tranquilizer guns. The animals become reduced to postcard iconography in their own endangered habitat. The indigenous people of the region have been banned from sustenance hunting, a practice that has been their livelihood for millennia before the country was formed.

Tourists are taken on patronising voyages through the ghettos and the shantytowns under the auspices of an authentic South African experience.

Their survival has been recategorised as a crime and they're now permanently chained to the servitude of the burgeoning local tourism industry. To add fuel to the bushfire, the Batswana can't afford to be guests at these safaris. Most of them would have to win the lottery to ever experience the wildlife to which thousands of French, American, German, British and Euro-African tourists are indulged in the Delta every year. The economic stakeholders of the multibillion-dollar Delta Safari industry are just as foreign, with most of its benefactors and beneficiaries being in the Western world, with the exception of incumbent president Ian Khama through his holding in the controversial Wilderness Safaris. The whole operation is by the West, for the West, Africans just provide the breathtaking backdrop and hospitable labour to facilitate it.

In The Gambia, one of the poorest nations in the world and the former epicentre of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, tourism is the exploitative export of the day. The small West African nation is popular among British and Scandinavian tourists for its affordable beach resorts. "The Smiling Coast Africa" is how it's referred to by proponents of the local tourism industry. It's grown from a slogan into holy scripture -- a sycophantic theme recurring throughout the heavily rehearsed introductory speeches often recited by the vendors and sunbed attendants who patrol Serrekunda beach daily for generous alien sunbathers.

These speeches represent The Gambia as a jovial paradise completely devoid of conflict and pain. And Gambians are portrayed as ecstatic devotees of servitude by day and by night, gallantly returning to their socioeconomic realities with the selfless satisfaction of genies into their bottles. It's a national identity designed around the copy of its holiday brochures. The beach scenes are a cruel restaging of The Gambia's sordid history. Just as their slave ancestors were coerced to sing, dance and smile through their suffering so as to soothe the collective conscience of their Anglo-Saxon captors, now their post-colonial descendants are expected to do the same for the descendants of those captors.

In South Africa, by far the largest market for tourism on the continent, we've mastered the craft of performance. Besides our well-known wildlife safaris, a burgeoning sub-industry for the country is township tourism. This is where tourists are taken on patronising voyages through the ghettos and the shantytowns under the auspices of an authentic South African experience. The mostly Western European and North American tourists relish the opportunity to treat post-apartheid black poverty as an installation artwork. They stroll coldly and unhinged through the daily strife and adversity as if they were browsing through the aisles of a sociological grocery store.

The irony of the touristic quest for authenticity is that it has led to the creation of generic enclaves within our townships, tourist-friendly oases constructed exclusively for the rich white visitor experience and diluted of all the realities of the environment. These are places like Vilakazi Street in Soweto, Mzoli's in Gugulethu and the Maboneng District (albeit located in the inner city). The inhabitants marooned just outside the circumference of these bubbles know that they weren't built for them. They were built for the uninvited guests of their world, the camera-clad spectators of their circumstances.

When the tourists embark on their chartered journeys, from the industrial banality of their homes toward the evergreen warmth of their postcard-promised lands, they prepare for their roles in the performance by refrigerating the flesh of their sincerity as would an audience about to enter an auditorium. While on holiday, they prefer to be sealed from earnest experiences and interactions through impregnable screens of voyeuristic condescension. They prefer to be enthralled by the hypnotic power of a god watching something incapable of returning its gaze. Instead, each moment is to be soaked in as a souvenir, experienced in order to be captured, documented and pocketed for future testimony.

As Africans and other surviving continents of the tyranny of imperialism, we must ask ourselves: Are we the ones preserving our history or is our history preserving us?

Much like the hyperbolic mythology of shadows to their objects, the climax of the holiday is, in fact, its aftermath: The carefully curated exhibition of images and anecdotes to the wide-eyed audience of cabin-feverish friends awed by the wild distant worlds of the tourist's voyage. The tourist becomes the living reincarnation of the medieval crusader entertaining the bored leisurely classes with titillating stories of strange savage paradises.

In the end, the tourism experience that was meant to bridge the fissures between distant cultures instead has been commercially anchored in accentuating those differences to market its mirage of the exotic.

As Africans and other surviving continents of the tyranny of imperialism, we must ask ourselves: Are we the ones preserving our history or is our history preserving us? Until we begin to reshape the discourse of how former colonial powers engage with their former colonies, the same colonial stereotypes of saviour/invader versus savage/servant will continue to persevere throughout our progression as a species. It's about time we critically review the performance.