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Professor discusses sustainability and tourism

Aaron Gallant, Distribution Manager

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This past Wednesday, Sept. 27, West Chester celebrated the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) World Tourism Day with a lecture by Michael Di Giovine, Professor of anthropology at West Chester University and head of the American Anthropological Association’s Tourism Interest Group.

In keeping with World Tourism Day 2017’s focus on “Sustainable Tourism: A Tool for Development” as declared by the UNWTO, Di Giovine gave his talk, “Can Tourism be Sustainable? Heritage Preservation and Indigenous Empowerment in an Era of Mass Global Travel,” as part of WCU’s Office of Sustainability’s lecture series. The Sustainability Research Seminar, held every Wednesday this semester from 12 to 12:50 p.m. and advertised as featuring “a dozen WCU scholars from a dozen academic fields presenting their research on topics that deepen our understanding of concepts and applications of environmental, social and economic sustainability.”

Di Giovine, who led students to study “Food and Sustainable Cultural Heritage in Perugia, Italy” this past summer, began his talk by asking, “Doesn’t it seem silly that with all the turmoil in the world right now, the United Nations takes pause to celebrate and to raise awareness for tourism? . . . Might this seem naively quaint, at best, or at worst out of touch, when in the past few weeks we’ve been inundated with crises ranging from North Korea saber-rattling, natural disasters destroying Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico [and] white nationalist protests against moving statues out of public parks?” It is this global political climate that makes him wonder: “how can we justify talking about the sustainability of tourism?”

To answer the dilemma he said that even today’s news stories are rooted in tourism. For example, concerning embargos on travel to North Korea he says they “have left it out of the global movement of people and deprived it of billions of dollars in annual revenue and a chance for intercultural communication; to say nothing of the mortal torturing of an American college student a rare tourist this year.”

He further says that, “Tourism matters, for one, because by all accounts it is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors, head-to-head with the chemical and oil industries [but] it is so much more than an industry. It is a form of global mobility [that] moves more people than any other sector; more even than warfare,” which mobilizes 27,437,280 people worldwide. “Compare this,” Di Giovine implored, “to the World Tourism Organization’s recent celebration of its 1 billionth annual traveler.”

Di Giovine then explained that after World War II, “post-colonial states turned in greater numbers to the tourism sector,” hoping “to pull locals from a rural subsistence economy into urban life by directly employing them in ‘modern’ touristic infrastructure as guides, cooks, and hotel workers,” in-so-doing “positioning locals as unique cultural brokers.” However, he said that late 1970s research concluded that most benefits of tourism are directed towards tourists, not the host communities. According to Di Giovine, this means that “locals are often excluded from touristic and managerial interactions, undermining the very premise of local empowerment embraced by local authorities.”

Di Giovine attributes an increased imbalance between hosts and guests over the past decade to “networked hospitality” like Air BnB. This, Di Giovine says, results in rent increase in entire neighborhoods which “eventually [price] out residents and small, local businesses.”

It was this tendency of modern tourism that Di Giovine and senior history major, Bernard Bronsburg, compared to gentrification. Bronsburg, after attending the talk, said that, “tourism can ultimately lead to the collapse of the native culture.”

“Imagine,” he said, “if Lucca, the medieval Italian city, was, instead of being filled with Italians upholding their ancient culture, was overrun by American tourists changing the culture and the whole city, maybe eating gelato, maybe building Burger Kings.”

It was precisely this sense of being “overrun” by foreign tourists that Di Giovine claims led “members of a radical youth faction in Barcelona . . . [to slash] the tires of tourist rental bikes and busses.” This, Di Giovine said, occurred in Spain where a record number of visitors, over 75 million, were, “amid largely unchecked tourist development.”

Di Giovine then showed a photograph from an anti-tourism protest in Venice, Italy, and said that, “from an anthropological perspective, this image is important, as the protester is writing in Venetian dialect, different from Italian, in an attempt to show how he is authentic and tied to the place. Identity politics being understood and valued as a local is key.”

Di Giovine said that he took issue with the tourism industry term, “carrying capacity,” which refers to the “physical pressures on the site, particularly when tourists exceed,” a certain limit of visitors. He prefers sustainability, clarifying that there are “pressures that the carrying capacity concept doesn’t immediately call to mind, but which the sustainability term does.” These pressures, he said, include economic pressures where foreign companies earn more than the locals, environmental pressures like pollution and trash, and a variety of social pressures relating to controlling representations of their identities.

This spring Di Giovine spoke on the anthropological perspective on sustainable tourism to the International Committee on Cultural Tourism, ICCT, an arm of ICOMOS. “Instead of presenting solely [his] view, [he] conducted interviews with the Director and President-Elect of the American Anthropological Association, and then circulated a survey to some 500 anthropologists.” Presented with all of the issues in modern tourism he had just outlined, Di Giovine argued, alongside respondents, that for the tourism of the future to be sustainable, education shouldn’t be directed solely at locals because they know their land. It’s outsiders, Di Giovine said, who are, “switching the emphasis.”

The industry, he said, ought to spread awareness about conservation as well as compel them to physical preservation. One professional anthropologist said in Di Giovine’s survey that they advocated for the construction of a “framework of sentiment for approaching the culture and practices of another group in a respectful and open-minded manner with the intention of leaving something behind.”

Aaron Gallant is a third-year student majoring in urban and environmental planning with minors in anthropology and Spanish. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Professor discusses sustainability and tourism