Considering authenticity and expectations in sustainable tourism
Most days, you will find me day dreaming about Dana. I had planned to return last year for a work placement and planned the same for this year also, but because of Covid-19 travel restrictions, I have worked remotely from my home in the UK instead. We jokingly refer to my home as Dana Cooperative’s UK office!
In my head, I have moved from the everyday actualities of living and working in Dana to memories and day dreams of Dana. This has led me to think about the travel day dreams of international tourists, especially those of us who visit sustainable tourism destinations.
Planning ahead! We tourists who deliberately choose sustainable tourism destinations, are likely to have clear and considered ideas of what we expect to see and do at our chosen destinations, and how we expect things to be. We want authenticity, and we want our expectations met too. How many of us though, truly consider the balance between our expectations and authenticity? Another consideration, but not discussed in this post, is how sustainable tourism destinations balance authenticity and using an idealised sustainability ‘hook’ to sell their destinations and services.
Expectations and authenticity! Let’s consider Dana! Tourists visit Dana Village and expect to see locals going about their daily lives. You will see locals in Dana, but they will mostly be men, because the women generally prefer to live their lives away from the gaze of international visitors, and stay at home in Qadisiyah (the ‘new’ village). Women and children tend to visit Dana only for specific events, like a family picnic at a weekend or to harvest fruit from the family orchard. This is authentic village life in Dana. It does not always match the cultural expectations of international visitors and can feed into the western stereotype of the veiled and oppressed Muslim woman (a blog post for another day).
In the local culture, family life is private and everything centres around it.
Let’s consider shepherds! The shepherds and their flocks are never far from Dana. If you don’t see a shepherd, it won’t be long until you hear the sound of his flute, or the bells on the sheep. These sounds are idyllic, but what happens to your idyll if you see or hear the shepherd using his mobile phone? Has the magic of Dana disappeared?
Dana Cooperative offers tourists the opportunity to experience authentic village life by spending a half day or more roaming the pastures with a shepherd and his flock. A similar authentic activity is offered with local farmers.
Supporting the local community! These activities bring additional income to the shepherds and farmers, and support them to maintain their traditional ways of life. But do our expectations as tourists support locals working in sustainable tourism to be real people and live their authentic lives? Thinking back to the example of locals in Dana, do our expectations support locals to live authentically in sustainable tourism destinations?
Walk down a street in your home town, how many people are using their mobile phones? Ask a local in Dana who is wearing traditional dress to pose for a photo and he will probably be delighted to do so, but he might have his mobile phone in his hand. Do you still want to take the photograph? Are our expectations of sustainable tourism realistic?
Challenging expectations! By using the mobile phone examples, I am not saying that it is acceptable for your guide or host to have a mobile phone glued to his ear! I am saying that locals working in sustainable tourism in Dana live in the 21st century like the rest of us. I am suggesting the possibility that, we as tourists, consider authenticity to be solely the traditional way of life practised for centuries, rather than the reality of mountain village life in southern Jordan, which is a balance between the traditional and the modern.
Keeping that in mind, consider why for some tourists it is incongruous to see locals in areas like Dana or Wadi Rum using technology. The technology is needed to support their tourism work, especially online bookings, but it does not fit with an idealised and romanticised notion of Bedouin life. Technology usage is only one, simple and obvious example.
Let’s consider zoos! Some tourists will come to Dana Nature Reserve and complain that they have not seen many animals. Their guide and host will explain that the animals are wild and are in their natural habitat. They will use their years of experience to suggest best times of day and best location to see specific animals. Nothing can be guaranteed. Sometimes patience is needed. Dana Nature Reserve is not an outdoor zoo! You will not experience the magnificence of the Reserve unless you allow yourself to be there truly in the moment.
Again, we return to the conundrum of expectations and authenticity.
The big questions! How do we as tourists balance authenticity with our expectations, and how do locals working in sustainable tourism projects balance the authenticity of their lives, and the reality of the natural environment, with tourists’ expectations?
Let’s be influencers! I urge fellow tourists and exponents of sustainable tourism to consider and challenge their expectations and notions of authenticity in relation to tourism destinations and local community involvement in tourism projects. In this way, we become positive influencers and part of the progress and development of sustainable tourism.
The contents of this post express my views and are not necessarily the views of the Dana Cooperative.
The examples used in this post were originally questions from tourists in Dana.
Developing community owned, sustainable tourism in Dana Nature Reserve