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Read book, will travel PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 05 March 2007 01:45
The way in which the literature of a region stimulates tourism is a growing area of study, writes STEPHEN COAN


Tourism is a global industry that affects all of us — visitors and hosts,” says Mike Robinson, chair of tourism studies and director of the Centre for Tourism and Cultural Change at Sheffield Hallam University in Britain, who is currently visiting South Africa. “At the centre we look at the implications of this major global phenomenon.”

Robinson set up the centre five years ago as a focus for research and development. “We examine how tourism changes societies and how tourists are influenced by local societies. We try to educate people about what tourism is. How South Africa, for example, gets involved in the tourist economy is important as it’s related to people’s livelihoods and wellbeing.”

Although tourism is a worldwide phenomenon, as a focus of study it is relatively new. “The first degree programme in tourism management was offered in 1985; now there are over 100 worldwide,” says Robinson.

Initially academic degrees in tourism were focused on the business of tourism but this has changed with time. “We began to look at the impact of tourists on the places they visited, then the impact tourists had on the environment. Now the focus is more on the socio-cultural aspects.”

The interaction between people and cultures brought about by tourism can be both positive and negative. “When tourism first comes to an area, it is good — there is new economic wealth in the short term; but in the long term it might not be so good.” Robinson cites a tourism project currently under way with the hill tribes of Northern Thailand. “We are working out the balance between the number of tourists, and the influence on social change they will have among the hill tribes.

“If a village becomes too ‘modern’ because of the wealth generated by the tourists, then the tour operators just move onto another village,” he says. “So there are always elements of conflict. It’s a delicate balance.”

Robinson refers to what is termed “pro-poor tourism”.

“People should look at what they have and what they can utilise.”

In some quarters the tourism industry has been accused of commodifying people, their culture and their heritage.

“Commodification is a normative process,” says Robinson. “The debate should really be about who does the commodification. Is the local community involved in that process? Or is it having something imposed on it from outside? Also, if there is little or no relation to what is actually there, this is a serious issue. And does the money generated by tourism flow back to the people who generated the tourism in the first place?”

Commodification is universal. “The way the UK is marketed to the U.S. is about beefeaters and bobbies — that’s how Americans see us!” says Robinson. “I see that KwaZulu-Natal is marketed as the Zulu Kingdom. Is that sending out the right message to the outside world?”

The answer is probably, yes. “The first question I was asked when people knew I was coming here was ‘are you going to Rorke’s Drift?’,” says Robinson. This is not because of the highly regarded arts and craft centre to be found there but because of the battle fought during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, a battle made famous in Britain thanks to the annual broadcast of the film Zulu starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker (coincidentally the subject of a recent book by film historian Sheldon Hall who is also based at Sheffield Hallam University).

Robinson is currently working with heritage issues in the Middle East — mainly in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria — “looking at how complex and politicised societies can make use of heritage for tourism. But there’s the question of what heritage, whose heritage? Visitors come to the World Heritage Sites like Petra or Palmyra. They access the Roman and Greek heritage of the area. But where are the Arabs? What about the Ottoman Empire?”

And what impact does this emphasis on past, often alien, cultures have on the lives and identities of those in the present? Or even more recent foreign figures such as T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), whose book Seven Pillars of Wisdom is currently nudging bestseller status again thanks to the war in Iraq.

“Lawrence is a conflictual figure in Arab society depending on who you talk to,” says Robinson. “But there’s no denying there is a strong European literary tradition associated with this area — which includes Charles Doughty, Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark.”

Literary tourism is of special interest to Robinson who has edited a book on the subject, Literature and Tourism, and, while in KwaZulu-Natal, will be giving a paper, Making it Real — Transforming Texts for Tourism at the Place, Text, Tourism colloquium held recently at the Rob Roy Hotel under the banner of the National Research Foundation project: Literary Tourism in KwaZulu-Natal.

“I’m interested in how texts construct places and how that feeds into tourism,” he says. “A prime example is Prince Edward Island in Canada, the birthplace of L. M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables. If you go there you’ll find it full of Japanese girls all with red hair, just like the character in the book.”

“Anne of Green Gables is popular worldwide but it’s massive in Japan.” This is because during the country’s post-World War 2 reconstruction driven by the United States, Anne of Green Gables was recommended as a text. “It was designated a ‘safe’ book, promoting family values and the U.S. way of life. It made a strong impact on Japanese society. As a result people go to a place to which they would not normally go. It’s an industry.”

Ireland is a country that deliberately promotes its literary attractions. “Ireland is a literary culture, one that reveres its literary stars,” says Robinson. “In Dublin I’ve seen couples holding copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses just as they would Rough Guides, saying ‘that’s the pub’, ‘that’s the door where Stephen Dedalus went in’.”

In Britain one can travel through a variety of countries as opposed to counties, says Robinson. “There’s Catherine Cookson country, Brontë country, Thomas Hardy’s country.”

Literary tourists come in two varieties. First is the literary pilgrim who makes a special trip to view places associated with a given author. “There are over 100 Charles Dickens’ societies around the world who make special trips and planned tours to London,” says Robinson. “These are the hardcore literary pilgrims. For the majority it’s another dimension to their vacation that they discover when they arrive.”

“You also need to make a distinction between literary tourism related to text and literary tourism related to author,” says Robinson. “Sometimes the lives of authors are more interesting than their texts.”

Robinson cautions that literary tourism is not just about books. “Americans who want to visit Jane Austen country do so because they’ve seen the movies.”

But literary tourism has its downside. Robinson notes the politicisation of language and the dominance of English. “When we talk of globalisation, we are talking globalisation within the English language. If you go to Tokyo airport you see English classics like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. If you were in London airport would you see equivalent Japanese classics?”

And literary tourism in South Africa? “South Africa has a rich literary tradition,” says Robinson, “but it also has a rich oral culture. Who will see that this is accessed, and how?” It sounds like another degree course in the making.

  • Check the Centre for Tourism and Cultural Change website:, as well as and

    Published: 29 November 2005