11: Domestic tourism in Asia: diversity and divergence
SHALINI SINGH (ed)
Domestic tourism in Asia: diversity and divergence
Singapore: ISEAS; London: Earthscan, 2011
xxviii, 335pp, ISBN 978-981-4311-93-9, pb US$35.90
Reviewed by V.T. King, University of Leeds
Perhaps this is a rather redundant review. The book was published in 2009 and has reappeared in 2011 under the joint imprint of Earthscan and ISEAS. It has already received several reviews. But it has been seen to be sufficiently worthy of further scrutiny in its re-publication in soft cover and its distribution in Asia through Singapore’s ISEAS Press. Interestingly the topic of ‘domestic tourism’ across Asia seems to have gained a real momentum in recent years. In the same year as Shalini Singh’s book was first published, the volume co-edited by Tim Winter, Peggy Teo and T.C. Chang appeared entitled Asia on tour, which was not specifically ‘domestic’ in the sense in which the term is used in the volume under review (though it is not entirely clear what we mean by ‘domestic’), but there was a sufficient level of domesticity in Winter et al. to suggest that Asian tourism in Asia has been a neglected field of study. Janet Cochrane’s Asian tourism: growth and change (2008) also began to expand on the field of local tourism, though there were also several publications which emerged from the early 1980s and gathered pace in the 1990s and the early 2000s devoted specifically to domestic tourism in the major countries and tourist sites of Asia: China, India and Japan (among others, the important work by Timothy Oakes, Pal Nyiri, Jafar Jafari, Shalini Singh, Millie Creighton, Nelson Graburn and Christopher Thompson).
I might venture to add that this review is probably doubly redundant because the editor invited John K. Walton to provide an ‘epilogue’ and ‘contextual commentary’ to the volume, which turns out to be, not so much a celebration of the collection and a forward look, but a rather searching and incisive critical review of the text. He has done my job for me, and I have little else to add. Perhaps the reader should start with the epilogue and work backwards leaving the editorial introduction until last?
An independent reviewer could not have been more demanding than Walton. He opens his chapter with the polite reference to the fact that the volume is ‘interesting’ and that he ‘learned a great deal’ (p. 315), that the book is ‘overdue’ and ‘welcome’ (p.316). But he then launches into what seems to be a sustained critique of the book. He suggests that some of the chapters are necessarily ‘tentative’, and ‘dominated by local ethnographic case studies or broad national reviews, with little sense of regional scales of interpretation at intermediate levels within countries. Geographical coverage is necessarily patchy, limited by what was on offer in response to the call for papers’ (pp. 316–17). He indicates, as any reviewer would, that several important countries are missing (Thailand, Indonesia, Turkey, South Korea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, with only one chapter each on China, India and Japan), whilst countries with a very limited domestic tourism industry (Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore) are included. Following Walton I found the treatment of domestic tourism in small states particularly puzzling; Singapore is especially problematical, and, as Walton indicates, here we drift into the problem of distinguishing domestic tourism from domestic leisure. We must then have to consider in much more detail what we mean by ‘domestic tourism’ and whether we make it a more expansive or a more narrowly defined concept.
Walton further suggests that the main approaches in the book are guided by ‘orthodox assumptions about neo-classical economics, the pursuit of growth and the descriptive accumulation of statistics that dominate much of tourism studies’ (p. 317). Again, I cannot but agree. To increase the agony we are then informed that ‘[t]he general lack of historical context is disappointing’, though softened by his qualifying comment ‘if understandable’ (p. 318). Walton notes with obvious disappointment that ‘there seems to be remarkably little in this book on Asian Islamic cultures and tourism’ (ibid). His disappointment builds: ‘there is little or nothing on religious conflict in relation to tourist sites and journeys, or the impact of caste systems, or of ethnic divisions’ (ibid). Can it get worse? Well, yes; ‘This lacuna reflects a general lack of engagement with internal conflicts of all kinds’; but there is no excuse for this because ‘[t]his absence is surprising’ (ibid). Do we need to say more? Well yes. ‘[T]here is also surprisingly little on domestic beach tourism in those countries which have coastlines, apart from a solitary Philippines case study of an individual, and very popular, resort’ (ibid). And what’s more ‘we hear little about tourism in mountainous regions … or about spa tourism …’ (ibid). ‘Domestic tourism to capital cities … is also scarcely discussed … [and there is an] absence of material on domestic demand for, and enjoyment of, sports tourism …’ (ibid). ‘The same may apply to the low profile of sex tourism in these pages …’ (ibid). Walton surely cannot be more demanding, but he continues, ‘there is surprisingly little development of arguments around transport and other kinds of infrastructural provision …’ (p. 319). ‘Accommodation for domestic tourists is mentioned in passing in some of the chapters, but never constitutes a theme, and the same applies to public health and provisioning …’ (ibid). ‘Sustainability is also a theme that flits in and out of this collection, mainly in the background … without ever retaining an extended position at the front of the stage’ (ibid). Finally, and undoubtedly with some exhaustion he says ‘it would be good to have more on conflicts over access to, and use of, desirable spaces, especially beaches, examining privatization, commodification, social exclusion and regulation, and the ways in which developments in international tourism impact upon domestic markets, practices and access’ (ibid).
As any reviewer would, Walton then poses the question ‘What is domestic tourism?’ It is far from clear in this volume, especially with the inclusion of Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao. Then when we move to Han tourism in Tibet and tourism among ethnic minorities in large countries the same definitional issue applies. Is domestic tourism a useful category when so much is included under this umbrella? To be fair the editor raises the matter of ‘domestic tourism’ and its definition in the editorial introduction, but I think this should have been explored in much more detail and the implications of the visits of residents to particular sites in small states (which amount to relatively brief visits) and the travels of citizens of majority ethnic status to minority areas within the state (as between Han Chinese and Tibetans) need much more serious contemplation. For these reasons I found the editor’s introduction rather thin in conceptual terms.
Of the chapters which are well worth detailed scrutiny I would single out (though there are others which are ethnographically worthwhile and provide very valuable overviews) those by Victor Alneng where we should profitably contemplate his bold statement that ‘proto-tourism … is to tourism studies what so-called primitive accumulation is to bourgeois political economy’, p. 47 (though his transfer of the German idealist concept of formal and real ‘subsumption’ to tourism studies and his exploration of the relationship between ‘proto-tourist’ and ‘domestic tourist’ may leave some of us floundering); Christopher Thompson’s case study of the Sanshû Asuke Yashiki, which is a reproduction of a mid 19th century Japanese mountain [retro]farmstead, provides us with some interesting global comparisons of the successful bottom-up transformation of declining rural areas into a nostalgic heritage tourism project to attract urban visitors in search of their lost agrarian roots; Christopher Vasantkumar’s intriguing ethnographic account of a day trip undertaken by Han tourists to the grasslands of Tibet and the issues which this raises for our conceptualisation of domesticity in tourism deserves our attention; and Trevor Sofield’s very sobering, though in some respects reassuring account of the transition from ‘Year Zero’ in Cambodia to an intense preoccupation on the part of domestic tourists with the ancient glories of the Khmer empire and the monumental remains of Angkor is also worth dwelling on.
This volume is certainly consciousness-raising, but I wonder if it has been sufficiently well crafted to make the impact that it should have made. It has the feel of a volume that has accepted almost anything that seems vaguely relevant and therefore it loses its focus. Although supportive of the enterprise Linda Richter’s foreword gives us further confirmation of the problem; the volume is an ‘eclectic collection’ and one of ‘amazing variety’ (p. xix).
Domestic tourism in Asia is a field of study which requires much more sustained research and in that sense the volume is very welcome indeed. Undoubtedly it will be widely referred to and consulted in debates about domestic tourism because it is pioneering. But we need to decide what we mean by the concept, and I am not convinced that this volume gives sufficient attention to the complicated issue of differentiating domestic tourism from local leisure, from tourism within a nation-state which moves beyond ethnic boundaries (which of course is especially pertinent in large multi-ethnic countries like China and India), from tourism across national boundaries which have been artificially constructed (Singapore to Malaysia, or the People’s Republic of China to Hong Kong and Macao), and from tourism across Asia which involves encounters between populations in different nation-states but which share the same ethnicity (Chinese tourism to Singapore or to primarily Chinese areas of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand). If we do not undertake this conceptual engagement, then we may find that we have constructed a category of tourism which raises more problems than it solves.