Look beyond the lights….

laplandHelen Jennings, Tourism Concern writer, reflects on Indigenous Tourism in Scandinavia:

In thinking about holidays in Scandinavia, perhaps most people think about the Northern Lights. An enormous quantity of literature, advertisements and film encourage us to think this way. While the lights are certainly worth seeing – for those lucky enough to do so, for the natural phenomenon is not guaranteed – it is worth remembering how much else there is to see and experience in the frozen north.

A great thing about Scandinavia is that it is Europe’s last wilderness, and home to the Sámi people. They have inhabited this land, known as ‘Sápmi’, for over 11,000 years. Originally a nomadic people reindeer herding now represents the work of a minority in what is a rich and diverse culture. Like most indigenous peoples in the world, the Sámi have been drawn into the tourist industry. When done well, this a good thing, for it has given them an opportunity to discuss their lives, culture, traditions and history in their own terms – something that has not always been the case.

Again, like most indigenous peoples in the world, the Sámi have experienced a rough ride over the past century. It is comparatively recently that they have been guaranteed rights that most people in the ‘western’ world take for granted. This entails the right to education in their own language, the right to be taught about their own culture and traditions, the right to wear traditional clothing, practise their own religion accompanied by their own ceremonies and music, and even the right to vote and play a full part within the states in which they live.  Past repression still marks their experience and becoming involved in tourism has for many a cathartic effect.

Many relax into tourism as a relatively ‘passive’ pursuit, one in which there is much to entertain, new experiences to be had, new foods to be tasted, people to meet and places to enjoy. While there might be a lot of fun and ‘activity’, a criticism of tourism is that it can be relatively mindless and unchallenging. And this might be said of both hosts and guests. A feature of ‘indigenous tourism’, as in the case of the Sámi, is that tourism can provide a very positive and active way in which a culture can be regenerated, a sense of pride restored, and new identities fashioned. Much hangs of course on the degree of control acquired by the Sámi.

A central problem with all tourism is how experiences are packaged and presented to an outside audience. A dominant culture – a typical western country – presents itself in a massive variety of ways, through art, architecture, literature, theatre, dance, music, history and material culture, etc. And it does so through a whole gamut of theatres, galleries, museums, exhibitions and concert halls.  The problem for indigenous people is that they are often cast into filling a box of one aspect of the past, often full of romantic, idealised images of what life used to be – they tend to be given the ‘museum only’ slot in a manner of speaking. It is subtly suggested that being ‘indigenous’ is the opposite of being ‘modern’. The myth of the ‘noble savage’ is an easy one to perpetuate. The problem for all concerned is how to present images of a living culture, which celebrates the past, rightly notes past repression, but also points to a diverse present and a positive future.

Fulfilling tourism surely requires a subtle ‘contract’ between hosts and guests? For the hosts, this might entail providing honest literature on what is offered, open engagement with the problem of ‘authenticity’, the display and sale of ‘genuine’ artefacts, and the mounting of exhibitions and ceremonies with due reverence, explanation and respect. Visitors and guests, for their part, need to consider carefully their motives and intentions, their selection of sites to visit, and ponder the challenges to their customary ways of thinking that they might encounter. There needs to be a willingness to ‘suspend belief’ and step outside of western shoes.

One thing we can all definitely learn from the experience of indigenous peoples is greater understanding of the concept of ‘difference’, the notion of ‘them and us’, and an awareness of how we all possess multiple identities. In the process of visiting a site designed to capture the experiences of what is essentially a minority culture, we may all perceive ways in which we are both ‘captured’ and ‘liberated’ by our own past. For those of us sitting contentedly in dominant cultures, it can be valuable to appreciate how we have got where we are today, at what cost, and where we wish to be in the future. Indigenous tourism gives us a window into alternative constructs of an increasingly homogenised world.

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