Monday, 7 January 2013

Culture > Tourism

Important note: these are animals, not South Africans
Why does one travel somewhere? Do you go there to look at the natural beauty? If you happen to work in tourism, that's a hard sell: there's a lot of natural beauty worldwide. Beautiful forests, wildlife, rivers, oceans, waterfalls ... what to choose, as a tourist?

Even if you *can* draw the tourists in, after they leave the country, what then? The cycle repeats, and you try to appeal to a fresh crop of tourists, because chances are you won't get everybody to repeat their experience.

Culture, of course, is the answer. For example, South America has a lot of natural beauty, but it doesn't have Australians. Japan has countless reasons for tourists to visit the country, but none of those is that you'll get to experience American culture.

It makes you reflect: what exactly 'is' culture? It's a mosaic made up of every thought and emotion which a country evokes in the minds and hearts of people: historical recollections, awe at architecture, reverence at local customs, respect for a way of being which is completely different and yet not foreign.

Important note: this is not a 'Romanian kiss'
It's this culture in the mind of tourists which seals the deal - people go to America to see cowboys; they don't go to see cowboys in America. Impressing a positive impression of a country is also highly beneficial in the new global village: once the tourists have left, the country concerned continues to receive foreign direct investment, a stream of skilled immigrants, invitations to positions of influence (whether that is to perform at a concert or send politicians to sit on a United Nations panel), and respectful interactions for expats or business leaders worldwide.

Why this sudden focus on culture vs tourism? And what does this have to do with Romania? Simply, I discovered this website: What an amazing idea, in their own words:
The Romanian Cultural Institute, a public body founded in 2003, is tasked with raising the profile of Romanian culture around the world. In order to achieve this, it spreads information and spearheads cultural projects involving Romanian artists and writers. Furthermore, the Romanian Cultural Institute acts as means through which foreign audiences can experience the products of Romanian culture.
Reading this was a 'eureka' moment for me. It's no secret that the average Romanian is pretty tired of the constant references to Dracula, gypsies and Ceausescu in foreign media, and I fully understand why. It's exactly how I feel about South Africa not being raised on a global platform without 'Nelson Mandela', 'Big 5 animals' and 'Cape Town' making an appearance.

This is what a reliance on tourism results in: a short-hand caricature of a country which presents elements of its core without giving any feeling for its depth, roots and nuances. For that you need - you guessed it - culture.

Romania is part of the European Union, and as a country it is struggling with the age-old problem of 'How to modernise and still retain our heritage?' Also, in a country with Communist roots, there's a distinction to be drawn between the 'evil West' and 'being modern'. Again, South Africa is no different: every day we face the ongoing debate surrounding the country's varied African tribal cultures and the generic American culture which we're drip-fed via imported television.

True nation-building on the global stage is a discussion: it's a presentation of a culture by members of the country, it's a tasting of that culture first-hand by tourists, it's a reflection on the culture by travel journalists.

At this point I have to take my hat off to Romania: in South Africa, we don't have a 'South African Cultural Institute'. Partly because there's no funding for this, and partly because there's no such thing as THE South African culture. Also, more cynically, it's easier to just tout township tours and game-drives. I'd bemoan the fact, except this blog isn't about that: it's about 'How Awesome Is Romania?'

My answer now? More so than ever.

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