|Tourism and representations: Of social change and power relations in Wadi Ramm, Southern Jordan
The area known as Wadi Ramm is a steppic and mountainous region located some 40 km to the northeast of the Jordanian Red-Sea port of Aqaba. It is populated by several Bedouin sub-tribes whose members started sedentarising at the end of the 1970's. In 2001, the settlement, or village of Ramm numbered roughly 1’200 inhabitants that mainly lived off tourism, while comparatively few families lived in tents and raised livestock. Following the fast pace of tourism development in Jordan, the number of foreign, mainly European visitors to Wadi Ramm rocketed from a few dozens a year at the beginning of the 1980’s, to 70’000 in 19962. Within this relatively short period of time corporate and government players in the local and international tourism industry have changed several times Wadi Ramm’s marketing image. From a region where activities related to adventure tourism could be undertaken, Wadi Ramm was made into a heritage and folklore site, and finally declared a nature preserve under a World Bank assisted tourism development plan. This evolving commercial representation has nevertheless kept one constant component: Wadi Ramm has been advertised as “the Jordanian desert” inhabited by nomadic Bedouin. On this image, Ramm’s inhabitants were never formally consulted. At the local level, touristic representations of the place and local culture have played an important yet understated role in the process of socio-economic change that has accompanied the development of tourism. In particular, they have become the symbolic objects of a significant contest over economic supremacy, territorial ownership and identity.
Since the ground-breaking work of J. Urry (1990) on the "tourist gaze", numerous anthropologists have dealt with issues of representations in tourism. In their overwhelming majority, they have been concerned with three main topics and/or with their interconnection. One is the construction of the touristic image of the place of destination. Another is the clash between tourists' representations and their actual experience. A third approach questions the process by which reality in the place of destination (as tourists expect to experience it) is modified to have it fit its touristic image. Meanwhile, there have been much less attempts at studying how individuals in a host population react to the globalised, stereotypical, touristic representations of the place they inhabit and of their culture as these representations bring about local social change3. Taking the approach of social and cultural anthropology, the aim of this paper is to look at how various representational systems and modes interact with each other when the logics of international and national tourism development come to meet the vernacular versions of place and identity. This process is studied by describing, analysing and criticising the power struggle between competing representations of place and local culture in Wadi Ramm, an area not as desert as Western visitors expect it to be, inhabited by a Bedouin community not as “traditional” as portrayed by the tourist media and whose inhabitants harbour their own ideas about place and group identity.
I. Tourism, Bedouin and ethnography: systems of representation and power relations
Representations and power in tourism
Tourism can be defined as a particular form of capitalist industry which does not only sell commodities but worlds of meaning and experience marketed by creating specific, idealised representations of the place of destination, and in particular of its cultural and natural features. The "gaze" is at the centre of the tourist's experience, as J. Urry (1990, 1995) convincingly argued, and tourist destinations are chosen to be gazed upon because there is an anticipation of intense pleasure, either on a different scale or involving different senses from those customarily encountered. R. E. Wood (1998) further points at tourism as oriented towards the experience of difference in a domesticated, packaged form, and primarily structured and evaluated by aesthetic criteria. As C. Ryan (2000) has shown in the Australian context, even ecotourism, which claims to enhance tourists' awareness of ecological issues, often constitutes more of a hedonist than cognitive experience, a fact I. Munt had already provocatively questioned in the title of his 1994 article: "Eco-tourism or ego-tourism?".
The tourist gaze, in its anticipation phase, is constructed, developed and sustained through a variety of non-tourist practices, in particular the consumption of such written or audio-visual media as films, newspapers, TV programmes, tour operator's brochures, web sites, magazines, records and videos (Urry 1990). Pictorial or written media all frame reality in one way or another, therefore simplifying and often stereotypifying it. Moreover, they create representations that do not always correspond to what tourists experience on the ground and want to take back home in the form of their own filmic or pictorial representations. Disappointed customers may then come home complaining about the gap between the product they have bought and the one they were sold. If widespread, dissatisfaction may have a negative impact on the tourism economy in the place of destination by preventing other visitors from coming as the reputation of a good or bad "holiday spot" is also largely created by word of mouth or, today, the Internet. The various agents in the tourism industry thus have a vested interest in making sure that the experience they sell corresponds to the tourists' expectations, that is to the mental representations those have of their destination before they take the trip. If this is not the case, an adjustment has to be made, either by re-framing the existing reality to present aspects that were previously excluded from the various media and to make them desirable, or by acting on aspects of reality in the place of destination so as to render them more congruent with their touristic representations. In the latter case, the tourist gaze assumes an obvious performative dimension, i.e. a capacity to translate phenomenological aspects into pragmatic and topographic realities.
While M. Mowforth and I. Munt argue that "tourism is a way of representing the world to ourselves and to others" (1998: 1) because it has become one of the main channels shaping Western world views, D. Harvey also suggests that the "eye is never neutral and many battles are fought over the 'proper' way to see" (1989: 1). In the activity of tourism, competing representations, and interpretations, of the visited place and population are at play not only between various actors within the First World but also with agents in the destination countries of the Third World. To quote M. Mowforth and I. Munt at length:
"(...) tourists interpret and represent their experiences in ways that may be fundamentally opposed to the experience of those being visited; and these interpretations and representations will differ between different types of tourists. Even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have a particular geographical imagination of the Third World. Their representation of tourism and sustainability may also differ sharply from those of local communities in the countries where the policies of these supranational institutions are applied" (1998: 7).
Acknowledging the performative dimension of representations and the dynamic of competition between different representational systems leads to consider the power relations between the various actors involved in the tourism encounter. It can be argued that, in the context under study, power relations between some of these actors are fundamentally unequal because of the huge economic imbalance between, on the one hand, Western tourists and the local Bedouin, and, on the other hand, Jordanian public institutions and various transnational agencies such as large international tourist firms or the World Bank who finances tourism development in Ramm. This imbalance results in unilateral dependency of the Bedouin upon the rents extracted from the tourists, and of the Jordanian State upon resources generated by private and World Bank investments in the tourism sector. The Bedouin are particularly dependant, whose social fabric would otherwise be disrupted as they would have to migrate to town in search of hypothetical jobs at a time when roughly 25% of the Jordanian labour force is unemployed in the aftermath of the IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Plan, and after the economy has had to absorb the man-power that came back from the Gulf following the 1991 war (Brand 1992). As for the Jordanian regime, that has made economic redistribution a condition of its survival, it has very few other alternatives than to rely on international donor and development agencies to promote economic growth in a country devoid of natural resources, under-industrialised and shaken by the sharp decline in remittances and aid since the late 1980's (Ibid.; Luciani 1990; Schlumberger 2002).
Despite this statement on the structural imbalance of power between the players involved in tourism in Wadi Ramm, I follow Bowman who warns that "By presenting the 'host' as a victim to whom the 'guest' does things, one perpetuates the modernist assumption that non-western peoples are objects upon which western projects are inscribed" (Bowman 1996: 83). To solve the apparent contradiction between these two interpretations of power and domination, De Boeck (1994) proposes that the key binary categories in post-colonial theorisation like hegemony and resistance, or the state versus the civil society, be complemented with aspects of localised strategies of adaptation, accommodation and collaboration as dynamic interaction acting both at the local and global levels. This approach seems particularly adapted to tourism as it is an activity substantially shaped by brokers or middlemen (Cohen 1985) who are located both in, and across, the First and Third Worlds. Their necessary mediation implies a rethinking of the relation between such binary categories as the tourists and the locals, donor agencies and recipient states, international investors and rentier economies.
As Bowman shows in detail in the case of tour guides in Israel/Palestine (1991), brokers come to play a major role in shaping touristic representations and perceptions of a place, mainly in constructing or sustaining the gaze and in making sure that tourists' experiences meet their expectations. These brokers are numerous and their mediation is more or less direct, i.e. more or less obvious for tourists. Those whose action is less directly visible are public sector agents such as planners, politicians, decision-makers in the government-operated tourism sector, private sector investors and large international firms, supranational agencies such as the World Tourism Organisation, the World Bank, the UNESCO, etc, but also the producers of touristic written and pictorial media. On the other hand, tourists in organised tours, who account for most of the visitors to Jordan, have a transactional relation with a tour operator at home, and sometimes have direct contact with employees in a travel agency. During their tour, they are accompanied by a tour leader, generally of their own nationality and in any case not a local of the country visited. For the tourists, the tour leader personifies the tour operator and provides group leadership, but the best part of his/her role is to deal with the local service providers during the tour and solve problems. Tour leaders are a first category of direct brokers mediating between tourists and the country they visit. They themselves depend on other levels of mediation: in Jordan, most tour leaders speak English, not Arabic, and heavily depend on their local, Jordanian licensed guides to act as middlemen (there are very few women in the profession) in a series of circumstances where the vernacular language or cultural codes are needed. Most of the time, it is through that multi-level mediation that tourists enter in contact with other brokers such as bus drivers, hotel and restaurant staff, vendors in souvenir shops, etc.. Jordanian law requires that a licensed guide accompany any tour group above 9 people that makes use of commercial transport (coaches or mini-buses). The vast majority of tourists who visit Jordan therefore get their main verbal/enacted representation of the country they visit though licensed guides who produce a variously rich and coherent narrative of geography, history, culture, religion, society, economy and politics. This is if the guide speaks their language. Otherwise, the tour leader will have to mediate a more or less comprehensive translation in which s/he will have scope to interfere with the system of representation. As in European 19th Century literary accounts of travels to the Levant (Moussa 1995), multi-level mediated communication, and not direct involvement in social interaction with the local population, then becomes the main way in which tourists apprehend local reality and perceive it.
In Jordan, as I will try to make apparent later, a number of binary power relations between direct and less direct brokers, and between brokers and non-brokers (in particular between some Bedouin and some tourists, or Bedouin as a group and government institutions) are less unequal and less rigid than the ones described above. It is precisely because of this flexibility that negotiation is feasible and that local representations of place and identity can/could be mediated to global actors such as the international tourism media or the World Bank. Bedouin, I will argue, have some scope for contesting the external imposition of social and ecological changes derived from tourists’ or World Bank's representations but only to a limited extent and not through direct confrontation.