Rethinking Tourism: An OLLI Course

by Sylvia A. Johnson

January 6, 2017

It goes without saying that most OLLI members are enthusiastic travelers. When people meet in classes or at special events, travel is one of the most common topics of conversation. "How was your trip to Brazil? " "Next month, I'm taking off for a month-long tour of China!" In fall 2016, a course on tourism offered OLLI travelers a new point of view on their favorite pastime.

Keith Roberts, a professor emeritus of sociology and anthropology, led the course called "Tourism: An Anthropological Perspective." In his syllabus Keith wrote that the purpose of the course was "to explore the role of tourism in the modern world," particularly its impact on cultures. "We will seek to get 'behind the scenes' of tourism," using "the lenses of sociologists and anthropologists." To aid in this exploration, class members would read articles from Tourists and Tourism, a book edited by anthropologist Sharon Bohm Gmelch.

Sounds rather dry and academic, doesn't it? Actually, the class was anything but that. At the first meeting, Keith asked the 29 participants to talk about their travel experiences. Almost everyone had a story to tell. Quite a few people had traveled with groups such as Road Scholar and Overseas Adventure Travel (class member Barbara Burleigh had gone on 18 Road Scholar trips). Others preferred to travel on their own. One solo traveler described her adventures in foreign countries, which included a lot of getting lost and one or two muggings. Some class members took trips that focused on nature and the environment; others enjoyed exploring the museums and crowded street of foreign cities. I like to go to Mexico (in the winter, of course) to visit archaeological sites and learn about weaving and other crafts.

Photo of Dr. Keith Roberts

No matter what their previous experience, participants in Dr. Robert's course found their viewpoints on tourism "jolted and altered," in the words of class member Larry Greenbaum. Larry described the course as "a think tank" on tourism.

An article on the cruise-ship industry in the Gmelch book gave us one of our first jolts. After reading it, Larry and other class members began to ask questions about this very popular form of travel. "Who receives the money spent on excursions and purchases made on cruises—locals or multinational cruise companies?" "What is the impact on hotel and restaurant owners and employees when thousands sleep and eat on cruise ships rather than in local establishments?" A comment made by a representative of Carnival Cruise Lines summed up the industry's view on these issues: "People don't come to visit the Caribbean but to be on our boats."

Another article in the book focused our attention on tourism in East Africa. Entitled "The Masai and the Lion King," it described three different kinds of tourist encounters with the Masai people who live in the region. Some tour groups visited Masai villages, where they entered people's homes, watched dances, and bought bead necklaces. Masai dances were also presented in a theater-like setting, where they are viewed by both tourists and local people. Tourists could also visit a large estate (think Out of Africa), where they sat at tables on the lawn drinking tea and watching Masai dancers perform. They were even encouraged to chat with the dancers and participate in the dancing.

This article reminded class member Barbara Amran of an experience she had on an OLLI-sponsored trip to Tanzania. Despite the tour leader's reluctance, the group decided to visit a Masai village. Barbara says, "I still remember my discomfort when we were pressured to buy trinkets and witness dances that seemed more for our entertainment than to teach about the Masai culture."

After reading the Masai article, class members talked about the relationship between tourists and the people they meet in their travels. Did any of the encounters described in the article represent a genuine experience of Masai culture? What do the Masai gain by putting their dances on display? Economic reward? Food on the table? What effect does this have on their traditional way of life? As tourists, do we have the right to question the Masai's decisions about their own lives and culture?

Class participants agreed that there are no simple and easy answers to these questions and others raised in Keith Roberts' course. But the questions need to be asked. Barbara said, "The course opened my eyes to the numerous ways that tourists affect the country visited and the ways that tourists are affected by the people they interact with." Susan Imholt, the course assistant, had an immediate opportunity to apply what she learned in Keith's class. She went on a three-week trip to Cambodia following the course and later described her experience, which included unheated water in the shower and fans instead of air-conditioning to "alleviate the stifling heat and humidity." Susan said, "The course helped me rethink and explore my American values and beliefs." Her conclusion? We don't "deserve comfort at all times."

The course ended with a discussion of ways in which tourists can be more sensitive to their impact on the people and places they visit. Thinking critically about travel plans is one option; Barbara Burleigh said that from now on she would "ask hard questions before booking a nature tour or any tour." Another idea is using a "self-tax" to offset the effect of tourism on the environment. This self-imposed tax based on a percentage of airfare would be given to organizations working to prevent climate change. Course leader Keith Roberts suggested a general approach to rethinking tourism: shifting from a "consumerist culture" of travel—"What can I get"—to a culture focused on "What can I learn?"

"What can I learn?" is a theme in the lives of most OLLI members. Keith Roberts' course on tourism helped us to understand that when we travel, the world becomes our classroom.

"The course opened my eyes to the numerous ways that tourists affect the country visited... "