Commodifying Culture

The myth of the authentic experience

by Rover


The Banana Pancake Trail is the route around Southeast Asia traveled by backpackers and sightseers, named after the dish often made at guesthouses and hostels there. Western tourists have made their presence in the region known, and restaurants, hotels and entertainment have sprung up to cater to their needs. The most common route passes through parts of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

Any tourist lucky enough to travel this route has undoubtedly heard the ubiquitous phrase, “Same, same, but different.” Locals say it with a smile as tourists walk by in droves with the same mountaineering backpacks, the same flip-flops and the same baggy linen pants with elephants on them. The phrase is deployed by street vendors all over Southeast Asia who sell both tokens familiar around the world and specific to the region: incense, Buddha statuettes, tobacco pipes, Angkor Wat temple statuettes, Angry Bird tank-tops and baseball caps with Nintendo logos on them. 

In many countries and regions frequented by western tourists, the unique features of national cultures have been forced through the machinery of the tourist industry and transformed into trinkets, digestible symbols of “authentic” cultural experience. Cultures are boiled down to cheap and marketable memorabilia. In Southeast Asia, a disproportionate amount of resources are allocated to the development of the tourist industry and an unbelievable number of people have no financial recourse apart from this industry. Homogenization reveals itself not only in plastic collectibles, but in the very ways the tourist industry manipulates travelers’ experiences to highlight and venerate the most “authentic” parts of non-western culture. 

I understand the imperative of local populations in developing countries to monetize aspects of their cultural heritage for money. Commodifying culture is not new. However, the difference between tourism in France and tourism in Cambodia is that in Paris, the tourism industry represents a small fraction of the economic vitality and culture. Startlingly, the culture of tourism has become as celebrated and elevated as a culture itself. 

There is no more stark illustration of this phenomenon than the t-shirts sold by vendors boasting the phrase, “Same, same, but different.” The phrase itself has become a purchasable token of culture. Southeast Asia has essentially flattened itself, like the famous banana pancakes. The standardization that occurs in the wake of globalization is a marketable phenomenon. The unique gets packaged and sold as a cultural good and acquires a commercial banality. Daily life has become subsumed by the commercialization that influences all aspects of life.  

The commodification of “Same, same but different” suggests a relinquishment, a tacit submission to the standardization of culture in Southeast Asia. It reflects the idea that more and more things that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global. It is clear that Southeast Asia has gone beyond merely selling tourists the same interchangeable crap, but has decided to sell the reality of this interchangeability, now packaged as a marketing slogan.  

I don’t want to insult people who are obliged to reckon with the forces of a multinational conglomerate-controlled, exploitative system of global tourism. But I do believe in the thesis of the late French post-modernist cultural and political theorist Jean Baudrillard, who believed that “globalization is fundamentally a process of homogenization and standardization that crushes the singular and heterogeneity.” Homogenization reveals itself not only in the vendors’ “Same, same but different” colloquialism, but also in the day-to-day logistical realities of traveling in this part of the world. 

To be a “sightseer” is to relate to a place in terms of the various “destinations” or “sights” of cultural or historical significance that a country’s tourism/culture industry has packaged together—museums, temples, churches, restaurants, etc. Maybe these sights are worth paying more attention to than others. They are often wondrous and immensely important. However, local governments, state governments and the business sector’s marketing tendrils wield a heavy hand in defining what parts of a culture deserve recognition, based on their “authenticity.”

The perceived “authenticity” of a destination translates into its commercial viability. These commercially viable “sights” are then often integrated into an infrastructure that makes travel amongst them easy. This compels tourists all over the region to pay for “authentic” experiences that impress upon them that commercially idealized sense of a “genuine cultural encounter.” 

This vanquishes the peripheries of cultures, disregards what is not commercially celebrated and monumentalizes the remnants of bygone cultural moments. This convinces travelers that what is not “cultural” is not real, that there is nothing compelling in between these popular and idealized destinations. It turns countries into museums and culture shows, where iconic things from the past are laboriously upheld. Destination-hopping tourism is the equivalent of modern billboard dance music. Yeah, it’s fun. But there’s no symphonic whole, no intimate inflections, no uniqueness, just build-ups and climaxes and then mostly inane noise in between. And on a final note, maybe the real way to sum up the phenomenon I have discussed here is by looking at tour guidebooks. 

Guidebooks are practical, yes. They help to navigate foreign cities, coordinate transportation and understand the culture to a degree. But it’s no wonder that the world’s largest travel guidebook publishing company is called “Lonely Planet.” The idea, from a marketing standpoint, I believe, is to keep the “authenticity” of non-Western cultures to enhance our desire to travel there. 

Lonely Planet has seized on this modern malaise and desire and in turn, contributed to the gross idealization of “exotic” places and foreign cultures that live “by the old ways,” maintain “meaningful traditions” and “authentic” relations to nature and family—cultures that are “genuine.” I do not mean to say that these cultures don’t have these qualities. However, we must resist the dichotomy tourism sets up between “us” and “them” that distances us from people who are much more like us than the industry would have us think.