Campus & Community

Tourist attraction, rising oxymoron

4 min read

New York’s Little Italy not so Italian anymore

Tourism changes everything it touches, homogenizing and sanitizing even as it brings in bodies and dollars.

This is tourism’s “central paradox,” according to Susan Fainstein, a Columbia

Columbia’s Susan Fainstein explains that exotic locales marketed for their distinct culture and history become a little less exotic when the streets are teeming with tourists instead of local residents. (Staff photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office)

University professor and author of the book on tourism “The City Builders.” It’s the task of local officials and regulators, she said, to keep those homogenizing forces in check even as they promote what can be an important contributor to a region’s economy.

Fainstein, who spoke at the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Taubman Building on Thursday afternoon (March 4), outlined tourism’s benefits and drawbacks in a presentation before about 40 people in the Taubman’s Allison Dining Room. The event was sponsored by the Taubman Center for State and Local Government.

The point of tourism is to escape, even briefly, from life’s problems, Fainstein said. So tourist destinations are under pressure to make themselves prettier, to add entertainment and insulate tourist areas from crime, and to hide away evidence of manual labor and poverty.

Exotic locales marketed for their distinct culture and history become a little less exotic when the streets are teeming with tourists instead of local residents. Some locations even change their physical look to meet the expectations of tourists, who in this information age can research even the most remote locations and who arrive with bags packed with expectations as well as garments.

“The old places take on new clothes,” Fainstein said. “The real places are scurrying to remake themselves to match the expectations of what people think they should be.”

Fainstein described different types of tourist destinations, each with their own characteristics. Tourist cities, such as Cancun and Las Vegas, are created with the tourist in mind. Converted cities, such as Detroit and San Antonio, have more uneven development, and attempt to keep tourists segregated from the rest of the city in special districts.

“In an effort to protect visitors from the city, they are separated,” Fainstein said.

Her talk dealt mostly with a third category of city, historic and multicultural cities. Tourism in these cities tends to be much more integrated with the fabric of life.

But in integrating, tourism also changes.

Fainstein offered many examples, describing how tourism changes the experience of a place. Touring a historic European church, she said, is a different experience entirely from worshipping there. Touring a castle, she said, is a different experience from visiting there at the bequest of the king.

Given enough time, she said, tourism becomes part of the fabric of a place. In Venice, for example, glassmakers have been making things for tourists for so long that they’re part of the background.

“For 200 years, people have been spinning glass to sell to tourists. That’s what people in Venice do,” Fainstein said. “The meanings of the places have changed.”

Tourism promotes what Fainstein termed “fakery” such as the neighborhood Italian restaurants in New York’s Little Italy, where the neighborhood these days is mostly made up of ethnic Asians, rather than Italians.

Though tourism has its drawbacks, it’s not purely negative. As a form of economic development, it can be more stable than manufacturing, Fainstein said. Manufacturing jobs can be shipped out of state or overseas, but tourists coming to New York City can’t go anywhere else but New York.

Jobs in the tourism industry have been criticized as being low-wage, seasonal, and exploitative. But Fainstein said they’re also low-skilled, which makes them accessible to entry-level workers or those laid off from manufacturing jobs.

In addition to bringing dollars to a region, tourism can foster positive change.

Sports teams, conventions, and cultural institutions enrich the life for city residents as well as for visitors, she said.

In Harlem, Fainstein said, tourism has helped revive black culture. Streets are better lit, and jazz clubs and restaurants have opened. Still, Fainstein said, there is resentment among some residents.

“People say, I don’t want to be in a ‘zoo’ walking down the street while a bus full of people seeing ‘real life’ goes by,” Fainstein said.

That highlights the tension that tourism has always brought. The tension is familiar in traditional summer resort areas such as Cape Cod, where the local residents dread the annual onslaught of tourists, even as they rely on them for their livelihood.

“Tourism always inspires ambivalence among the people being visited,” Fainstein said. “There is a question whether culture can be maintained, because once you sell it and market it, you change it.”