Tourism in Amish Communities

By Turco, Douglas Michele | Parks & Recreation, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Tourism in Amish Communities


Turco, Douglas Michele, Parks & Recreation


On a two-lane country road in Arthur, Illinois, a motorcoach packed with 45 tourists speeds past a horse drawn buggy. "Look at them!" one shouts. The tourists crane their necks for a glimpse of the plain-clothed Amish couple. Several tourists hurriedly snap their cameras to record the scene. The bearded driver holds his breath to avoid inhaling exhaust fumes and carefully guides the horse along the narrow gravel shoulder. He and his wife do not glance at the tour bus. They have been through this many times before.

Ethnic cultures are popular attractions for tourists in the U.S.. New York's Little Italy, Taos, New Mexico's Indian Pueblo, and Amish settlements in Lancaster, Pennsylvania are examples of cultural "theme parks" which attract tourists. This article describes the Amish as cultural tourism attractions, discusses reasons for their popularity, and identifies the impacts (both positive and negative) of tourism on Amish life.

The Amish

The Old Order Amish are descendants of the Mennonites who fled religious persecution in Germany during the late 17th century and came to the U.S., settling primarily in the eastern part of Pennsylvania. Followers of Jakob Ammann later separated from the Mennonites in 1693 and were named the Amish (Pennsylvania Dutch Welcome Center, 2000). Old Order Amish are identified by their conservative attire, straw hats, black bonnets, and horse-drawn buggies. Most Amish families are farmers. They do not have electricity in their homes and send their children to private, one-room schools. Most Amish are trilingual: they speak a dialect of German called Pennsylvania Dutch at home, use German at worship services, and speak English when interacting with anyone who is not Amish. In 1890, there were only 22 Amish church districts in North America, and the estimated Amish population was 3,700. In 1994, more than 750 church districts, with an estimated population of 130,000, were located in 20 American states and Ontario, Canada (Pennsylvania Dutch Welcome Center, 2000).

Increasingly, the Amish have participated in the tourism industry: willingly, as entrepreneurs, or unwillingly, as cultural icons for tourists to view. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania has been commercialized for tourism for several decades (Smith, 1961). In 1978, Buck described the tourism scene there as follows:

Amishmen are reproduced and caricatured in tourist promotion materials, area maps and billboards. Large plastic Amishmen, some of which are animated, beckon tourists into gasoline stations, diners, souvenir shops and motels. Amish dolls, most of which are imported, are popular souvenirs. Restaurant placemats are awash with fabricated Amish dialect and humor. Pamphlets encompassing every degree of accuracy, picture postcards, posters, prints and paintings depicting Amish life are commonplace. Mass-produced Amish straw hats and felt hats sold in souvenir shops show up as teenage attire on city streets, beaches and suburban patios. (Buck, 1978)

Not everyone finds the commoditization of culture for tourism appealing. From Cohen's perspective (1988), the packaging of cultural experiences for sale to tourists represents a "watering down" of cultural authenticity, and a cheapening of their intrinsic value (to some hosts and some visitors or "guests") for the sake of short-term economic gain.

Kraybill and Nolt (1995) attribute the Amish movement into tourism to three reasons: (1) pressures on the dwindling supply of farmland in Lancaster County, the state's most rapidly growing county; (2) the growth of tourist traffic in Lancaster County; and (3) the development of small business as a source of supplementary retirement income for Amish ex-farmers. These factors have led to a reduction in Lancaster County's farmland in 20 years by 20 percent, or 82,000 acres (Thomas, 1998). In 1993, 28 percent of Amish households in Lancaster County contained at least one non-farm business owner.

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