Academic journal article Human Organization

Through a New Mirror: Reflections on Tourism and Identity in the Amazon

Academic journal article Human Organization

Through a New Mirror: Reflections on Tourism and Identity in the Amazon

Article excerpt

Interactions between locals and tourists entail more than simple transactions of money for goods or services. They also involve the exchange of expectations, stereotypes, and expressions of ethnicity and culture. In this study, an ecotourism lodge in Peru was the setting for an ethnographic analysis of tourists' expectant gazes and locals' reactions to them. Interview data and observations reveal that over several years, locals began to alter their perceptions of what it meant to be, sound, and look "native." The lodge in the study is co-owned and managed by a mixed ethnic community of 150 families. Since opening in 1998, the lodge has received 5,000-6,000 tourists a year. Partly in response to the expectations of tourists, people have begun to show new (or renewed) pride in indigenous culture. Four indicators were: (1) increased efforts to learn indigenous language, stories, and songs from elders; (2) heightened interest in presenting indigenous culture to tourists, coupled with debates over intellectual property rights; (3) the adoption of native identity by some non-native members of the community; and (4) discussions about dividing the community along ethnic lines.

Key words: ethnicity, ecotourism, cultural revalorization, mestizo, indigenous

People become aware of their culture when they stand at its boundaries.

A. Cohen (1985)

The Ese eja, we know the science of the natural world and how to live. We have the legacy of our ancestors, the ones who know. The mestizos are in zero. If they know anything it is because of us. We, the natives, know everything, all of the animals, and because of the moon and the sun, we are never lost.

Ese eja man, 45, Infierno


Tourism is often a catalyst of change in the ways people perceive themselves and others. When tourists and locals meet, their encounters are like windows that double as mirrors: each side uses the other to peer into a new world while at the same time casting back impressions, and reflecting on themselves through the eyes of the other. Expectations of how each side "should" look are often based on ethnic stereotypes, nostalgic ideals, and the promising pictures of brochures. In the wake of such gazing, hosts and guests on both sides are likely to walk away affected, their views of themselves and of the other somehow altered.

The purpose of this article is to describe the ways in which tourism has affected perceptions of identity and culture in the mixed ethnic Native Community of Infierno in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon. The members of Infierno partnered with a private tourism company in 1996 to build, co-manage, and share profits in an ecotourism lodge called Posada Amazonas. Using ethnographic data gathered between 1996 and 2006,1 interpret transformations of identity in the community, and how perceptions of self and other are changing in the context of tourism. I pay particular attention to what Pierre Van den Berghe ( 1994) has called re-creations of ethnicity as locals reflect on what (they think) tourists want to see. In so doing, I emphasize the relational and dynamic qualities of ethnic identity.

Tourism, Culture, and Ethnicity

Many anthropologists have interpreted tourism's effects on ethnicity and cultural identity (Chambers 2000, Gmelch 2004, Nash 1996). Nufiez (1963) described tourism as a "laboratory situation" for testing how cultural perceptions and relations shift when hosts and guests interact. A number of seminal works have shown how ethnicity is represented, perceived, and reinvented through the tourist gaze (Bruner 1987; Bruner and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1994; MacCannell 1984; Urry 1990). Some have argued that tourism can represent a first wave of globalization that overpowers or altogether obliterates local traditions and values (Mowforth and Munt 1998). Others have shown that tourism can lead to a renaissance of native culture by instilling new pride in local communities (Grunewald 2002; Ingles 2001; Van den Berghe and Keyes 1984, 1994) or by encouraging creative forms of self-representation (Bendix 1989;Cohen 1979, 1988; Evans-Pritchard 1989; Leong 1989). …

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