Expectation vs. Reality: Moving Beyond Stereotypes of Indigenous People in the Circumpolar North

This month we published Tourism and Indigeneity in the Arctic edited by Arvid Viken and Dieter K. Müller. In this post Dieter reflects on the research he and his co-editor carried out on Sami tourism.  

Indigenous peoples have been a focus of tourism research for quite a while. In the scientific literature, tourism has been promoted as an opportunity for indigenous people by offering possibilities to make a living and promote indigenous development. Alternatively, tourism has been portrayed as a threat to indigenous culture by contributing to commodification and sometimes the development of fake cultures.

Reflecting on our Nordic experience, my colleague Arvid Viken and I had some trouble seeing how these interpretations can be utilized to explain and understand the situation of the Sami, the indigenous people of Northern Europe, in relation to tourism. Here the story told is rather that there have been great expectations regarding indigenous tourism development that so far have not been realized, or at least not to the extent anticipated. This was the point of departure for our idea to do a book on indigenous tourism in the Arctic, and not least in the Nordic countries.

In our understanding the Sami are a modern people living modern lives, and in fact only a small minority of the Sami is directly involved in the traditional industry, reindeer herding. In fact, even reindeer herding is a modern meat producing industry using helicopters, trucks, motorcycles and GPS-tracking. However, globalization and international competition in the meat market implies that it is a tough way to make a living, not least in a situation where many Sami have an increasing interest in their own culture and their traditional industry. In this context tourism is just one potential livelihood that people choose outside reindeer herding. However nobody has to engage in tourism. Instead, Sami get involved in tourism because they desire to do so, not because they do not have any alternatives.

Still, there are multiple expectations toward the Sami to get involved in tourism and to act in a certain way. A great example was noted many years ago by a fellow Swedish researcher who studied the process of establishing the World Heritage Area Laponia in the North of Sweden. The area is a mixed World Heritage site acknowledging the physical features of the landscape as well as the fact that it is a landscape formed by Sami reindeer husbandry since time immemorial. However, when visiting the site a UNESCO delegation expressed concerns about the fact that reindeer herders used cell phones and other equipment that did not match their expectations of an indigenous people.

I think this is a great illustration of the situation of indigenous people in welfare states. It also indicates the challenges that Sami tourism entrepreneurs have to deal with, i.e. tourist expectations that don’t reflect the modern indigenous everyday reality. Still, as the case studies in this book teach us, even the situation in the circumpolar North is complex and varies between places. Hence, one should not overgeneralize. Instead, I hope the book will inspire scholars to join us in digging deeper into the conditions of indigenous tourism in northern locations and move beyond stereotypical understandings of indigenous people.

Dieter K. Müller, Umeå University

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Polar Tourism by Bernard Stonehouse and John Snyder.

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