Monday, September 30, 2013

Authentic Tourism or Authentic Tourist

The official World Toilet Summit doesn’t start until Wednesday, but the ‘Training on trainers’ portion of the event began today. This part of the summit is geared specifically at those in the culture and tourism industries who are looking for practical training on running toilet facilities. 

The timing of my arrival (on the eve of this event) must have caused some confusion, because I got a call at 8 in the morning saying as I had missed the official transport I should get a taxi to the Sunan Hotel where the conference is being held.

I had a hasty shower (cold… but I suppose the weather is warm enough here that a hot shower is almost never really necessary.) and stopped by the café for breakfast. There was a baffling array of foods I wouldn’t normally associate with a morning meal (mostly noodles and meat), but aware that I was already late for the start of the conference I played it safe with toast and pineapple jam.

I can see the Sunan from my window, so it seemed quite silly to take a taxi. Instead I set out to walk. The first and greatest challenge was getting across the road. Crosswalks here are pretty much non-existant. One simply plunges into the road, weaving through cars and motorcycles, which don’t seem to ever slow down. Or, in my case one stands helplessly on the side of the road until a nice escort appears to get me across, blowing a whistle and dodging with me in tow between the vehicles. 

From the main road I walked along a much narrower and quieter street with mostly squat houses in a hodgepodge of different styles and materials. It took about ten minutes to find my way to the hotel. I went to check in, and they handed me a training manual and directed me towards the conference room. I tried to explain I hadn’t signed up to the sessions, but they just smiled and nodded at me and continued to direct me into the conference room, so in I went. I got in about half way through the welcoming speeches. Everything was in Indonesian, with the odd English phrase here and there.

The first training unit was also in Indonesian, though a lot of the slides were in English, so I had some clue as to what was going on. The topic was ‘Restroom Service Quality’ and it was largely about customer service and representation. Restrooms should be high quality both functionally and aesthetically (‘look, feel, sound and smell’… all the five senses save for taste, which is probably not one you want to have to think about in the context of toilets.)

Probably the most useful element of the day was chatting with Juliet from the World Toilet Organization at the break. She was particularly keen to talk about the importance of toilets in schools. I tried to explain very briefly what I was doing there and my own interest in sanitation and she seemed mildly amused by my business card (which has my title as ‘The Loo Tour Lady’. I had debated something with more gravity, but decided, for better or worse that ‘gravity’ is not the USP of what I do, so I may as well keep the amusement factor right from the outset.

She made the connection that story telling and performance are a particularly important way of spreading messages in Africa (and so another piece of my MA in Applied Theatre falls into place… why the use of Theatre for Development is particularly important in certain cultures.)

I left after the coffee break, figuring I would do some exploring. There was nothing of particular tourist interest of note nearby, so I just wandered and soaked in the atmosphere. The atmosphere involves a lot of honking. With an apparent lack of traffic signals or rules it seems to be the general practice to honk at every opportunity. It also turns out Solo is very much not a walking city. I couldn’t go more than two minutes without being offered a taxi. After wandering for about a half hour I finally accepted the offer of a bicycle rickshaw to get back to the hotel (which was 20,000 rupees- or about £2.)

I’d give quite a lot to have a local guide. It’s very hard (especially when jetlagged) to be on your own in a completely foreign country.

Flipping through the remainder of the ‘Trainers on training’ handbook back in my room I fount the experience I would most like to have: a unit on Tourism Villages. A tourism village is ‘a destination where the tourist can experience living in a village’ and participate in home-stays, local jobs (plowing, farming), learning traditional dance and crafts and cooking traditional food.

The concept is developed by the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy and has been running since 2008. And of course toilets come into play. The improvement of toilets in villages is important to make tourists comfortable. ‘The number of homestays has increased … after “the clean toilet program.”’ The village of Penting Sari had 9 international tourists in 2008, and 511 in 2012.

A closely related concept is Eco Tourism. The main emphasis of the ‘eco’ here is not only ‘ecological’ but ‘economic’. It is tourism which is meant to boost economic development and political empowerment of local communities. 

In 2011 Habitat for Humanity partnered with Asia Pulp and paper to bring the struggling village of Soran to its feet by making it a tourist destination by capitalizing on its traditions of song and dance.

Anthropologically there’s lots of ethical debate about this. Arguments abound that turning culture into commodity somehow defiles it and makes it ‘staged’ instead of ‘authentic.’ An article by Cathering Allerton outlines it pretty well, describing the tensions between the gaze of the outsider and the invisible but perhaps much more important rituals and mentalities that make up a culture. She notes a villages use of the term ‘authentic tourist’ as a village’s description of that ilk of tourists who don’t speak the language or have any particular academic interest in the culture.

Other arguments aside, from a sanitary point of view I am sure that most people (tourists and villagers alike) would be perfectly happy to forgo an authentic experience of diarrhea, and any other experiences that come with poor sanitation.

I suppose it’s not as simple as that though, because sanitary reform involves re-training one aspect of culture both architecturally and psychologically, so back round again the arguments of preservation verses progress. It’s not the question of whether toilets should be done, but of how they should be done that sparks heated debate.

Back in the hotel my intentions to study and work were sabotaged by a three hour nap attack. When I had regained consciousness I wandered down to the hotel's nearly vacant restaurant. The lovely man who served me was quite insistant that a burger was what I should order, and I was too tired at this point to argue that I wanted to sample Indonesia cuisine, so a burger I had. My eating was supervised by the large iconic portrait of Audrey Hepburn on the opposite wall and accompanied by a Jessie J singing that ‘it isn’t ‘bout the money money money…’ singularly appropriate to my musings of late.

On many levels it is about the ‘money money money’… but the money is only a superficial sign of a wide range of deeper motives. 


  1. Interesting.......please be careful In the traffic!
    When you can, expand on your last sentence.
    Can't help thinking that some kind of cost effective micro wave self generating system must be an answer for the developing world; especially if water becomes the new oil....that and nano fibre salt filters....

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