Tourism Geographic
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Tourism Geographic

Tourism Branding

Paradise, the Noble Savage, and the White Savior in Fiji

Can Fiji do better to both bring back tourists and build national pride and a sustainable future?

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

by Joseph M. Cheer

The latest attempt to promote tourism by the Fijian government has raised eyebrows. It features a celebrity actor, Rebel Wilson, and has people talking about its appropriateness.

The popular view is that Fiji’s tourism must build back better in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Fijians have long debated what a “better tourism” might be. What social, ecological, and economic outcomes should tourism produce?.

This comes at a time when travel and tourism are changing globally. Travelers now demand holidays that produce better outcomes for host communities and our planet.

For example, we now realize that measuring tourism success based on total tourist arrivals and expenditure is bad. It encourages environmental and cultural destruction and it makes climate change worse. But travelers are becoming more aware of sustainable and responsible tourism alternatives. More recently, a regenerative tourism approach hopes to make destinations better than before.

Fiji created its new “Open for Happiness” campaign to shift travelers from the dreaming stage to committing and booking a holiday to Fiji. The effort to put as many bums on seats as possible is a priority to restart the country’s economy.

Destination campaigns like this usually are based on the motivations of potential travelers. Marketing campaigns attempt to tap into those travel desires and turn them into bookings and arrivals.

Such campaigns are a large investment, especially for less developed countries. It is hard to predict if a campaign will succeed in building an appropriate brand. Value for money and efficacy are only discernible in hindsight.

For example, the “100% Pure New Zealand” campaign created a strong sustainability brand value for the country and its tourism. But it also had broader impacts. It gave New Zealand a soft power political and trade advantage, especially in agriculture.

Then there was Australia’s Northern Territory’s unofficial campaign, “CU in the NT”, and Australia’s “Where the Bloody Hell Are You?”. Those humorous promotions were successful at getting media attention, but faded soon after. They had little enduring benefit. They actually polarized and undermined goodwill, rather than enhancing brand values. And they completely bypassed sustainable forms of tourism.

Tourism campaigns often have a greater purpose than just encouraging travel to a destination.

National pride can be stoked by tourism advertising. Advertising can build a coherent impression of what a people and country stand for. It can also help advance a nation’s standing in global trade, soft political power, and people-to-people relations.

Two other cases of destination branding are worth mentioning. The first is Vanuatu’s “Answer the Call” campaign. Local people, culture, and places appeal to many tourists. They offer a rich foreground to the larger social and environmental attractions of a place. This campaign made Vanuatu’s local people central, overcoming traditional stereotypes and clichés.

The other is New Zealand’s 2021 campaign, “Stop Dreaming and Go.” This instance saw the dream of visiting the country brought to life through playful interactions between visitors and hosts. The campaign even negotiated issues of power and privilege through Māori hosts speaking their te reo (Maori language).

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

By contrast, Fiji’s new “Open for Happiness” initiative only appears focused on selling to the global mass tourism market. It prioritizes consumption by focusing on problematic stereotypes.

Nation branding is a sophisticated and complicated process. It usually tries to connect both contemporary and historical perspectives, iconography, and imagery. They can also be political, portraying nationalistic and political agendas.

For many developing nations, national tourism campaigns can be costly. This is why they often pander to the desires of foreign travelers. In doing so, they risk acknowledging the voice of host communities.

Many developing country destinations also have a colonial history. Remnants still exist today in forms of neocolonialism. They remember their exploitation under colonial masters, and lingering grievances remain unresolved.

The caricatures used to promote tourism often hinge on hackneyed and superficial images. They infantilize (treat like an infant) and generalize people and places to commoditize and sell them. This often reinforces old colonial stereotypes. Respect for local cultures and places is all too often absent.

Critical observations and howls of disapproval are not new when it comes to destination branding. Any effort to capture the essence of a place in 30 seconds is going to generate disagreements. And that is especially true when the main goal is to increase sales.

That is especially challenging when people associate tourism branding with national identity and pride. Instances like that are common for smaller and more tourism-dependent countries. It is easier for a campaign to opt for eye-catching, controversial, or entertaining instead. Being genuine, culturally sensitive, and thoughtful is difficult.

Photo by Jon Cellier on Unsplash

Two initiatives that stand out as culturally sensitive and ecologically aware are New Zealand’s “The Tiaki Promise” and Palau’s “Palau Pledge.” Both show that tourism marketing can promote sales and create respect for people and places.

The Tiaki Promise states:

While travelling in New Zealand, I will:
— Care for land, sea and nature, treading lightly and leaving no trace
— Travel safely, showing care and consideration for all
— Respect the culture, travelling with an open heart and mind

The Palau Pledge is presented to visitors in the passport area upon arrival:

Children of Palau.
I take this pledge,
As your guest,
To preserve and protect
Your beautiful and unique
Island home.

I vow to tread lightly,
Act kindly and
Explore mindfully.

I shall not take
What is not given
I shall not harm
What does not harm me
The only footprints
I shall leave are those
That will wash away.

Children in Fiji. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Celebrity endorsers are often used to enhance tourist arrivals and sales. They promote a tourism brand without concern for a national brand. How they impact a nation’s standing and issues of sustainability are secondary. They can also run aground when the celebrity becomes mired in controversy and loses the public’s goodwill.

The employment of Rebel Wilson (an Australian comedian and celebrity) in the current Fiji tourism campaign is a curious choice. While she is a familiar face to some, she is unknown to many others. Whether she encourages visitation beyond entertaining viewers remains to be seen.

Criticisms of tourism development in less developed countries have a long lineage. Often, tourism development reinforces former colonial relationships. Whether tourism contributes to long-term development is difficult to substantiate.

“Who is tourism for?” is a question and a cause of discontent in Freda Rajotte and Ron Crocombe’s book, Pacific Tourism as Islanders See It. Locals gather the crumbs from the tourist table.

International tourism drives global travel supply chains. Their main priority is to optimize visitation, regardless of the impacts that may arise. Those impacts include things like overtourism. Among a host of unintended side effects, tourism:
— induces cultural change,
— increases inflation,
— puts stress on the local environment and natural resources,
— uses modern slavery practices (including low wages and forms of indentured servitude), and
— encourages land grabbing.

Photo by Mark de Jong on Unsplash

The archetypal “noble savage” and “white saviour” images are evident in Fiji’s Open for Happiness” campaign. That includes hackneyed images of welcoming and blissfully happy, smiling natives. Those images gloss over the social, economic, and environmental issues that impact everyday Fijian life. It also stereotypes other developing country destinations that share similar characteristics with Fiji.

The “white saviour” trope (metaphor) that Rebel Wilson jokingly plays continues a history of venerating, prioritising, and feting white colonial masters. As in the past, a willing and submissive, brown tourism ensemble will cater to their every need.

The power asymmetries are obvious, whether we see them as playful or egregious from our point of view. Tourists might see this as adorable and cute. Some locals might even laugh at the banal characterizations of themselves. Others might bristle at the clichéd oversimplifications and stereotyping.

But unless we change the way people and places are conceived and presented, we will perpetuate well-worn clichés and stereotypes. That does little or nothing to advance the goals of mutual respect, care, and mindful consumption of people and places.

It also does little to help curtail marginalisation and crass demonstrations of privilege. The very things that The Tiaki Promise and Palau Pledge rally against.

For countries like Fiji, the imperative is to kick-start a tourism economy hammered throughout 2020 and 2021. The extensive supply chain between tourism and the livelihoods and futures of Fijians depends on this.

Debating tourism portrayals of people and places might be well-founded and legitimate. But for many destinations like Fiji, the critical imperative is to get the tourism industry’s wheels moving again. For destination marketers and the long tail of the tourism industry’s supply chains, getting the tourists back on planes and in hotel rooms is the priority.

“Bula” (Fiji) and “Aloha” (Hawaii) are synonymous with the people and places they represent and depict. But might they lose their genuine intentions of hospitality and care for the visitor in the wake of getting the economy back? Will they instead become empty slogans for marketers and travel operators?

Photo by Jimmy Conover on Unsplash

About the Author

Joseph M. Cheer is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the academic journal Tourism Geographies and Professor in Sustainable Tourism, Centre for Tourism Research, Wakayama University, Japan. He is also Adjunct Professor, AUT New Zealand and UCSI University Malaysia, and Adjunct Research Fellow, Monash University, Australia.

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