Is our thirst for traveling ruining local craftsmanship?


The local culture of a particular destination is what often draws holidaymakers to a specific area of the globe. It allows people to open their eyes to the way millions live differently to what westerners may consider the ‘norm’. Local culture itself is comprised of a multitude of areas including living arrangements, family structure, religion, and many variations of day to day elements considered to make up a cultural lifestyle. One aspect that specifically engages tourists is the arts. Crafts allow guests to take home a tangible object holding meaning, memories of the experience, and giving the customer a good feeling of having purchased a product made from the hands of a local craftsman working in a traditional trade. Although, from the outside, this comes across as a pleasant thing to do when vacationing and looking for a gift or trinket to take home, but is the fact that people are vacationing in local areas like this at all hindering local craftsmanship?

A factor not often considered when purchasing an item for ‘memory’ purposes is where this product originates from. In this digital age of social media we, as a society, have become conditioned to want things instantly. Many don’t take the time to think about the consequences of buying a ‘traditional’ item from a gift shop as opposed to a local tradesman or craftsman themselves. Owing to this example of instant gratification, tourists end up hurting the areas they intended to enjoy. Areas with booming tourism yet a strong local culture, as analogous to Bali and the Maldives, are now popular holiday destinations for their beaches, hotels, and conjoined shopping features as opposed to the local culture’s ability to create wondrous art.

In the 1930s, Bali was initially recognised by visitors as somewhat of an art haven. It was acknowledged for its ability to produce great artists, particularly within areas such as painting and wood carving. Balinese painting, originally made with cotton and starch, became the location’s definer, giving Bali the label of the ‘island of artists’ devised from as far back as the 15th century. Over time, these natural artistic skills have been passed down by each generation, ensuring that each new craftsman cohort would have an aptitude for traditional crafts. However, as skills have been developed, refined, and improved as years have gone on, the demand for these products has decreased. Instead, seashell necklaces and anklets have emerged as the holidaymakers trend for summer 2019. 

Buying items from gift shops as opposed to markets and local tradesmen are not the only problems craftsmen are faced with. Despite tourism itself being portrayed as an excellent source of finance for developing countries by the western media, a concept that is not being unveiled to the public is the ‘tourism leakage’. This consists of the idea that tourism does not benefit local communities socio-economically despite heavy investments in tourist concentrated areas. The notion implies that when vacationing, people will fly with international airlines, book transport from global car rentals or taxi companies in advance, stay in well known hotel chains, and shop within a small radius of their accommodation. It has been argued that this places money into large corporations as opposed to pouring money back into local communities. 

Despite the large sums of money going into these corporations, tourism does create some jobs for local people, giving them the opportunity to earn more income than they may have done from previous jobs. Naturally gifted craftsmen turn away from passions to essentially ‘make what the market dictates’, and unfortunately the tourism market dictates the need for labour, often consisting in jobs involving cleaning, driving and gardening. These low level roles may benefit an individual otherwise facing unemployment or a lack of income based on trade, but fails to create a long lasting financial back to the local communities that large corporations so often benefit from. 

With tourists wanting gifts immediately, not straying into local villages, and not always concerning themselves with the culture and history of their surroundings, alongside corporations failing to promote local craftsmanship and art; it can be confidently concluded that travelling hinders local creatives, business, and economies. To turn this around, it’s important to spread awareness of local artisans and encourage holidaymakers to branch away from an area they find comfortable. In these locations, there is much more to look at than just the beach. There are hidden communities creating garden sculptures with their bare hands, weaving cloth in a myriad of patterns and designs, and making imagery from cotton flower and rice starch. Bridging the gap between tourism and local economies is essential to stop travelling ruining craft communities, and to keep traditional art alive. 

by Georgia Gadsby

Georgia Gadsby is a full time marketer and freelancer. With a passion for conscious brands, social activism and environmentalism, Georgia works with companies that promote sustainability and positivity.