44 ETHNOGRAPHIES OF TOURISM IN THE GLOBAL SOUTH – Contributions by Carla Guerrón Montero


When I was a child growing up in Quito, Ecuador, my parents had the wisdom and economic resources to buy my sister and me a copy of the Children’s Encyclopedia (1971), an illustrated Spanish encyclopedia. One of its volumes had short stories about children from all over the world—Nigeria, Sweden, Mexico, Ireland, Ghana, the Netherlands, Poland. These stories fired my imagination. Growing up in Ecuador as a middle-class mestiza child, I did have the opportunity to travel around my small country—to the beach, the Andes, and the Amazonian region—but not internationally. The Children’s Encyclopedia was my first introduction to a wider world.

Decades later, when I visited Mexico for the first time to attend a conference as a graduate student, the first thing I bought (after having a real taco from a street vendor) was a small ceramic piggy bank, identical to the one made by Crucita, a character in one of the stories I read in the encyclopedia (De Brannif 1971). It was then that I realized how powerfully I had been moved by the images, objects, and ideas in the stories I had read as a child. They had introduced me to different ways of seeing the world.

It was not a surprise, then, at least not to me, that I decided to become an anthropologist upon graduating from high school. I was the first person in my nuclear family to attend university, and the expectation was that I would pursue a more traditional career, such as law, medicine, or perhaps engineering. “My little child, you are going to starve with your career choice,” was my father’s mantra in those days. Happily, I proved my beloved father wrong. He still tells me that he is so pleased that I did.

It was a surprise, however, when tourism ended up as the main focus of my research. In this chapter, I reflect upon the unforeseen route my anthropological journey took. It begins with a consideration of the specific challenges of conducting ethnographic work on tourism. It then moves on to discuss my contributions to tourism studies and the anthropology of tourism.

How Ethnography and Tourism Came Together in My Trajectory

Today, Ms. Melva explained to me why she thought tourists loved

Bocas del Toro: it is because tourists love to walk barefoot everywhere,

and here they can do that, even in restaurants and bars.

She does not even advertise her restaurant/bar and has more

clients that she can handle (Fieldnotes C.G.M., April 10, 2000)


Upon graduating from university in Ecuador, I received a fellowship to study for my Master of Arts degree in the United States and later found a way to continue for a doctorate. In Ecuador, my training had followed a classic approach to anthropology. I studied gender, racial relations, and economic development in a small Afro-Ecuadorian town for my Licenciatura and M.A. degrees and planned to continue on that path in my doctoral studies. But a casual comment by my doctoral advisor, the late Philip D. Young, revealed that I was not expected to return to Ecuador to carry out my dissertation fieldwork. Indeed, I had no idea that exploring the world—my dream as a child—was a real possibility, one that could be realized through my professional choices.

My advisor suggested that I consider Panama, the place where he had conducted fieldwork for decades. I started reading about this Central American country and, more specifically, about a place with an unusual name: Colón Island in the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro, on Panama’s Atlantic coast. I planned to continue to study the African diaspora through gender and racial relations, this time in an island environment. The Archipelago of Bocas del Toro was a fitting choice for this endeavour, as it is an ethnically diverse location and a site of great historical importance for the African diaspora.

My first visit to the Archipelago in 1996 revealed that, one way or another, tourism was transforming the lives of the local population and that, regardless of the questions I had developed for my fieldwork, I needed to take the tourism industry seriously. This presented a problem because I was not aware that tourism was a phenomenon that could actually be studied from an anthropological perspective. I also did not think that tourism was necessarily the most exciting or relevant subject for an anthropologist. My view at the time coincided with the general attitude of a section of the anthropological community, which did not recognize tourism as an established research topic. Although traveling somewhere else had been deemed essential in anthropology almost since its beginnings as a discipline, it was not until the 1960s that anthropologists considered tourism and travel subjects worthy of analysis, and then only in the U.S.

There were two main reasons for this attitude. First, anthropologists argued that our experiences and motivations were not comparable to those of tourists, and therefore it was not appropriate to associate anthropologists with tourists. Second, the subject of tourism itself was not viewed as a serious research topic both intellectually and ethnographically. Even though tourists and anthropologists encountered each other everywhere they went, anthropologists perceived tourists as an undesirable nuisance (Guerrón Montero 2019). These negative attitudes toward tourism as an appropriate field of study, combined with the denial of the overlapping identities of tourists and anthropologists, was part of a more extensive history of distancing in anthropology—distancing from missionaries, colonial authorities, colonial administrators, and those whose activities were dangerously similar to the anthropologists (Crick 1995:210-211).

By immersing myself in the literature of tourism studies, I realized that tourism could be a vehicle for understanding some of anthropology’s most basic and pressing questions about humanity: what it means to be mobile or immobile; how peoples resolve economic, social, cultural, and political needs; how different groups engage with those they call outsiders. Tourism also opens a vital window onto world politics and economics. You simply cannot ignore it.  The questions raised and insights gained when anthropologists conduct tourism research can be applied to other topics in anthropology and different fieldwork situations. However, when they are applied to the person of the fieldworker [. . .] they are given an edge by the fieldworker’s proximity to the tourists. The result is an interrelated set of arguments about the kind of knowledge that comes from consciousness of such proximity in the fieldwork situation (Strathern 2010:80).

It became clear to me that it was essential to study tourism as a cultural phenomenon and an industry. I also came to believe doing so would contribute to the subdiscipline of the anthropology of tourism and tourism studies. I was convinced. But it took time and effort to convince my scholarly community. I often found myself having to justify this choice to both my professors and my colleagues. It did not help that I was studying tourism in a stereotypically Caribbean island paradise, complete with friendly natives, striking blue waters, soft white sand, palm trees, coconuts, and even calypso music. Many doubted ethnographic research in such a place counted as research. I suppose it sounded too much like a vacation.

But off I went for my first experience in analysing tourism from a critical perspective, using ethnography as my primary methodology. The theoretical approach combined anthropological political economy with a decolonial, constructivist perspective. The concepts developed by U.S. anthropologist Edward Bruner were beneficial, especially the idea of the touristic borderzone, defined as the place and time of the encounters between locals and tourists, who both engage in a performance as if they were on a stage (Bruner 1996). To apply this concept to my work, I needed to identify places and moments where these encounters occurred, which I called contact zones (Pratt 2007). This required me to engage in several activities that allowed me to understand how the touristic borderzone operated. I observed the interactions between hosts and guests and how those interactions contributed to the construction of malleable Afro-Panamanian identities. Thus, I went on numerous and diverse tours in addition to daily participant observation in all the places where the locals led their lives. I visited the lobbies of hotels and hostels and interviewed their owners; I went to restaurants, bars, and discotheques. I also took scuba diving courses with tourists and worked as an assistant at the first Internet café in Bocas del Toro.

To date, I have dedicated more than 20 years to studying the entanglements of tourism, identity construction, and nation-building in Panama, including comparative research with Carriacou, Grenada (Guerrón Montero 2011, 2015) and Ecuador (Guerrón Montero 2020a). I have seen how a nation-state appropriates tourism and how ethnic groups respond to it. Tourism has been a vehicle for understanding nation-building through cuisine (Guerrón Montero 2004, 2012), music (Guerrón Montero 2006), community organizing (Guerrón Montero 2005), and local/national identity construction (Guerrón Montero 2009).

More recently, my studies have revealed how other marginalized ethnic groups appropriate tourism to attain sovereignty. This is the case with quilombolas, members of quilombos in Brazil. Quilombos are communities composed of peoples of African, indigenous, and European descent, often escapees from slavery in the early days, who constructed independent societies outside the plantation system. Over the years, these communities have gone through a notable transformation, from being sites for fugitives and criminals to centres of Afro-Brazilian resistance and ethnic identity par excellence. Starting in the mid-2000s, some quilombos developed tourism ventures and opened up their communities to visitors. Thus, while Brazilian quilombolas’ engagement with the tourism industry is still nascent, tourism has become one source economic development for quilombos..

At one of the quilombos I researched in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the quilombolas see tourism not only as a source of revenue but also as a platform for showcasing a carefully curated representation of their culture as dynamic, sovereign, and resistant, as well as showing how the present interlaces with the past.  Tourism allows them to highlight their alliance with the larger struggles of the Africa diaspora. Through it, they can offer tourists a different reading of their history as enslaved populations and present their efforts as never-ending. Their fluid tour narratives preserve selected aspects of their cultural history while creating new ones as means of resistance, interconnectedness, and sovereignty (Guerrón Montero 2017, 2020b, 2021).

Far from being an outlier in the field of anthropology, tourism studies have proven a potent tool for a better understanding of societal and cultural change.

The Anthropological Self as Research Instrument

While tourism studies are a fruitful branch of anthropology, they are not without their challenges, including the relationship between researchers and those with whom researchers work. Tourism fieldwork is at the same time a ‘contact zone,’ (between fieldworker, tourist and local; between different tourists; and between contesting subjectivities and roles on the part of the fieldworker), and an ‘auto-ethnographic space’ (blurring and complicating the distinctions between home and field, personal and private, tourist and ethnographer) (Andrews and Gupta 2010:3; Andrews et al. 2019). Given that the anthropological self is the research instrument in ethnography (Crick 1995), understanding how ethnographers insert themselves in tourism work is a substantive part of tourism research. Here I offer a quick discussion of this topic to clarify how the manner in which I positioned myself and was positioned in my field site influenced my findings and my contributions—my reflexivity but also my outlook on life.

Being an anthropologist of tourism puts one in an interesting position. There are many similarities between the nature of fieldwork and the nature of tourism. Crick (1985) wonders, what is the difference between being an anthropologist, being a tourist, and being an anthropologist studying tourism? (1985:74). The proximity between tourists and fieldworkers makes many anthropologists uneasy. Anthropologist fieldworkers and tourists alike go somewhere else—the anthropologists to their field sites, the tourists to their destination. Anthropologists doing fieldwork and the tourists they study are both out of place when they are at those sites (Strathern 2010). In addition, the relations between tourists and anthropologists are as complex as those between hosts and guests. As Cipollari (2010) notes, on one side we have anthropologists observing tourists who are in turn observing locals, who observe both tourists (to gauge their needs) and anthropologists (to understand what is worth observing). On the other side, anthropologists observe locals too and analyse their observations and adaptation or reaction to tourists (2010:32).

There are many insights to be gained from researching tourism as a fieldworker. Here, gender and racial identities of the fieldworker affect the way tourists, hosts, and guests interact with and learn about each other. I identify as a cisgender female mestiza; I was considered a white Latina in ethnically diverse Bocas del Toro. Furthermore, while real-life relationships are much more complex than a binary distinction between hosts and guests would allow, that is how Bocatoreneans saw their world when I first entered the field. I was placed in the middle. I was considered an outsider, but an outsider who was able to understand and care about the lives of Bocatoreneans. While I was not a “halfie anthropologist” (Andrews and Gupta 2010), locals trusted me and assumed a shared identity because of our common Latin American origin. There was also a degree of respect for the efforts I made to understand life in Bocas del Toro. My gender and ethnicity were a given, but so were the similarities between myself as a female anthropologist of some means and tourists in a tourism destination. The difference between being an anthropologist, a tourist, and an anthropologist studying tourism was sometimes blurred in the eyes of locals and tourists, and sometimes even in my own eyes.

Another complication had to do with prescribed gender roles. Working in the context of a society that carefully mandates different codes of behaviour for men and women, I quickly understood that I had to respect those boundaries. I also realized that I needed to separate myself from the tourists and lifestyle migrants that populated the island. Despite my numerous interactions with fleeting tourists and more permanent lifestyle migrants, it was necessary to demonstrate my unequivocal alliance with Bocatoreneans, who, for the most part, felt unfairly treated by local authorities who catered to the newcomers. Having been raised in Latin America, I realized there were numerous conventions I was expected to follow. I chose to abide by those conventions. Upon reflection, it is clear that I could have challenged those expectations. Doing so would have elicited different responses and reactions—possibly more acceptance at times or more rejection at other times.

Then why did I abide by the gendered norms of Bocas del Toro? One crucial reason was that I needed to signal that I was not an outsider searching for a casual affair or a longer-term romantic relationship. This was important because, for most Bocatoreneans, white women and men are highly desirable short- and long-term romantic partners due to their physical appearance and assumed economic advantages. As Rodrigo, an Afro-Antillean man who was a notorious womanizer explained to me:

The white Europeans are corrupting the young men.  You know, if you go to a disco or something, you know that we are used to paying for the beers that we offer to women.  [European women] get really upset, they want to be the ones to pay, so the young men now say: Yes, I am going to look for a gringa because she always wants to pay for me. She is the one who maintains the man.  So the young guys now don’t look for Latinas anymore because they are not going to do that, so now all that these guys have in mind is looking for a gringa, seeing if she has money, and trying to conquer her, because if she has money, I am set, you know?  (interview R. B., January 14, 2000).

Women visiting Bocas alone, especially white western women, were assumed to be on vacation, accessible, and needing a local companion.  White couples or families were perceived as safer, more stable. I was married at the time, and for the first eight months of my research, my then-husband accompanied me in the field. This demonstrated to men and women in Bocas that I was trustworthy. When I was conducting research accompanied by my then-husband, I was seen as safe by both sexes and could enter male- and female-centred spaces. When my husband left Bocas for the remaining twelve months of my first extended stay, I found ways to signal through behaviour and appearance that I was not the usual tourist or that I was not in search of male companionship. I was seen as a white Latina woman who was on her own; my behaviour had to demonstrate that I was safe and stable. For example, I only participated in events at night when accompanied by women from the island. If I were to interview someone at the small suite that I rented from a family, I had to have the doors open and take chairs out onto the patio so everyone could see me, especially if I was interviewing a man. If the interview was not at my home, then it had to be held in a public place.

I thought I had succeeded in showing I was safe for men and women on the island to interact with me by abiding by the established code of conduct. Yet, I was surprised to learn, for example, that the husband of one of my best friends in Bocas asked her for permission to go with me and another friend for a beer one night as a way to thank me for my help in a project. There were double standards and patriarchal hierarchies in those relations. In an effort to be careful about what people would think of me, perhaps I opted for being too cautious about not overstepping the bounds. But I think I am not alone in choosing a conservative approach. The father of structural anthropology, the famous Claude Leví-Strauss, noted in his memoir Tristes Tropiques (1961) that, “at home, the anthropologist may be a natural subversive, a convinced opponent of traditional usage: but no sooner has he in focus a society different from his own that he becomes respectful of even the most conservative practices” (381). Having to make these choices is one among many difficult ethical dilemmas anthropologists confront.

My choice of clothing was another manifestation of my understanding of Bocatorenean society’s code of behaviour. One of the most vocal complaints of Bocatoreneans about the tourism industry was that tourists treated the islands as big vacation resorts. While I wore comfortable clothes, I also made sure my clothes were always ironed and clean. I made every effort not to look like the stereotypical tourist on vacation: no shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops, and indeed, never walking barefoot in public. Yet in spite of my efforts to comply and blend in, I believe my identities as anthropologist and tourist overlapped (cf. Crick 1995), as summed up in one comment made by an Afro-Antillean friend: “Carla, I wish all the tourists who come here were like you.”

The situation was different in Brazil. Anthropologists have been instrumental in the legitimization processes of quilombos (Guerrón Montero 2020c), so quilombolas were thoroughly familiar with the work and role of anthropologists. My identity was thus tied to my profession in that country, while my marital status was not an issue. However, I was viewed differently from other anthropologists because, even though I came from the privileged space that being a faculty member at a U.S. institution of higher education affords, I was born in the Global South, just like the quilombolas. My reception at the quilombola Campinho da Independência (Rio de Janeiro) was also tied to my commitment to social justice, which I demonstrated by working closely with quilombola leadership on quilombola curricula and other relevant projects. This also helped me distance myself from the all too valid perception that researchers study quilombo communities only for professional gain, without contributing anything in return.

The experiences described in this section represent a mere glimpse at the complexities of carrying out ethnographic fieldwork in tourism research. My intention is not to resolve such questions here but to simply reflect on the practice of ethnography and on the tremendous emotional involvement that fieldwork entails. 

The Power of Ethnographic Research on Tourism

Despite its inauspicious beginnings, as outlined earlier in this chapter, the anthropological scholarship on tourism has contributed significantly to tourism studies. These contributions are relevant to several topics of interest: understanding tourism’s effects on host communities; the role of travel for individuals; power relationships in tourism developments; heritage and culture commodification; types of tourism and tourists; and the relationships between tourism and ethnicity, identity, material culture, nationalism, and the environment (Guerrón Montero 2019).

My own research centres on how tourism contributes to identity formation through food, music, and racial and gender relations among Latin American populations of the African diaspora. I approach tourism from a critical perspective, viewing it as an agent capable of making and re-making the places where it occurs (Hollinshead et al. 2009).  As an industry and a phenomenon, tourism is one of the primary contexts in which cultural identity is experienced, even by those who live in the countries being visited.  Tourism leads to an interplay of resurgent national cultures that respond to its demands. It interrogates notions of tradition, shapes new spaces, and creates and renews relationships.  My findings also indicate that multiculturalism, frequently invoked in connection with tourism, is not always liberating.  It brings its own sets of tensions that can either destabilize or reinforce traditional hierarchies.

My scholarly contributions stem largely from the comparative in-depth ethnographic research I have conducted in four countries (tourism identities in Panama and Grenada, lifestyle migration in Panama and Ecuador, and quilombola tourism in Brazil). This research has produced a nuanced, fine-grained perspective on cultural heritage based on prolonged, intensive ethnographic fieldwork. This has allowed me to examine new modes of racial consciousness and agency, informed by cultural discourses and racially defined black mobilizations throughout the African diaspora.  I view tourism as a complex, multidimensional, cultural phenomenon in addition to being an industry. Tourism is not empty—it involves peoples, places, and social practices entailing technology, economics, and advances in transportation.

Based on ethnographic emphasis and applying anthropological insights, methods, methodologies, and theories, my work has concentrated on the everyday lives of marginalized ethnic peoples in the African diaspora and the role of tourism in their lives. While I have analysed the experiences of tourists visiting the places I have studied and the motivations for becoming lifestyle migrants (Guerrón Montero 2020a), my focus has been on understanding how tourism becomes a vehicle for the development of specific kinds of institutionalized multiculturalism and nation-building/nation-branding projects. This path has taken me to comparative studies of Afro-Latin American populations by discussing Afro-Panamanian, Afro-Grenadian, and Afro-Brazilian groups in terms of identity construction, the myth of racial democracy, and their position within their nation-states.

More recently, I have engaged with developing more nuanced ways to think about categories too often presented in a binary way in the anthropology of tourism and tourism studies (Guerrón Montero 2022). A critique of the dualistic approach to tourism in the anthropological literature has been going on for decades (e. g., Boissevain 1996). Still, its import was lost in generalizations that now have become more complex. Currently, I am exploring how the perspectives of the epistemologies of the South can be applied to mobilities studies, such as the concept of autonomies of migration (Mezzadra 2004). These approaches more accurately capture what I have observed in the countries where I have worked.

Andrews and Gupta (2010) note that the world of reflexivity in academic contexts is still very much a women’s preserve. While preparing this short essay, I realized my need to grapple with my multiple identities as a researcher and how tourism blurs into mobility and immobility. On a more personal level, I recognize that I have identified myself as a temporary migrant in the United States for more than twenty years, assuming (like so many migrants) that I would soon be returning to Latin America, and not thinking of the state of Delaware, where I have lived for 16 years, as my community. My identity as an anthropologist, temporarily residing in places with revolving temporary visitors (tourists), has blended with my identity as a self-assumed temporary migrant in the United States. I am pondering what I have gained and lost as a result of this mind frame. While I have not yet resolved these issues to my satisfaction, I am very grateful for having a space to reflect upon them.


Written by Carla Guerrón Montero, University of Delaware, USA


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