Ethnic tourism in Shangrila. Representations of place and Tibetan identity

PhD thesis

Kolås, Åshild (2004) Ethnic tourism in Shangrila. Representations of place and Tibetan identity. PhD thesis, Supervisors: Thomas Hylland Eriksen, UiO; Stein Tønnesson, PRIO (completed August 2004).

Since the mid-1980s Chinese authorities have aimed to develop tourism in China’s minority regions, where ethnic minorities are represented as exotic attractions. The project is based on fieldwork in a Tibetan area that was recently officially renamed ‘Shangrila’, a name drawn from a novel written by the British author James Hilton in the 1930s. In contemporary Shangrila the development of ethnic tourism has created a demand for expressions of ‘Tibetan culture’, understood by many urban Chinese visitors as a spiritual alternative. In addition to Tibetan folk life, monasteries and sacred mountains are among the primary local attractions. Tourism has facilitated a cultural revitalization, and a new focus on sacred sites. Thus, local Tibetan identity is reconfirmed in completely new ways. At the same time tourism has contributed to an increasing commercialization, of cultural expressions as well as the concept of ‘Shangrila’ as such. Economically, investors and authorities are the primary benefactors, and local inhabitants are in danger of becoming further marginalized. Participant observation has been the main method of this project. The analysis is based on recent discourse theory, especially ‘dynamic nominalism’, which is expanded to the study of representations of place as important political resources.

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