After some 37 years working in tourism, three themes now inform my thinking:
- the industrial model that has dominated and underpinned tourism’s growth since the development of mass air transportation is now proving to be utterly non-sustainable (tourism cannot continue to grow exponentially when there is a finite supply of places);
- furthermore, the industrial model’s focus on the efficient consumption of products, tends to commodify and homogenize and, in so doing, violates the very reasons for travel – i.e., to venture from the familiar setting we call “home” to the unfamiliar setting we call foreign for the purpose of gaining fresh, alternative perspectives;
- it will only be possible to imagine and create a new model of travel when guests know where they have come from and when hosts know who they are. They can’t do that without developing a sensitivity to “place.” In the same way that each cell in our bodies is truly unique, so is every square inch of the planet. The true joy of travel stems from experiencing that uniqueness and valuing it accordingly.
The future ability of tourism to continue to generate net economic and cultural benefit depends on communities being able to express their unique relationship between a people and their geography (space) and history (time). If human society becomes a monoculture, then why travel at all – especially if the physical act of moving one’s body through space becomes increasingly unpleasant?
Last week I was privileged to join a team from the Samoan Tourism Authority and Government of Samoa who were attending the The Shanghai Expo 2010 and celebrating Samoa’s National Day on August 1st. The trip provided ample opportunity to reflect on these issues. Somehow, within the concrete jungle that is the sprawling Expo site and the surrounding metropolis of rapidly expanding Pudong, the tiny nation of Samoa managed to express its sacred relationship with its own unique geography and history in a compelling and effective way.
First of all, it refused to conform to some external designers’ conception of a branded look for the South Pacific. Samoans live in thatched fales not the uniform “hardwood shells” designed to house individual country exhibits.
Secondly, it animated the fale with people – not just paid staff (who were great, by the way), but real live Samoans with songs to sing, bodies to dance, stories to tell, and, most importantly, responsibilities to uphold. (Several of the entertainment events were undertaken by Samoan students studying in China who could speak sufficient Mandarin to inform and delight their Chinese audiences).
Thirdly, throughout the weeks leading up to National Day on August 1st, the fale became a sacred space for an ancient ritual (the tatau) that demonstrated how seriously Samoans view their relationship with “mother earth.”
A dear friend, Zita Sefo-Martel, celebrated fautasi (longboat) skipper, High Consul to France, owner of Polynesian Xplorer, and devoted mother of four young boys, had agreed to receive her malu (tattoo) in public from the celebrated master tattooist, Tufuga Ta Tatau Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo.
In western cultures, a body tattoo is an object of adornment; in Samoa it is a sacred covenant between the bearer and the earth and community that support him or her.
Zita has described the meaning of the event in her own words:
The generic word for tattoo in Samoan is tatau. The Pe-a (tattoo for men) or malu (tattoo for women) is not only an eloquent form of living art and a record of ancient navigation and traditional culture, it is also a Samoan's spiritual connection to Mother Earth through the physical pain and personal sacrifice experienced in the act of being tattooed.
The symbolism depicted on a tatau or malu represents a covenant between a Samoan and his or her way of life. It is “O Mea Sina”. It is sacred.
The word malu means protect, shelter, security. Malu also means house. The woman is therefore seen in Samoan culture as the protector and shelter of of the children, the family, and the village. She is the giver of bloodlines.
The symbols of the malu etched on the woman reflect the many roles of the woman in Samoan society. The malu is applied starting from the knees and working up to and finishing at the top of the thighs.
Now let me explain what that act of sacrifice actually entailed. For four hours, Zita lay on a mat above a hardwood floor, while three skilled men worked expertly to adorn her thighs, upper legs and knees with a range of traditional symbols representing Zita’s environment, family connections and love of the ocean. That’s one way of describing it. Another is to say that for four hours she endured torture as the sharp teeth of the various instruments etched her skin, muscle, sinew and bone to leave this indelible testimony to her covenant.
As illustrated in the first video, receiving a malu was, as with all things Samoan, a community affair. Zita was never left alone; initially accompanied by another tattoo recipient – Roger Warren, an internationally recognized Rugby player, who was receiving the male tattoo; and a respected elder Lei Lua and various Samoan musicians and performers who soothed her passage with gentle Samoan songs and chants. In the afternoon, the Honourable Prime Minister of Samoa and his wife plus the Chinese official delegation and media came by and the act was viewed by hundreds of the curious and somewhat perplexed Chinese visitors that streamed past the fale.
At no point did this event descend into a marketing spectacle – that fale had become a sacred space, a setting for a rite of passage that was also a statement of profound connection linking all Samoans’ present to their homeland and extending an act of selfless welcome to their visitors.
After four, painful hours, the work was complete and Zita’s bare legs had been transformed into a work of art that will permanently broadcast her unique identity and relationship to Mother Earth in a way that will evoke curiosity and respect in all who meet her – a living lesson; etched in flesh that gives a whole new meaning to the statement “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
After a quiet period of rest and reflection,a ceremony of blessing - the "Samaga o le Malu" could commence, starting with a prayer of thanks and song. The Tufuga Ta Tatau (master tattooist) Sulu'ape murmered a prayer while cracking an egg on Zita's head symbolising her rebirth into a new woman of the earth. Then a lotion of lega-tumeric mixed with coconut oil was applied to Zita's body starting with the Malu. Finally it was Zita’s turn to celebrate her passage and proudly reveal the Malu to her admiring community in dance as shared in the following video.
Zita Martel designed her malu in collaboration with the tattooist and in accordance with Samoan tradition. As a Tautai (skipper) of Samoan fautasi (longboats) some of the symbols depict Zita’s life, her personal journey as a Tautai and the gift of being able to feel at one with the ocean waves, the winds, the crew and the fautasi.
Zita Sefo-Martel is one of many individuals who act as “agents of change” by living a different set of values to those that have dominated the prevailing industrial culture of the past 150 plus years. She acts as a bridge between an ancient indigenous culture (in this case Polynesian) and a contemporary western culture now engaged in a search for meaning and balance.
I thank the Samoan government, its people and Zita Martel herself for the opportunity to share a week with the Samoan team at the Expo in Shanghai and witness this remarkable event. I also wish to congratulate the Samoans in "breaking the mould" of conventionial tourism marketing. By sharing an authentic and sacred event they were able to communicate the essence of what it means to be uniquely Samoan and, in so doing, elevated the concept of destination branding to a new level. I am not suggesting that tourism marketers need endure pain - but am pointing to the power of knowing and living who you are.
The Samoan Government has just approved a US $4 million budget to promote tourism and its marketers are aiming for an annual growth of 6-7%. (see news article here). I can only hope that this focus on numerical growth does not blind Samoans to the the much greater opportunity to build a truly distinctive destination that values and portrays the essence of Samoan values. Just in case, you aren't sure why Samoa is so special, here the official video!
And should you decide to see for yourself, then who better to give you an unforgettable experience but Polynesian Xplorer!