Virtual / Informational / Digital

Virtual Tourism and New Media Citizenships
in Scotland and Hong Kong: Complementary Case Studies

Stephanie Hemelryk Donald [1] (University of Melbourne)
John Gammack (Griffith University [2])

Background

Virtual tourism is a growing area on the Internet, and it poses conceptual and economic challenges both for the tourist and for those in the industry. Sophisticated sites have been developed around the world, which sell themselves as virtual experiences of world culture, landscape, and peoples. Their remit varies, however, from the commercial imperative to attract physical visitation to places of touristic interest, to a simple sales operation dealing in the stuff of national symbolism. A national tourist board may support a complex site offering a taster experience of unique cultural and environmental markers, with a view toward bringing domestic employment and foreign revenue through experience of the ‘real thing’. Offshore and commercial providers of virtual cultural experiences, however, may offer a simulacrum to those consumers who prefer home comforts to the uncertainties and ephemeral phenomena of physical touristic exploration, whilst still providing culturally unique products on a commercial basis. These possibilities bring critical social and conceptual, but also practical economic and political implications, impacting on national or cultural identifications, ownership of brands, and destination image.

The Argument

In this paper, we use the touristic function to explore two thematic symptoms of modernity; mediated experience and imagined commun(al)ity. We argue that the phenomenon of virtual tourism, whether used as a purchasing system for goods or holidays (physical visitation) or as an experience in and of itself, is indicative of the strength of mediated territorial imaginations amongst end-users. As this paragraph demonstrates in its semantic choices, our approach aims to combine market survey with cultural critique, and that choice is carried through in the methodology of present and projected research. Thus, end-users and state-level tourist authorities are the active participants in the surveys we design, but our questions veer towards an hypothesis of new media and nationally-articulated embodiment through web-use. Embodiment as used in this paper refers to an emotionally and physically experienced relationship to mediated material. This will include a response to content, to the medium, but also to the imaginative assonance betwixt creator and user. In pragmatic terms, we define embodiment as a pre-requisite of success in a (commercial) mediated environment. In political terms, we theorise that embodiment relies on shared discursive engagements, and for the process of discrete geographical identification, this entails a claim on national status.

Our research is comprised of three processes: website analysis, ethnographic autobiography, and some interviews. At the time of writing, these complementary processes are still in train, and so what we offer here are preliminary deliberations and research questions. We concentrate on two websites from two socio-political zones that have high levels of international recognition, but which are not sovereign nation-states. Our questions are: to what degree does imagined nationality transcend political reality, and how is this imagination supported and extended in an online environment?

George Schöpflin has argued that the modern nation state is protected by political boundaries in order to stave off an unending stream of internal and cross-boundary ethnically-based claims to sovereignty/ autonomy. He adds however, that the city of the nation is fundamental to national and mono-ethnic identity — and that the city is a monocultural space, whatever its concessions to plurality. In the week of September 11th 2001, all New Yorkers were also American — and lined up behind the flag to emphasise that point. Therefore, according to Schöpflin, the modern nation state is also bound to ethno-hegemonic principles even as it claims multicultural or cosmopolitan modernity in its urban landscapes (Schöpflin 236-237). He insists that ‘the link between citizenship and the city is more than etymological’ (236), and further, ‘without possessing a city it is very hard for an ethnic group to claim full political status’ (236). Schöpflin’s argument may seem a little thin in the face of the Singaporean city state or the supposed ‘melting pots’ of Australia and the States. Yet, we would contend that there does tend to be a national point of identification, which becomes visible at moments of tragedy, aggression or celebration (think of the little white girl Nicki Webster being lifted skyward in the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games, 2000). Cities do indeed embody a vanishing point of ethnic hegemony, although that moves towards hybridity in relation to the degree to which the city has economic or political confidence in its collective symbolic power.

Our case studies, Hong Kong and Scotland, comprise a city-based special autonomous region in the People’s Republic of China and a semi-autonomous partner in the United Kingdom. Hong Kong is newly (1997) ‘handed over’ to Chinese sovereignty after British colonisation. Scotland has just regained an Edinburgh-based parliament after three centuries of rule from Westminster. They are both therefore in a state of political transition. Our investigations are based on the presumption that change of this magnitude must have some effect on the outward identity of the geographical places concerned, and that this is likely to be observable in international virtual economic space. Further, we argue that the experience of visiting an environment online produces a period of national embodiment for the end user, in which they are likely to activate an imaginative liaison with the proposed destination. ‘Scotland’ is realised through the images, mode of address and internal narratives, which constitute a site, and those become an embodiment of nationality when they are accessed and accepted as such by the end-user. This in turn presupposes that the strength of nationality as an organizational concept in the management of place identification and the marking of topographical distance and difference. [3]

Like many other places, the tourism industry is important to Scotland, and the impact of new media potential, specifically internet-based, is explored in our empirical work in that case study. In Scotland, nationally 8% of the workforce is employed in tourism, and almost double that percentage in the Highlands and Islands. Tourism injects £2.47 billion pounds annually into the Scottish economy, with proportionately more per capita in the more rural and remote areas of the Highlands. Roughly half of foreign visitors (in recent years around 1.5 million overseas visitors per year) arrive in the northern summer, and thus seasonality becomes an issue. More than a third of those are North American, the rest are mostly European. The three top reasons given are 1) scenery 2) friendly locals and 3) history. (Scotsmart, 2001) (see Appendix 1). The tourism industry is overseen by the government, but is more an industry that emerges from small businesses, than one that is tightly regulated and organised centrally. Strategies, policies and initiatives stem from the tiers of government, for which funding is available through competitive application, but the products, services and implementations originate from the business community. Icons of Scottishness are generally felt to be in public ownership and notwithstanding copyright materials, are available to the marketing imaginations of the businesses. Prior to the internet, tourism in Scotland, as elsewhere, could be seen as inviting visitors into the extended family home, sharing experiences of life there, including its water and food, scenery, weather and public spaces, and the hospitality of the local people. Since the internet, the simulable and consumable aspects of this befall abstraction.

We concentrate on sites that use proximity as a metaphoric guarantor of Scottishness. Thus, a physically Scottish company site, such as Scotweb will offer genuine Scottish recipes (e.g. whisky sauce), and afford a byline to the item. This identifies the Scots as Scots who have offered this piece of local knowledge for virtual consumption. Such sites may also air titbits of historical information that are akin to gossip. This again serves to localise the site and underline its claims to authenticity within the limits of the marketplace. In this regard we have examined sites such as www.scotland.com, which is based in the USA, and www.all-scotland.com, based in central Scotland.

Meanwhile, the growth of Hong Kong as a tourist destination has also inspired multiple sites: www.gochina.com | www.accomasia.com | www.hkta.org | www.discoverhongkong.com. [4] A few of these sites link to other China sites, underlining the political reality of Hong Kong’s relationship to the PRC. Some sites are run out of Western based tourist guides and lead to package deals, competition-advertisements and gimmick sales. Others stem from Hong Kong commercial interests and the tourist authority. These are the sites that interest our long term project, as they are developed through a collaborative three-way relationship between the Hong Kong SAR Government, The Hong Kong Tourist Authority (formerly HKTA, now renamed Hong Kong Tourism Board – HKTB) and the businesses that service the tourist industry. All three of these sectors are, in early 2001, undergoing change in relation to tourism. The Tourist Commission in the SAR Government has three main strategic responsibilities. It describes and sustains long term strategy in respect to tourism, both outbound and inbound. It has a responsibility towards HK residents who wish to travel overseas, which it performs through the management and licensing of agents and other ticketing functionaries. Third, it has a duty to facilitate inbound tourist activity, through liaison with other Government departments and with the HKTB. This includes the overall governance of large projects such as the HK-Disneyland development. It has also developed a portfolio to establish affective links between Hong Kong citizens and their place of abode. All sixteen local districts in Hong Kong have their own tourist brochures, produced by the Home Affairs Department in liaison with local councils. The brochures have three targets: First, to inform local residents about local attractions, and to build up their awareness of Home as a venue for leisure, pleasure and tourism. Second, to inform all residents of the beauties and delights of other parts of the territory and thereby foster an appreciation of Hong Kong as a place in which to take pride. [5] Third, to add a local layer to information streams to inward bound tourists.

The HKTB was until March 2001 a membership-only grouping (members could use the rather controversial ‘red junk logo’), Now its statutory position has altered. The Board has a remit to deal with all tourist service providers at whatever level of interest. The red junk, although still a corporate logo, has largely been replaced by a mission logo — the City of Motion colour swash — and the ‘gold tick’ of quality control. The new structure will change the visual profile of HK online, as the HKTB (whose leading figure is a dot.com business entrepreneur) will be a co-ordinating presence of many sites and many ‘takes’ on the tourism industry. [6]

As site policy emerges from the deliberations of leisure and tourism departments in government, so current sites operate within a comparative and contextual framework that is concerned to delineate appropriate visualisations of national belongingness (or, broadly, citizenship), mobilised in the address to both the virtual tourist and the potential visitor. Seen in a social-commercial perspective, citizenship operates both as a category of practice and a category of analysis (Brown, 2001). As practice, it refers to the normative values that relate the individual to the reified national, or regional, collectivity. These values vary between social groups and individuals and may relate, for example, to ideas of allegiance, obligation and rights or to ideas of consumer-conformism. To the extent that these values are articulated both through behavioural norms, and through categories of taste, as well as through a physical and emotional association with a particular locale and its people, citizenship is about belonging. The practice of citizenship as a legal category, with nebulous responsibilities attached to the privilege, is also developed and reproduced by state sponsored mediation, ‘both to resolve individual insecurities and to establish a basis for social control by obliging individuals to participate in national campaigns and civic programs’ (Brown et al 2001). The sixteen districts’ strategy currently under development in Hong Kong is an instance of strategic governmental engineering in the indistinct realm of localised belonging. The degree to which festivals, public awareness campaigns and facilities management impact on the rarefied phenomenology of being at home is an issue which we flag here, and which will be explored in further research.

As a category of analysis, ‘citizenship provides a conceptually coherent framework through which to investigate variations in perceptions of civic virtue’ (Brown et al 2001). In this study, virtue operates at the level of the image and site-specific narrative, and the resonance that image produces in the tourist’s physical and emotional memory of the place in question. The ‘virtues’ of Scotland and Hong Kong reside in the places, events and characteristics chosen for advertisement and for consumption by others. We further contend, however, that the way a place is sold to others, may well be indicative of the state’s idea notion of how the citizen body should think about itself. This is not the same as the first category of citizenship, which is contingent and sensitive to unexpected continuities, effects and ontologies of loyalty and belonging. However, as we have suggested, it is connected to the first through local strategies aimed at inducing locals to have fun at home. The organisation of festivals, public activity programmes, exhibitions and competitions are seemingly external to continuous social and cultural identity. However, it is arguable that residual traces of these activities become embedded in lived experience and social memory. So, the 2001 Hong Kong SAR campaign for ‘Healthy Living’, [7] or the children’s activity section in the Buddhist sculpture expo at the new Hong Kong Museum of Art, [8]make inroads into behaviour, and cultural memory for different generational and interest groups. If we take seriously the importance of consumer behaviour in the production of citizen-identity, then the consumption of public goods (including leisure and information campaigns), must surely also be factored into contemporary identity politics.

The comparison between Hong Kong and Scotland refers to the significant parallels between the two territories. We argue that both Scotland and Hong Kong have experienced versions of English and / or British colonialism (Parekh 14-25), and that both continue in an unresolved political relationship to a central (England/UK or China) state, in relation to which they are simultaneously constituent, idealised and marginal. Their manipulation of national and quasi- national symbols and marketing platforms is therefore indicative of the ways in which people are excluded from and included in the differentiated national/ local communities.

We suggest that, where non-local interests attempt to capitalise on local symbolic goods (whisky, the mountains, the film industry), the ownership of virtual identity becomes crucial currency in the economies of new media belonging, and in the online rhetoric of who may sell what to whom. Makere Harawira's powerful analysis of the (mis)appropriation of indigenousness describes this in extremis, and the various sites become a platform of agonistic negotiation of belongingness to specific places. Our conclusions address the varying extent to which touristic behaviours sublimate a search for authentic and unexpected experience at odds with mediated environments. [9]

Travels

Our methodology is designed to mimic the processes inherent in the object of analysis. We have each taken virtual tours with a mind to pleasure rather than research. In that last we self-monitored and found that making that a distinction between total pleasure and pleasure inflected by the purpose of one’s profession is to indulge in a false dichotomy. We also noted that our chosen sites, Hong Kong and Scotland, counter-pointed because of their political parallels, define our personal histories. They both exist as identifiable cultural, economic and demographic domains, but lack sovereignty and autonomy in international policy decisions. They are both places we know to some extent and to markedly different degrees of intimacy. John has spent over twenty years in Scotland. Stephi has spent a total of 14 weeks there plus about twenty-eight years in England, its near neighbour in the UK. We are respectively, a Scottish-Australian man, and an English-Australian woman, who spent time in Hong Kong when a child. John has paid whirlwind visits to Hong Kong. Stephi has visited once as a student and twice on academic business, but also spent a more substantial period of time there when very young. She finds it almost impossible to marry the memory of that Hong Kong with more recent experiences of the place, suggesting that the changing topography, historic shifts, and altered political consciousness makes the place spatially dissimilar from that accessed in her earlier incarnation.

The researchers are both Australian citizens, but have not been required to relinquish British-EU citizenship papers. If we take the view that a community designs itself through exclusions, we are therefore not fully embedded members of any national community, from either perspective on citizenship. We do not have a point of origin unproblematically from which to analyse our online relationship to somewhere else. Our methodology requires that we position ourselves as flawed embodiments of the modern tourist (MacCannell, 1999) and as representative examples of pseudo national subjectivity. In Julia Harrison's (Harrison 160) words, "we have seen the tourist, and the tourist is us". We imagine that whilst we may be extreme versions of the modern subject we are not very dissimilar from many global tourists, nor from Hong Kong residents who live in a daily relationship to inward and outward migration, temporary residency, and non sovereign citizenship.

Furthermore, nationality itself, as an identificatory construct is mutable. Scots typically see themselves as Scottish first and British or European second. The quote from a contemporary schoolgirl in a Guardian newspaper report resonates: 'I call myself Scottish because I was born in Glasgow and this is the country that I'm most proud of - Britishness is fine but it's a bit too English.' English nationality has traditionally been more conflated with British nationality, but this is changing. Since Scotland and Wales increased their self governance recently, more English are identifying themselves as English than as British, and impacting what that means to its self concept as a nation, as Jowell et al elaborate. Slow to lose their native accents, and sustaining a song tradition heaving with romantic longing for "my ain folk" (my own folk) and places, there is a corner of every emigré that is forever Scottish. But no true Scot would be so easily reduced to the "Harry Lauder" stereotype, or identify with the tourist-oriented folk singers knowingly ridiculed by Billy Connolly as "singing shortbread tins". Many Scots themselves, at home or abroad are alienated from this portrayal and capable of being objective, if not dispassionate, about trafficking in such decoys. Indeed several lists developed through the newsgroup soc.culture.scottish and available from the SCS Informer website identify aspects of Scottish culture which typifies the sort of local knowledge that outsiders would generally not realise represent contemporary Scottish opinion. Such lists provide an ersatz metric for cultural identification, and distinctions can be made from both etic and emic perspectives in our analysis.

Cyber-ontologies [10]

The space of the body is not imaginary, or symbolic, or conceptual or ‘representational’. And it is not objective space either, as mathematically definable Euclidean space. It is rooted in the anatomical and physiological structure of the human body; it is induced in the organs, the limbs, the forms of the body itself; and it allows for symbolic thought or, in a more general fashion, for "symbolic function" (Gil, 1998, 130.1)

Gil is an anthropologist of ordinary state magic. He describes the ways in which gifts and debts confirm allegiances and bases of power in traditional societies. But his understanding of the body is key to linking the success of the nation state as an imaginary focus of identity with the magic of mediated communication. This is perhaps especially true of the city as the metonym for the quasi- state (as in Hong Kong), and conversely, underlies the loose ethnicity of the rural/urban cultural bundle that is named ‘Scotland’. Our experiences as cinema-goers and television viewers have prepared us for virtual flânerie. Since pre-modernity the image has been our magical connection with the rest of our actual and imagined worlds (Grau, 2000, 234). In the modern world that magic has been untied from the sacred and linked more closely to social and meta-political sociability. We can wander insouciantly and irresponsibly through our image worlds, but we can always slip back to their sociable moorings to re-establish our belongingness. In comparison to TV and cinema, journeying online is a frustrating and solitary experience. It involves a scarce attachment to the bodily frisson of travel, and to the sensory challenges of other people in other places. How for instance, does a 30 minute video or a webcam that is uploaded every five minutes begin to approximate the ‘city of movement’ (dong gan zhi dou), as Hong Kong describes itself? Does the emerging argument in cyber-studies, that we do indeed need our bodies online, work in practice? Ingrid Richardson refers us to Don Ihde in contending that there is a ‘certain consonance between bodies and technologies’ (Richardson,2000,1). She points out that ‘epistemologies of time, mobility, and distance, and the material parameters and limits of bodies and objects become appropriated and altered by "tele-technologies"’(Richardson,1). This argument reminds us that our physical presence is imagined through our psychic relation to other bodies, but also to the entire significant environment through which we function. Much of that environment is technological, and much is subject to the secondary distanciation of tele-presence.

In our autobiographical ethnographies of the Hong Kong site Stephi visited Aberdeen Harbour’s webcam (go_China.com). She reported thus on Aberdeen - Home to the Tanka Boat People. ‘It looked busy, picturesque, and I made a note to check out who was Tanka and who was Hakka, the kind of detailed knowledge of Hong Kong's multiply layered history of migration. The name also amused me, All-Scotland.com (Aberdeen is a quintessentially Scottish ‘oil’ city) or Aberdeen Harbour, Kowloon. Colonialism can be confusing after the event.’ Stephi gets frustrated by the slow upload of video clips, and the motionless webcams. She spends a great deal of time staring stubbornly at an enlarged frame - knowing it is a recent image — uploaded from a location surveillance camera every five minutes — and willing it to move. Perhaps this is a desire for authentication, without activity the image has the aura of the immediate but also the lost in space feel of a daguerrotype from the nineteenth century. It produces Jameson-esque nostalgia- without-memory for what is supposedly the very recent past (2-5 minutes). Stephi’s venture into Hong Kong webspace — she also visited Hong Kong -city of movement, the HKTA site — was mostly unsatisfactory because of the paucity of historical markers that could link back to her childhood lived in the early 1960s in a city of ex-pats and glamour. It is the world of film — especially Wong Kar-wai’s recent In the Mood for Love that achieves the nostalgic trauma of incomplete memory so much more … accurately? Stephi’s questionnaire entry for expectations runs thus:

When a small child I lived for a few months in Hong Kong. I do not know for how long. Some of the time was spent living in a hotel, the Mandarin, the rest of the time we were in a house somewhere on the Peak. I was about four years old. I remember several things from that period. I had a friend, one of the young men who worked at the hotel. He played hide and seek with me on the big staircases. He told me he was called Tiger. To him I was just a little girl staying for an unusually long time in the hotel. To me, he was my best friend. I also recall my Mother showing me shanty towns on the hills and exhorting me to remember that I was privileged. Those images are still my Catholic way of anchoring my sense of my own good fortune. And the cold storage stores of course. We would shop in hot streets, and then enter refrigerated stores for respite. Coming out again was always a shock, like a hot wet blanket landing on your face.

We do not expect all end users to respond in such detail — but some might, and in the Scottish test case many UK respondents will undoubtedly evidence an ethnically ‘unwarranted’ ownership of locational memory, that is nonetheless influential in their embodiment or disavowal of the space offered online. We claim that this is particularly relevant to the success of a virtual space as a place apt for discrete identification — or (quasi-) national marking by a potential customer — as acceptance is part and parcel of the process of embodiment.

Stephi’s relationship to Aberdeen Harbour was mediated by film, a camera, by five minute upload timers, and by the delivery platform: a desktop connected to an Australian server. Yet she still experienced and enacted the physical and emotional sensation of frustration (tense muscles, drumming toes and a twitching nose). She also craned nearer to the screen to investigate for impossible movement in the image, as though an infinitesimal reduction in distance would yield absolute presence. Her body participated paradoxically in online tourism. Its somatic reactions indicated that she preferred to get closer.

The unease of distance may be a symptom of recognition of the city dweller’s position as internalised ethnic / national subject, who does not survey but is herself under constant surveillance, may account for the craning neck. Modern urbanites do not ‘watch space’ except in the cursory glances of the flaneur, and the up close and personal arrangements of packaged touristic experience. The webcam, which transports the imagination but not the moving body, falls uneasily between these modes of engagement with the urban other. It turns us into the monitoring agents of the state (Hong Kong and the UK are two of the most closely surveilled states on earth — at least in terms of electronic surveillance techniques).

This is not descriptive of the experience of watching a Wong Kar-wai movie, however. Fallen Angels, In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express achieve a convincing image of Hong Kong belongingness (as opposed to surveilled city-state) using some of the same technology of the webcam. Higher-level creative preparation offers up a perfect image of the flawed city, concentrating on the very places where citizen-surveillance is intense, and where tourists are unlikely to venture. The pay-off for distance is a perfected (and sexy) narrative of belongingness, and a simulacrum of a close cultural encounter. The webcam offers partial immediacy (ie with a five minute delay) but there are no other pay-offs for this kind of bland surveillance at several removes.

The auratic values of the city are not available in seclusion online, nor are they likely to be adequately interpreted through non-creative approximations on other delivery platforms. There is a question of somatic sensibility to complex emotional narratives in the category of belongingness, which contrast with state-sponsored, or corporate driven, uni-dimensional versions of the state-citizen surveilled sphere. Convergence of media is technically possible, but industry analysts also concur on the qualitative corporeal ‘something’ that relates us back to the manner of our symbolic engagements. A Gartner group analyst (Meehan) has identified what he describes as a critical issue affecting the end user perception. Interacting at close range through a monitor screen is qualitatively different from viewing a TV across the room, and a "convergence spectrum" can be defined distinguishing computer-centric from TV-centric products and markets. The interactivity implied at the computer-centric end can be contrasted with the selectivity familiar with remote controls. This phenomenon impacts on the best format for content provision, and on consumer engagement.

Or, one could point to the difference between the cultural knowledge that we gain from closeness to the bodies of others. On the street in a (quasi)national context, might we interpret the ways in which clothes are worn in particular locations and by particular people on particular bodies? Chua Beng-huat describes the importance of colour to the Malay- Muslim woman in Singapore, arguing that:

The bright and vibrant colours of the baju kurong appear to be a form of resistance that emphatically stops the total ‘Arabinisation’ of Malay women’s clothing practices. Instead of appearing as a solid mass of black as do Arab women in public, the Malay women are defiantly bright and colourful. Orange, red, lime green, purple, work to retain and reassert the colours of Southeast Asia as found in the classical batiks (Chua, 2000, 285)

Chua’s political analysis of cultural behaviour is informed by his deep belonging to the Singaporean national space, but also through his auratic proximity to the women in question. As José Gil might put it, the wearing of clothes is a physiological act, which allows for the possibility of symbolic thought in a national (regional) context.

This is in sharp contrast to the topographic map-wearing of John’s engagement with the place he only knows as a tourist:

I have always liked to have a sense of physical location when travelling, and can look at maps for hours. They also give me a sense of the size of a place, and by analogy, the number of things to do there. I have seen towns where I have lived happily for years categorised as "a half day visit", and whilst despising the tourist mentality in myself, I recognise that prioritisation is essential with limited time. My knowledge of the geography of Hong Kong is hazy and I decide to check that next …

Deciding that the Peak would be interesting to explore, I search on that, using Hong Kong as a modifier as soon as I realise that the term is finding sites mainly referring to Pike's Peak. However the first site looks promising - six webcams, a more useful map, and located at the HK tourist association guessing from the URL acronym.

I click on the Peak webcam to see a set of nice views, including a current one. At 4pm it seems to have been raining on the camera lens - judging by the raindrops on the picture. Maybe I'll check that to see if I can too - it could be sprinklers, or an old photo, if I was there I would know, but this time I have to triangulate it with other information, to see if I can trust them to show me the real Hong Kong! I notice a virtual tour option on a frame menu and decide I am now on the right track.

(John).

In our separate journeys to Hong Kong online, we refer in each case to our previous physical experience of the territory, but also to our ways of journeying — through memory, or by the map. It soon also becomes clear that the journeys are inflected by our facility in the medium as much as by the available sites. It is also arguable that the virtual journeys are metonymic of ourselves as working tourists and journeying academics.

Our journeying online re-iterates our functional ontologies; our daily bread is embedded in the cyber-ontology of end-user embodiment in the city-scape of Hong Kong. If that finding reverberates and repeats across numbers of other users, then we believe that there is something more to effective web design for potential travellers in time.

Online Travel: Design practice

We have identified two functions of online travel services. First, there are sites designed to tempt you to visit in person, and to follow up with practical guidance on planning the trip. These will be structured through more or less imaginative links to hotel services, air-travel operators (possibly accessible through the new .aero top level domain name), sites of interest, and immigration procedures. The British daily The Guardian recently carried a feature on planning a trip to New Zealand online, in which it praised the accuracy of the accommodation descriptions and encouraged readers to use The Guardian’s own site portal (The Guardian — Weekend 17.02.01). The writer also commented that in the follow up (the actual vacation, which he took with his family) the sight of the beach in the early morning and the physical ontology of the landscape exceeded the expectations developed in the online planning process. These home sites are often operated by, or on behalf of, national Governments. They are certainly working in the national interest, in so far as tourist revenue is valuable within the logic of global capitalism. Invitations to visit are not always, however, in the best interests of sub-national, or extra-national constituencies. The processes of commodification, consumption and appropriation, modern habits associated with a thinning of respect for discrete and incommensurable lifestyles and beliefs, hybridise experience at a rate that is possibly faster than most human communities can stand. [11] The second function is the marketing of culturally specific merchandise online. As we note in the Scottish case, this may be a local entrepreneur entering e-commerce to reach the tourists who never quite make it to, or beyond, Edinburgh’s Golden Mile, or it may be US-based enterprises in the business of commodifying authenticity (Craik, 1997; Rojek and Urry, 1997).

In both of these modes, the web traveller may find invitations to virtual flânerie. There are web-cams, video tours, and sound tracks, all of which pay some attention to emulating the real in ways with which most media users of the twentieth century became familiar. The well-used notion of a disengaged man about town, the person who occupies city spaces without active engagement with their local concerns (and the woman about town who performs flânerie through her interventions in daily life) approximates the browsing individual. Except at the point of purchase when a legal agreement is made between the two parties, the browsing tourist interacts with the webpage only to the extent that s/he directs her pathway through those choices presented to her. Her wandering is circumscribed by opportunities built into the websites and more generally by pre-indexed, non-immediate options offered by search engines. This does not disqualify him as a flâneur however. The virtual city may bounded both by conceptions of space and by controls dictated by engine capacity and the decisions of webmasters. [12] So, however, is the built city, or moulded landscape, a limited environment, organised through walkable, drivable and forbidden or private areas. Online, anonymity is available but only to the extent that no-one actively decides to trace you, count hits, or presume your presence by direct address. The nameless, street-strolling hero of The Man about Town in the O. Henry story similarly supposes himself immune to categories, but nonetheless makes the papers when he is hit by a passing car (James Donald, 1999). To put it another way, one is likely to be a subject of surveillance in either case. It is almost a truism in delineations of modernity and postmodernity that of the first the subject is a complicit subject of surveillance, and in the second, the trope becomes cannibalistic. We watch each other, and in so doing we watch ourselves too. Thence, we suggest, the importance of familiarity to the contemporary tourist industry. Not only must the tools of the trade (the atlas format, the guidebook, the webpage) be user friendly and recognisable, but also the places should be organised, mapped, and classified according to expectation. This echoes the habits of high density surveillance to which both the UK and Hong Kong subject their citizens, from methods of bureaucratic classification — and counting - to crime prevention to consumer-orientated market research.

The webcam, video and animated homepage are sophisticated calls to the prospective customer. They are designed to whet the appetite, instil a sense of familiarity and excitement, and smooth away fears of inconquerable distance and strangeness. As Gelder and Jacobs (1998) have argued in a somewhat reversed prospect, for modern citizens to walk the earth comfortably, the sacred must be de-sacralised, the local mediated, and the uncanny domesticated. These mechanisms of global consumption allow travellers to empty out the contention from a tourist destination. Whether they like the idea or not, place must be organised within the spatial logic of its own consumption if they are to enter peacably at all. Thus Hong Kong and Scotland refuse to discuss with tourists their condition of semi-autonomy. Or rather, as in the Braveheart (1996) episode, the colonial past in the global present is inscribed as a narrative of local heroism, which has little purchase in the fraught internecine clan histories of historical record (MacDonald, 1997). [13] In Hong Kong, the handover ceremony of 1997 postulated a clean break between one period and another. The spectacle was premised on obscuring one great and selfish vision of sovereignty for another (Lilley, 2000).

Yet, as political and economic analysts point out, the touristic rendering of other’s lives as a series of disconnected completions does not explain the continuities, which find expression across periodic boundaries. Messy political realities, which underpin the contingencies in citizenship as an experience of belonging-ness, are scarcely acknowledged in the rhetoric of citizenship as a legal privilege. William Overholt has argued that the planning for hand-over encapsulated the desire to re-produce Hong Kong artificially as a market-driven boom economy (Overholt, 2001). The legislature was packed with commercial metaphors not least of which is the decision to designate the official title of the head of the territory’s government as CE (O). The continuities that were designed as necessary outcomes of the legislative-governance model did not occur as they also presumed non-continuities in other areas. The business community was only invited to become political professionals after the British agreed to leave the territory. The status and skills of leading figures, such as the CE Tung Chee-hwa, is determined by Hong Kong’s status as an immediately post-colonial entity rife with pre-1997 habits of legitimation, just as much as his present position has been decided through British and Chinese interests long term. Overholt argues,

As long as the CE is chosen by a small group of mostly elderly business executives, he or she will inevitably lack political skills. Tung’s executive skills are precisely what he was selected for, while to take one contrasting example Clinton’s political skills are the result of a selection process that requires a lifelong refinement of political skills. Similarly, as long as the CE has a weaker base of electoral legitimacy than the legislature, and a weaker weight of historical legitimacy than the civil service [my italics] he or she will be in a relatively weak position. Moreover, as long as the legislature is not a route to the pinnacle of political power, it will have every incentive to collaborate with the CE (Overholt, 2001, 8)

For the tourist, political changes impact only in so far as they can be marketed effectively. Hong Kong no longer has the dubious caché of being the last British colony and about-to-return-to-Communist-Chinese-sovereignty. It is now a SAR (Special Administrative Region) with somewhat complex problems that are hard to grasp in a catchphrase. The case is useful when thinking about the touristic metaphor of globalisation and manipulations of local, often indigenous, cultural capital for national benefit.

Celtic Surveillance

Scotland and Ireland are Celtic nations, with strong indigenous cultural traditions, and legends and stories with supernatural beings, second sight, gifted healers, and feyness generally. They have also seen themselves as nations oppressed by non-Celts, and have much in common with the dispossessed of places in package tours to Pacific Indigenous sites and the northern US plains. We can see such tourism products extending to Scotland, but are doubtful that they would make a case in Hong Kong. Other types of rationale for visitation instead may apply to Hong Kong, tapping its indigenous traditions or their affinities. Westerners will travel to China to study traditional Chinese medicine, and there is always greater kudos associated with gurus or experts who have travelled far, or to whom one must travel far oneself. [14]

If we acknowledge but do not prioritise the good in environmental awareness as expressed in new age spirituality, it is nonetheless easy to grasp (although not to alter) the outrage inherent in de-sacralising Indigenous ancient sites (Gelder and Jacobs, 1998), in commodifying the lifestyles and beliefs of minority peoples through theme parks in which they work as performers, and in removing the ontological depth of words, concepts, relationships and rituals through mimicry, quotation, repetition and removal. Yet, modern tourists treat each other’s spaces in rather similar fashion. The tourist experience has little truck with the continuous present tense. Rather, the present spectacle, the past event and images of the future as they figure in the architectural designs of Hong Kong’s CBD, define the visual and hermeneutic parameters of ideal touristic knowledge. The architectural remains of colonialism look historic, even if their traces are imprinted in the contemporary mores of the civil service.

If we are all modern tourists, then perhaps our surveillance of one another is constitutional rather than disruptive? Are we in fact as complicit in our political infantilisation whilst on holiday as we are when we get home? Or, does our sophisticated grasp of the necessary distance between legal ‘empty ‘ conceptions of citizenship and the very full experience of belonging make it simple enough for us to know we are being presented with a vision of the one and not the other? The effect of political commodification on the survival of the visited modern subject is not as devastating as it is in the case of Indigenous peoples, (who may also be modern). The mediated image of Uluru is an example of ‘identity theft’ perpetrated online. The webcams of the Hong Kong city-scape or the new Bank of China are an instance of surveillance which trespasses on the daily environment of the man and woman about town, but which describes their movements in ways in which, as mediated subjects, they might well describe themselves. The poets of the city, particularly the film-makers Woo and Wong Kar-wai, use the same views, the same stop-go motion and the same hectic editing as the online image. And, as Walter Benjamin told us in 1936, the modern (wo)man travels best in film.

National space as a virtual enterprise

Our main impetus in researching this paper has been to elucidate links between the nation as an organising concept for creators and end users and the virtual enterprise. We selected non-nations (quasi-nations) that nonetheless mimic the nation state through a high intensity of local identity politics, culturally specific values and norms, a shared history, a bounded political system, and a presence online. The project has so far yielded the observation that touristic exploration online tends to mimic formal versions of the citizen-state identity, through a use of surveillance equipment, a concentration on corporate interests and mainstream touristic sites and venues. The mimicry is also found in the appeal to static visualisations of the present (the webcam) and overly formal and empty (literally of people) tours of city sights. The organisation of information on the net facilitates the erection and maintenance of cultural stereotypes, or branding. The use of nationally specific domain names, shared portals, language options and typical/identifiable pathways (and hyperlinks) are clues to the ways in which virtual space is made national (or not) for the purposes of touristic self advertisement. This is a question of convenience, but also an instinctive appeal to the embodiment principle in selling the quasi-national self online.

Strategies of Repetition

That said, despite the over-riding national interest issue in tourist industries, there is a looseness of national affiliation in the e-tourism market place. Is the international commodification of culture, already well-advanced through the processes of conventional tourist media, accelerated by the relative anonymity of website ownership, management, and design? Is there a comparability between the ownership networks in media-systems (the top US and Euro moguls) and the development of national descriptors that have no basis in lived national experience, in government priorities and in the chosen images of citizens and nationals of the place in question?

In other studies we have noted that media convergence, or streaming, is the key strategy in e-tourism ventures, and in online presence and content generation more generally. Feiler (2000) defines the web-based enterprise as ‘an integrated operation in which the web and traditional media are part of a unified and consistent organisation.’ They are ‘web size’ in that it is hard to tell their actual size from website appearance, and they function in web time and space and where location is largely irrelevant. Start up businesses and established businesses alike now require web-enterprise strategy. National, or quasi-national territories, are similarly bound to produce themselves coherently on the web.

The start up in a study run by Gammack (in prep) recognised this in positioning itself with respect to traditional media, through the broadcast work of its principal, and its emphasis on original content provision, emphasising Scottish heritage and arts categories. Traditional outlets including national radio and syndicated cable TV became vehicles for incidental promotion of the principal and his site, developing synergy over the next critical period when web sites accessed through PCs converge with traditional broadcast media over the next few years.

More imminent however, is the break down of traditional media stratification, with print media preceding broadcast media to convergence with Internet formats. It is probably fair to say that internationally, the magazine sector is generally considered as flat and overpopulated, and new titles struggle, with low expectations of a good return on investment. However, continuing demand for the type of product supplied by magazines can be expected, and quality materials will remain in demand for broadcast or narrowcast. Items of timeless interest, such as recipes, historical stories, scenery, traditional music and artwork do not suffer from the ephemerality of much web content, and can be re-purposed or reproduced in various media formats as market conditions dictate. Equally, contemporary music, literature and art can be accommodated for marginal investment. Presenting a magazine quality, with free taster and eventually subscription options, but without being solely dependent on magazine revenue is implicit in the design strategy of the site, and establishing a repository of quality content enhances business sustainability.

This type of study indicates that the depth of belongingness or citizenship as a lived relational process will be best explored across a range of media, and not those specifically aimed at an external (tourist) market. This does not ‘cut out’ either tourist brochures, or tourism online, rather it places formal visions of a state in a wider media context. Hong Kong is a computer literate zone. In political-industrial terms it shows ‘high readiness for ecommerce’ described in analyses by the HK government, and by Wee and Ramachandra. In terms of basic infrastructure and technology, access to necessary services, use of the Internet, promotion and facilitation activities, skill and human resources; it is well positioned for the digital economy, and in a dynamic phase of redefinition.

Similarly Scotland, or ‘Open Scotland’ as the new democratic structures defines their remit, is working within an ideal of technocratic e-readiness and capability, and (coincidentally?) returned from its former governance in 1997, at the start of the e-commerce boom. Schlesinger notes that Scotland now legislates in all major areas except those reserved to Westminster (seat of the London based UK government), principally, the constitution, UK financial matters, foreign policy, defence, social security and citizenship. Also (crucially) powers over broadcasting are reserved to Westminster, and registered websites associated with the parliament indicate both .gov.uk and .com domain names. American-based sites that etail ‘genuine Scottish’ whisky direct to purchaser cannot deliver even a whisper of the new era and its gossip as evidenced in contemporary native popular literature such as that of Ian Rankin. Given the main reasons for visiting Scotland have been identified as scenery, friendly people and history, even advanced virtual technologies may not be able to get close enough. The virtual tours will perhaps resemble more existing travel programme content with extra functions, emphasising the tourist as situated in the lower levels of Cohen's (Cohen, 1979) modes of tourist experience, undertaking essentially recreational and diversionary experiences.

Offshore portals may not, as such, threaten the reality of Scotland's, or Hong Kong's identity, even if they misrepresent them grossly as glorified shortbread tins or junks. In attracting sophisticated, affluent cyber-shoppers to spend money in Scotland, or in Hong Kong, they may reinforce an ongoing trade in national iconic artefacts, whether relevant to the new generation or not, and could be approved by quasi-national governments for so doing. Repeat orders for whisky exports for example, help the Scottish economy, and attractive sites making purchase easy would seem to be a good thing. If, however, nationality becomes corporatised, and subject to the laws of commerce, this road may end with a desperately seeking public consuming imitations of indigenous artefacts and knowledge. And the new citizenship birthrights of both Scotland and Hong Kong will have been sold for a mess of pottage.

Notes

  1. With thanks to Tami Jacoby for her help in the vacation — and for making my students interested in politics. Back

  2. This work was completed when the author was at Murdoch University. Back

  3. We have no proof of this as yet, and hence will be conducting surveys in 2002-2004 to establish the validity of our central claim. Back

  4. http://www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/Museum/index.html. Back

  5. totallyhk@scmp.com. This is a newsletter that addresses residents and tourists in the same voice. You have to 'be there' to participate in the events and venues it advertises. Back

  6. Interview with Rebecca Lai, Commissioner for Tourism, Hong Kong SAR, 07.03.2001. Back

  7. http://www.info.gov.hk/healthyliving. The campaign included large-scale billboard advertising, TV and radio commercial slots, school education and parent education campaigns, fitness tips for tenants of public housing, and a Hiking Festival. Back

  8. The exhibition was a 'Spotlight Hong Kong' event, sponsored by the HKTA, but presented by the Leisure and Cultural services department. Back

  9. http://www.totemresorts.com/history.htm – the naming of a Canadian wilderness resort is an appropriation of the secret and unspeakable — the indigenous totem relation. Back

  10. Sub-heading taken from Ingrid Richardson and Carly Harper, 'Cyber Ontology', seen in draft December 2000. Back

  11. 'The number of tourists visiting the SAR [HK] is expected to top 18 million a year by 2005 when Disneyland opens – with one third coming from the Mainland. [There were] 13 million visitors in 2000' Stella Lee '18 million visitors expected by 2005' South China Morning Post, February 20th. 2001. http://hongkong.scmp.com/ZZZWEZOUPGC.html. Back

  12. You are unlikely to travel easily intra-nationally online. Most websites only hotlink to other sites in their national space, or to US sites. US sites make scarcely any links to sites originating outside the national domain. Back

  13. See also Sarah Li and Trevor Sofield's account of pitched battles between competing village tourist enterprises in the Karst caves of the PRC. Back

  14. This is indicated in the classic episode of the US comedy Seinfeld (episode 90, originally aired 13/10/1994 – "the Chinese woman") where the character of George's mother takes counselling from Donna Chang, later to discover she is not Chinese but Jewish, and from Long Island. "I'm not taking advice from some girl from Long Island!" she says. Back

Acknowledgement

We would like to thank Danny Toohey, Andrew Turk and Fay Sudweeks for helpful comments on this manuscript.

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Appendix 1 – Population and other statistics

Hong Kong — end 2000, 6 865 600 persons. Of which 6 680 500 were usual residents (permanent and non-permanent of 3 months and more stay), and 185, 100 were mobile residents (permanent residents). Growth rate of 1.5% 20% of population growth attributable to natural increase, 80% due to population flow (inwards migration).

Scotland seems to be stable at 5.1 million according to the Scottish Executive statistics page. (Scottish Statistics, 2000. Accessed September 30th 2001: http://195.92.250.59/library2/doc16/ss2-01.asp

Scotland is carrying out a census in 2001 — for details and past data see referenced Scottish Office website.

Tables

World Tourism Arrival and Receipts

Arrivals (millions)

Receipts ($US billions)

1989

426

221

1990

458

269.2

1991

464

277.6

1992

503

315.5

1993

518

322.3

1994

553

353.5

1995

568

403.6

1996

600

438.8

1997

620

447.7

1998

635

439.4

1999

657

455

Average Number of Vacation Days

Countries

Days

Italy

42

France

37

Germany

35

Brazil

34

United Kingdom

28

Canada

26

Korea

25

Japan

25

USA

13

It is estimated that by 2003 online revenues will reach 10% of total industry revenue in the US (the figure is at 2% in the EC). Other estimates put the US figure much higher (up to 23% by 2003) The lesson from these different estimates is that no-one can surely predict the ways in which new technology will be used by the general public, not what is truly profitable in the long term.
(Balnaves et al, 2001)

Table (Source: Halavais)

Distribution of links by country (%) - Largest Twelve in sample. The figures in bold show the percentage of links within the national space. The proportion of links to the USA in each country are shown underlined.

SITES IN:

US

UK

CA

DE

AU

NL

SE

JP

IT

FR

ES

CH

OTHER

United States

90

1.9

1.6

0.5

0.8

0.5

0.5

0.3

0.3

0.4

0.1

0.4

1.1

United Kingdom

42

43

1.1

1.3

1.0

1.3

2.6

0.1

0.5

0.6

0.5

1.0

3.1

Canada

48.2

2.4

43.1

0.2

1.7

0.1

0.5

1.5

0.0

0.2

0.0

0.1

1.9

Germany

27.7

1.7

0.4

63.5

0.0

0.3

0.4

0.0

0.4

0.2

2.3

0.7

2.2

Australia

39.7

0.6

0.5

0.4

52.5

0.5

0.5

0.2

0.5

0.1

0.0

0.3

3.6

Netherlands

29.7

7.3

1.0

4.3

0.7

49.4

0.4

0.1

0.1

0.1

0.0

0.3

5.9

Sweden

43.3

2.8

1.0

1.8

1.0

0.7

44.9

0.4

0.1

0.2

0.0

0.6

2.5

Japan

15.1

0.3

0.4

0.0

0.9

1.0

0.0

74.6

0.0

0.1

0.0

3.1

0.9

Italy

43.0

5.6

0.1

0.3

0.2

2.8

1.8

0.0

42.7

0.3

0.0

1.8

0.8

France

11.8

2.1

11.0

0.2

0.0

0.5

0.0

0.0

0.7

71.9

0.0

0.0

1.7

Spain

14.3

1.2

0.1

0.0

0.1

0.3

0.0

0.0

0.4

10.0

68.1

0.3

1.2

Switzerland

26.1

6.2

0.0

2.5

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

1.7

0.0

62.2

1.3

Other countries

40.9

1.7

0.8

1.8

1.8

1.1

0.8

0.2

0.2

0.3

0.0

1.4

40


Note — ‘Other countries’ include only countries in the researcher’s (Halavais) sample: Norway. Mexico, Belgium, Austria, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Denmark, Slovenia, Thailand, Venezuela, Poland, Turkey, Indonesia, Macau, Colombia, Dominica, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Micronesia, Bermuda, Czech republic, Egypt, India, Greece, Uruguay.

Table 2 (Source: Halavais)

Percentage of foreign links per topic area (includes only those sites with external links)

Topic Area

Foreign Links (%)

Science and research

38

Internet and Computers

34

Political

32

Recreation

28

Personal

27

Business

25

Education

24

Arts and entertainment

24

Social and religious groups

21

News

20

Sports

19

Travel

19

Health

19

Regional

17

Government

9


New: 4 October, 2001 | Now: 14 May, 2015