How tourists make cultures like Salvador’s into “exotic” commodities for their consumption
Tourists arrive seeking a Salvador nostalgic for its traumatic colonial period.
by Kathleen Anaza
In the old tale of tourism, when the needs of a city’s residents are leveraged against the wants of its visitors, it’s the residents who lose. The recent Fyre Festival scam is a prime example of unequal power in tourism interests. A con man from the United States finessed hundreds of celebrities, social media influencers, and investors, convincing them he could throw a luxury music festival on a remote island.
When everything turned to shambles, the frustrated tourists left, livelihoods in tack. They demanded retribution for their bad experience, but held little concern for the negative ways the entire venture had impacted the economy, ecosystem, and livelihoods of people in Exuma, Bahamas where the festival was supposed to have taken place.
Even as a singular event, the failed Fyre Festival deeply impacted Exuma. Many think its success would have prevented the island’s suffering, but places like Salvador, Bahia can show us how a successful Fyre Festival would have been the beginning of a much longer saga. The conversation we need to have about tourism in these countries is one that seriously interrogates the commodification of culture.
Salvador is the capital of Bahia, a captivatingly beautiful state located in the Northeastern region of Brazil. There is a palpable sense of self-esteem, identity, and resistance in Salvador which bleeds into the entire state. It maintains an active conversation with its history and places value in its cultural artifacts.
These characteristics are unfortunately largely excluded from many tourist conceptions of “cultural heritage”. The revered “cultural heritage” they seek is narrowly defined and stagnant, especially if from a Western lens. Tourists arrive seeking a Salvador nostalgic for its traumatic colonial period. They do not engage with it as a constantly evolving city, nor do they view its Black residents as complex, nuanced individuals. Whether from Europe, the Americas, or Brazil, most of Salvador’s tourists identify as white, and this greatly impacts how they view it. They identify Salvador’s culture with exoticism, and this perpetuates the ease in which its culture is commodified.
Salvador is marketed as “The Most African state of Brazil” or “Hub of Afro-Brazilian culture”, and while these statements possess validity, they’re also based on stagnant definitions of both African and Afro-Brazilian identities. In spite of this, visitors arrive wanting a specific brand of performative “Africanness” and “Afro-Brazilianess.” Many of these visitors are coming from communities that express Anti-African and Anti-Blackness on state and social levels, and it shows in the distance they place between themselves and the residents. A metropolitan city saturated with art, music, and innovation isn’t the Salvador the tourist market wants, it’s not what their lens identifies as “African” or “Afro-Brazilian.”
The city’s historic center and the epicenter of tourism is named the “Pelourinho.” In Portuguese, this term means “skin market”. The name comes from a whipping post once located there, where African slaves would be publicly punished during Brazil’s lengthy colonial era. Salvador was one of the largest slave ports in the Americas and this fact brought together enslaved Africans of diverse tribes to resist their oppression and create Salvador’s “cultural heritage”.
The Pelourinho was a market where African slaves were bought, sold, and traded. On travel blogs and tours, the legacy of the Pelourinho is reduced to an “unfortunate past” and admiration for “quaint, Portuguese architecture.” The site has undergone many transformations, beginning as a slave market and home to wealthy colonial families, then shifting into a disenfranchised Black neighborhood in the late 20th century, that still managed to become a hub for Black culture and activism. Today, Pelourinho holds status as a protected UNESCO world heritage site.
While the commodification of culture due to tourism is not unique (ie: Maasai, Indigenous Hawaiians), its influence on the way religion is practiced and performed in Salvador is distinct. Candomblé is an expansive, polymorphous religion with diverse practices and rituals in various nations throughout different regions of Brazil and South America. It often includes, orixás/orishas, dialogue between Africa and Afro-Brazil, gender and spirit possession, and and the terreiro (temples). It is influenced by a mixture of African spiritualities (Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu), as well as Indigenous American belief systems and Roman Catholicism.
All these influences have helped Candomblé indisputably underline many of Brazil’s resistance movements since its inception. Despite its influence, a strong element of secrecy has surrounded Candomblé throughout history due to repressive slave laws, penal codes, and depictions as witchcraft. In the 1970s, the repeal of penal codes that prevented its public practice allowed a resurgence of self-identification as Candomblé believers/practitioners and exploration.
Many practitioners became teachers of the religion. For some Brazilians practicing was an exercise of reclaiming cultural and historical identities. What was once illegal and highly stigmatized became something institutionalized, present in media and utilized by the state. What was polymorphous became defined. When Candomblé became public, ceremonies that were once shrouded in secrecy, became open for observation and at times participation. Hidden images and idols of orixas/orishas could now be purchased, the religion’s leaders now visible activists and community leaders, terreiros now accessible to the public.
Tourists can make practices of “cultural preservation or heritage” into performative moments in their imagination. Visitors are now choosing Candomblé as an aspect of Salvador’s culture with which to engage, due to their understanding of it as just another part of the tourism experience. Their interests in the practice raise valid concerns about exotification and authenticity. Additionally, this interest comes at a time when Salvador is at a religious crossroads. Residents are negotiating the Evangelization of their communities and the Candomblé intolerance that comes with it. I wonder if these current practices would look any different or occur in the same frequency without tourists present in Salvador, and why Candomblé seems to be the specific cultural experience these visitors want. I worry that “Public Candomblé” has, in part, become a manufactured cultural experience to suit visitor expectations and support an economy that unfortunately relies on white tourist dollars.
Kathleen Anaza is a storyteller, activist and international educator currently based in Brazil. Her work examines global power dynamics through the cultures, arts, and resistance of the marginalized. She loves music, travel and critiquing international development. Follow her cultural explorations via Instagram @misskallday