Cultural Commoditization in Tana Toraja, Indonesia

Toraja Ke'te' Kesu'
In 1984 the Indonesian director general of tourism declared Tana Toraja Regency the touristic "prima donna of South Sulawesi." In a little more than 15 years the Toraja people of upland Sulawesi had gone from anthropological obscurity to touristic celebrity. Known for their spectacular funeral rituals, effigy-filled burial cliffs, and elaborately carved architecture, the Sa'dan Toraja people of Indonesia number some 346,000. Although they continue to adhere to the traditions that so intrigue tourists, the Toraja are a predominantly Christian minority in a Muslim country. The ever-increasing flow of tourists to Tana Toraja has precipitated a number of new issues for the Toraja. Certain aspects of these problems have been discussed elsewhere (Adams 1988; Crystal 1977; Volkman 1982); this article focuses on conflicts that have emerged between local leaders and Indonesian government officials involved in tourism planning and tourism zoning.

Wonderful Indonesia | Tana Toraja, Makasar

Safely protected beyond the lofty mountains and rugged granite cliffs of the central highlands of the island of Sulawesi, are the Toraja people who live in valleys that are lush with green rice terraces and fertile coffee plantations.

​In our attempts to full understand these clashes and find constructive solutions, we must take several issues into consideration. First, we need to appreciate Toraja conceptions of ownership and authority and examine how they contrast with the notions put forth by outside tourism developers. Second, tourism planners' tendency to approach living villages as "objects" must be curtailed; many of the conflicts in Toraja stem in part from the way in which consultants treat tourist attractions, such as Toraja houses and graves, as objects divorced from living traditions. Third, we must recognize that development is often superimposed on a preexisting structure of ethnic and local rivalries.

Tourism in Tana Toraja 

Heralded as the "second tourist stop after Bali," Tana Toraja Regency has attracted growing numbers of international and domestic tourists. In 1972 only 650 foreigners visited the Toraja highlands; by 1985 more than 15,000 foreigners and almost 80,000 domestic tourists the region annually, and in 1987 a total of 179,948 tourists traveled to Tana Toraja. Twenty years ago, carved Toraja Kindred houses (tongkonan) and cliff-side graves were known only to Indonesians, anthropologists, and missionaries. Today no Southeast Asia travel log is without at least a paragraph devoted to the Toraja. As a recent Sunset article declared, "Here [in Tana Toraja] you can get an anthropologist's glimpse of an ancient culture, fantastic building styles, unusual burial customs and possibly witness a festive funeral" (Holdiman 1985). Through tourism, then, these images are quickly becoming international icons of a seductively exotic culture.

Writing on the impact of tourism in northern Thailand, Cohen (1979) notes that "tourism, projects a fixed an attractive image on a locality, thus giving visitors certain expectations... but at the same time the introduction of tourism changes that locality, removing its physical appearance and way of life even more from the touristic image." When I arrived in Sulawesi in 1984, government officials were starting to discover the truth of Cohen's observations. The tourist stampede was beginning to transform the Toraja landscape: local vendors had set up souvenir stands on the porches of their kindred houses, newly poured cement sidewalks meandered through traditional villages, and gateway arches and tin-roofed viewing stands sprung up by the famed cliff-side graves. Tourists were starting to complain that the things they had come to see (traditional villages and limestone burial cliffs) were too commercialized.

The Tourism Zoning Meetings

With these tourists' murmurings of discontent came a new push to institute formal tourism zoning policies in the region. By 1985 the provincial government had deemed 18 Toraja "traditional" village and burial cliffs as official "tourist objects" (obyek turis). A team of consultants from the provincial head-quarters was sent in to evaluate these "tourist objects" and to make zoning recommendation. Ironically, the team did not have a single Toraja member: the consultants were Buginese, Javanese, and Mandarese. The Christianized Toraja have a long history of ambivalent relations with the Buginese, their lowland Muslim neighbors who dominate the provincial government. Toraja rivalry with the Buginese was particularly fierce in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when there was intense competition over the local coffee and slave trade (Bigalke 1981). Furthermore, the Toraja have long felt misunderstood by the Javanese, who dominate the Indonesian government. For the Toraja, then, the tourism consultants were clearly outsiders who were meddling in their affairs. In the eyes of some Toraja, an age-old rivalry was being played out on a new stage: whereas in the past those from neighboring kingdoms had come seeking highland coffee and slaves, today the coveted Toraja resources they sought were rich foreign tourists.

In early 1985 the planning team held its first meeting to discuss zoning with regional government officials and local Toraja elites. After describing how zoning would preserve Toraja culture by protecting tourist sites and guarding against artificiality, the outside consultants solicited local responses. Somewhat to their surprise, the nobles began vying to get their particular villages added to the list of tourist objects; in fact, many of the nobles had come armed with lists of reasons why their own area deserved attention. The planning consultants stated that their goal was to establish zoning regulations for existing objects, not to develop new ones. The Toraja representatives were clearly distressed.

When Death Doesn’t Mean Goodbye


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Friday, 06 December 2019

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