Tourism and cultural change

Tourism and cultural change

Before the 1970s, Toraja was almost unknown to Western tourism. In 1971, about 50 Europeans visited Tana Toraja. In 1972, at least 400 visitors attended the funeral ritual of Puang of Sangalla, the highest-ranking nobleman in Tana Toraja and the so-called "last pure-blooded Toraja noble." The event was documented by National Geographic and broadcast in several European countries. In 1976, about 12,000 tourists visited the regency and in 1981, Torajan sculpture was exhibited in major North American museums. "The land of the heavenly kings of Tana Toraja", as written in the exhibition brochure, embraced the outside world.

In 1984, the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism declared Tana Toraja Regency the prima donna of South Sulawesi. Tana Toraja was heralded as "the second stop after Bali". Tourism was increasing dramatically: by 1985, a total number of 150,000 foreigners had visited the Regency (in addition to 80,000 domestic tourists), and the annual number of foreign visitors was recorded at 40,000 in 1989. Souvenir stands appeared in Rantepao, the cultural center of Toraja, roads were sealed at the most-visited tourist sites, new hotels and tourist-oriented restaurants were opened, and an airstrip was opened in the Regency in 1981.

Tourism developers have marketed Tana Toraja as an exotic adventure an area rich in culture and off the beaten track. Western tourists expected to see stone-age villages and pagan funerals. Toraja is for tourists who have gone as far as Bali and are willing to see more of the wild, "untouched" islands. However, they were more likely to see a Torajan wearing a hat and denim, living in a Christian society. Tourists felt that the tongkonan and other Torajan rituals had been preconceived to make profits, and complained that the destination was too commercialised. This has resulted in several clashes between Torajans and tourism developers, whom Torajans see as outsiders.

A clash between local Torajan leaders and the South Sulawesi provincial government (as a tourist developer) broke out in 1985. The government designated 18 Toraja villages and burial sites as traditional tourist attractions. Consequently, zoning restrictions were applied to these areas, such that Torajans themselves were barred from changing their tongkonans and burial sites. The plan was opposed by some Torajan leaders, as they felt that their rituals and traditions were being determined by outsiders. As a result, in 1987, the Torajan village of Kété Kesú and several other designated tourist attractions closed their doors to tourists. This closure lasted only a few days, as the villagers found it too difficult to survive without the income from selling souvenirs.

Tourism has also transformed Toraja society. Originally, there was a ritual which allowed commoners to marry nobles (puang) and thereby gain nobility for their children. However, the image of Torajan society created for the tourists, often by "lower-ranking" guides, has eroded its traditional strict hierarchy. High status is not as esteemed in Tana Toraja as it once was. Many low-ranking men can declare themselves and their children nobles by gaining enough wealth through work outside the region and then marrying a noble woman.

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