Authenticity and the Iban: cultural tourism at Iban longhouses in Sarawak, East Malaysia

Zeppel, Heather Dorothy (1994) Authenticity and the Iban: cultural tourism at Iban longhouses in Sarawak, East Malaysia. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Iban longhouses are a key tourist attraction in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. This thesis examines tourist responses to authenticity in Iban culture at the Sarawak Museum, Sarawak Cultural Village, and during guided Iban longhouse tours. In addition to the investigation of tourist reactions to Iban longhouses, the present set of studies also examine significant factors influencing tourist demand for authentic cultural experiences. A main objective is to evaluate authenticity through the interplay between tourist responses to the longhouse setting (situational), and fulfilling inner needs behavioural).

This field research on Iban longhouse tourism provides further insight into the concept of authenticity. It evaluates tourist reactions to the physical markers of Iban cultural identity, and the social mechanisms used by tourists to validate genuine cultural experiences. This thesis develops the notion that tourists actively select meaningful elements in Iban culture according to their own needs for authenticity. Tourist reactions to authenticity are evaluated using survey responses, supported by observations of tourist behaviour at Iban longhouses.

It is argued in the first study that commercial images of Iban culture direct the tourist's search for authenticity. Guidebooks, travel articles and postcards feature exotic markers of traditional Iban culture: trophy skulls, tattooed Iban men, dancing and ceremonial costume. Borneo adventure travel books highlight social encounters with Iban people at rural longhouses, and the impact of modernisation. Select travel reviews for the UIu Ai River focus on the natural environment or everyday Iban life.

A second study found travel brochures selectively use authenticity to sell longhouse tours. These describe the unchanged Iban,longhouse lifestyle, while many also refer to Iban headhunting. Most brochures depict Iban people posing in traditional costume, few include scenes of everyday Iban life. Mass tourism brochures describe organised Iban cultural activities, adventure travel and 'individual' travel brochures highlight social involvement or environmental experiences, while ecotourism brochures feature sharing daily life with the Iban. Behavioural aspects of authenticity are promoted to new travel market segments.

A field study conducted at the Sarawak Museum indicated that Iban culture is represented by artefacts, historic images, and a walk-through replica of two rooms in an Iban longhouse. Authenticity is projected through display techniques rather than a personal Iban 'voice'. Exhibits at the Sarawak Museum feature typical Iban objects (skulls, textiles, hornbill icon etc) with no personal accounts of Iban life. Tourists at the Sarawak Museum also construct their own meanings for Iban exhibits. This suggests authenticity is not tied to the object itself but is developed as a personal response, based on prior experience of Iban longhouse culture.

A second field study examined Iban longhouse tours in the Second Division of Sarawak, where visitors experience Iban lifestyle and culture. Such longhouse tours are object-oriented at Serubah, focus on social interaction with Iban people at Nanga Kesit, or allow tourists to share daily Iban life at Nanga Stamang. Tourists further enjoy modified Iban ritual events, revived Iban customs, outdoor excursions, and new visitor activities like games and a craft sale. Guided tours thus link authenticity with situational aspects of the longhouse location, or encourage tourist participation in social activities enhancing behavioural authenticity.

Field survey data on tourist responses confirmed that authenticity is specific to the longhouse destination and the kind of cultural encounter. In rating Iban cultural markers, most tourists considered the longhouse building, costumes, dances and, to a lesser extent, Iban lifestyle to be traditional, especially at Nanga Stamang. Tourist statements indicated that meeting Iban people and the personal meaning of a longhouse visit also contribute to authenticity. This personal aspect was enhanced by social interaction with Iban people and spontaneous behaviour.

A third field study conducted in the Iban longhouse at the Sarawak Cultural Village identified two groups of tourists who experienced authenticity in different ways. Survey data indicated that visitors with prior experience of Iban culture, on a longhouse tour, are more dissatisfied with the presentation of Iban lifestyle; instead they seek meaningful contact with Iban staff. Other 'first time' tourists linked authenticity with physical markers of Iban cultural identity, mainly dance and costume. While tourists seek authenticity at two levels, guided tours largely focus on Iban craft activities rather than meeting Iban people.

For tourists at Iban longhouses, achieving a genuine cultural experience is both situational and linked to satisfying inner needs. Field research indicated tourists are satisfied with key Iban cultural features. In this context, authenticity or personal meaning is mainly linked with meeting Iban people rather than seeing cultural markers. Tourist presentations of Iban culture, in different settings, should therefore address these personal needs for authenticity. Developing this behavioural aspect of authenticity would contribute to sustainable Iban longhouse tourism in Sarawak. Through Iban culture, tourists seek both a real world and their real self.

Additional research on cultural tourism would confirm when and how motivational aspects are important in defining authenticity. This behavioural dimension of authenticity requires more critical analysis, especially the element of spontaneity and the construction of personal meaning by tourists. Meeting this growing need for personal fulfilment in cultural encounters is central to 'new tourism'. Describing the various types of social interaction between tourists and their indigenous hosts, in varied cultural settings, would indicate which factors build a satisfying cultural experience. Authenticity needs to be further examined from the tourist perspective, for both cultural tours and built cultural attractions.

Item ID: 27869
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Iban culture; cultural authenticity; tourist perceptions; tourist expectations; cultural experiences; cultural experience marketing
Date Deposited: 01 Mar 2016 02:27
FoR Codes: 15 COMMERCE, MANAGEMENT, TOURISM AND SERVICES > 1506 Tourism > 150606 Tourist Behaviour and Visitor Experience @ 51%
15 COMMERCE, MANAGEMENT, TOURISM AND SERVICES > 1506 Tourism > 150604 Tourism Marketing @ 49%
SEO Codes: 90 COMMERCIAL SERVICES AND TOURISM > 9003 Tourism > 900302 Socio-Cultural Issues in Tourism @ 100%
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