English professor explains the trouble with tourism

This picture shows King Street in Charleston, South Carolina.

When she heard the news in June about a gunman opening fire at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, Shevaun Watson was horrified but not surprised.

Watson, an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has been studying the rhetoric of Southern heritage tourism, especially in Charleston. In six years, she’s taken countless tours – walking tours, food tours, by carriage, focused on ghosts or the Civil War, and others. She’s found a disturbing narrative interwoven in the information presented.

Associated Professor of English Shevaun Watson's research required her to take countless tours of Charleston, South Carolina, as well as examine tour guide manuals, study literature on other tourism draws and compile data on the economics of the tourism industry.
Associated Professor of English Shevaun Watson’s research required her to take countless tours of Charleston, South Carolina, as well as examine tour guide manuals, study literature on other tourism draws and compile data on the economics of the tourism industry. (UW-Eau Claire/Bill Hoepner)

“The tourism industry is invested in the construction of these narratives about the past that shore up the white elite as being these imperiled people throughout history, who have had to withstand slave rebellions and hurricanes and fires and the North, and on and on,” Watson said. “(Tourism) lulls people into not being very critical about history, or about race, or about slavery. … It feeds into some of the white supremacy that we see there.”

Watson detailed her findings in a paper published in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, summing up the major problem with the narrative: It works. Tourism is a cash cow in South Carolina and especially in Charleston. The state raked in $18 billion in tourism in 2014, and 2015 is predicted to set a new record for income. Charleston is consistently ranked as a top tourist destination, both for domestic and international travelers.

Unfortunately, Watson said, it’s likely that this beloved narrative has prevented people from talking honestly about the city’s involvement in the slave trade and its legacy of racism. It creates an environment in which people may buy into the idea of whites being a beleaguered group, and at its worst, may fuel the kind of hostility that causes someone to open fire at a historically black church.

“That unwillingness to engage in the hard conversations really hampers our ability to respond productively to these kinds of race-related problems that we continue to have,” Watson said. “I think tourism plays some role in this. I was not surprised that (the shooting) happened in Charleston.”

What’s more, Watson has seen tourists play straight into the narrative, though she hasn’t conducted all of the research she would like to do on this particular subject. She’s been on several historical tours in which tourists asked not to hear about the city’s history of slavery, even on outings billed specifically as slavery tours.

“When I did chime in one time and said I would like to hear a little bit about it (the tour guide said), ‘Oh, it looks like we have a Yankee in our midst.’ I don’t think there is a mechanism where people who might share my same concerns could really actually say something,” Watson said.

Watson’s research involved participating in the city’s tours several times over, as well as poring over tour guide manuals, studying literature on other tourism draws like monuments, and closely examining the economics of the industry.

She found hidden costs to Charleston’s tourism industry, first among them accurate history. Some tour guides were working from manuals that hadn’t been updated in four decades, giving out incorrect information.

The city’s residents bear other costs. For example, historical preservation of old buildings has made housing extremely expensive, driving out the middle class, especially black middle-class residents.

Watson would like to see that change. She thinks better education for tour guides could help, along with measures to protect against structural inequalities that make housing and other essentials unaffordable. She also wants to see the city do more to promote African American tourism, especially if the revenue could be channeled to help the city’s struggling lower class.

But, it’s hard to change a system that is generating millions of dollars in profits and employing a significant portion of the city’s residents.

“It’s a self-propagating, feel-good, making-money system, but it’s had huge impacts on the place that I think are related to racism, hate crimes, and the tragedies that we saw at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Watson said. “And unfortunately, I think in tourism, that church will just become part of a larger narrative.”

Top Stories