Searching for an oriental paradise? : Imaginaries, tourist experiences and socio-cultural impacts of mega-cruise tourism in the sultanate of Oman

  • Die Suche nach dem Orientalischen Paradies? : Imaginationen, Touristische Erfahrungen und Sozio-Kulturelle Auswirkungen von Mega-Kreuzfahrttourismus im Sultanate Oman

Gutberlet, Manuela; Pfaffenbach, Carmella Diana (Thesis advisor); Müller, Dieter (Thesis advisor)

Aachen (2017)
Dissertation / PhD Thesis

Dissertation, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, 2017, Kumulative Dissertation


The thesis is grounded in the discussion on the rapid increase in international mega-cruise tourism "club ships" or "holiday-at-sea packages" (UNWTO 2010) which promote cultural globalization of tourism space through their practices and worldwide circulation of imaginaries. The purpose of this thesis is to examine the processes that shape the tourists’ multi-sensuous and embodied experiences and the socio-cultural impacts within the host-guest encounter. The following research questions were examined: What are the German-speaking cruise tourists’ imaginaries, on-site experiences and performances? What are the socio-cultural impacts of mega-cruise tourism and how do the local community and government officials cope with these impacts? Has tourism changed the locals’ understanding of the socio-cultural surrounding? What are the future plans for tourism development, and in particular for cruise tourism? The Sultanate of Oman is an emerging cruise destination in Asia. The first mega-cruise ship AIDAblu arrived in Muscat in 2004. The number of ship arrivals in Oman rose from 25 cruise ships and 7,783 tourists in 2005 to 135 cruise ships carrying 257,000 tourists in 2013. Most of the cruise tourists are German-speaking; they originate from Germany, Austria or Switzerland. Mega-cruise ships are large ships, having a maximum capacity of more than 1800 passengers and crew. Two prime tourist destinations have been examined as case studies: Souq Muttrah, an urban, heritage attraction located opposite to the port, and the Sharquiyah Sands desert, together with a nearby oasis which is a nature and cultural destination on the periphery. These places exemplify on the one hand "Oriental imaginaries of the Otherness" and on the other hand the dramatic socio-cultural changes that emerging cruise destinations are currently undergoing. The thesis considers the voices of different stakeholders in tourism: tourists, local communities and government officials. Fieldwork was conducted between 2011 and 2014. The research methods applied were two large questionnaire surveys among German-speaking cruise tourists of two different mega-cruise liners as well as participant observation, travel ethnography, counting, photography, walking interviews with different types of tourists and in-depth interviews with a large number of local stakeholders. These stakeholders included local and onboard tour guides, tour operators, the resident community, day visitors, business owners, shop vendors, environmental experts, as well as high-ranking decision-makers in the government: the Minister of Tourism, the Minister of Environment and Climate Affairs, the Assistant Grand Mufti, the Wali of Muttrah and other officials. Moreover, guidebooks, newspaper articles, websites of cruise companies and onboard newsletters were analysed together with the website and official statistics of the Ministry of Tourism. In addition, favourite souvenir photos taken by the tourists interviewed were analysed for their content. During the travel with a mega-ship, time and space are compressed so that tourists experience the places within a short time, thus decontextualizing the social and cultural environment. In addition, the Omani government is promoting the tourism development of the port in Muttrah with the extension of the cruise terminal and the relocation of its cargo activities to Port Sohar, as well as the relocation of the wholesale part of Souq Muttrah to Barka. Due to the large number of cruise tourists who visit Souq Muttrah during the winter season, a tourist enclave or an "enclosed tourist bubble" similar to the cruise liner itself has developed along the main streets of the souq. This tourist bubble forms a unique space in itself, existing apart from the host-society. Therefore, the identity of the souq has changed dramatically. Local residents who live close to the souq feel socially excluded from the tourism development and create physical or social boundaries to protect themselves from the crowds of tourists. As another result of crowding and social distinction, individual and group tourists avoid sharing the same space with mega-cruise tourists. Similarly, local customers who sometimes come from far-away places for shopping avoid the souq when a mega-ship is in Muttrah. As a consequence, well-established shop owners and vendors relocate their shops to other places on the periphery of the "tourist bubble". They are replaced in the "core bubble" by young Asian vendors who open up similar shops, offering cheap imported items like pashmina scarves with a more aggressive selling attitude. Nevertheless, my analysis has shown that most tourists perceive the souq as an unchanged, old, traditional and Oriental space. The majority of mega-cruise tourists surveyed enjoy the visual consumption of the place, but they buy little or nothing. The "tourist gaze" or the visual consumption pattern of tourists memorizing their visit in Souq Muttrah through photography is diverse. They reproduce romantic images of the souq and the "otherness" of the people. For most photographers the local people are seen as objects of the gaze. However, there is little involvement of the local community in the on-site tourist experiences. In addition to tourist photography this thesis analyses the multi-sensuous, embodied tourist experiences and performances in Souq Muttrah. The concept of performance refers to narratives, practices and the reproduction of space through mediated imaginaries about the exotic "Oriental other". As such, the souq represents a stage, presenting mediated imaginaries, materialities, bodies and stories such as "The Arabian Nights" including "Sindbad the Sailor", or the autobiography of "Princess Salme from Zanzibar". The media, marketing material and cultural brokers label Oman as a fairy-tale country that is enacted in the souq as a kind of theme park, an Arabian Disneyland designed for consumption by the mega-cruise tourists, but with the social exclusion of locals and other tourists. Oriental imaginaries and power relations between the West and the Orient result in inconsiderate, mindless tourist dress behaviour and local reactions of culture shock. This demonstrates the conflicts which arise in cross-cultural communication when two cultures with different morals and value systems, as well as low and high context communication styles, meet within the same space. Furthermore, my results indicate that mega-cruise tourists are not sufficiently prepared for their visit, since local cultural brokers and the marketing material avoid clear information regarding local morals and values, including the conservative dress code for females. Imaginaries communicated on land and on board focus on social narratives about a sunny, "paradise-like" imaginary country. As a consequence, tourists wear revealing clothes while local people experience culture shock situations. Thus, the Sultanate officially promotes tolerance towards Western, non-Muslim tourists but within an "accommodationist" (Din 1989) approach towards a revealing dress behaviour. As a consequence, the tourist destination is transformed into a tourist-centred space, a "tourist bubble", a commoditized place for consumption, preventing cross-cultural contacts and guarding against negative influences from the tourists and from the local community.In conclusion, the fast increase in cruise tourism and the arrival of Western mega-cruise tourists represent a socio-cultural "invasion" with negative impacts for the country and the host-communities. Hence, the impacts of mega-cruise tourism are in contrast with the vision of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, promoting responsible tourism. Mega-cruise tourism is a challenge for the community, creating a potential for overcrowding space and socio-cultural conflicts for other tourists, the local, mainly conservative Muslim community, cultural brokers and government officials. Therefore, the large scale of cruise tourism and the Western concept of "hedonistic tourism" should be reconsidered. The guiding concept should be a "community-based tourism", legally regulated and focussing on the long-term well-being of the local multi-ethnic community.