Tourism, the Visible, the Hidden, and the Ignored in Urban Heritage Festivals





Tourism, the Visible, the Hidden, and the Ignored in Urban Heritage Festivals

Ping-Ann Addo is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston

Anthropologist Ping-Ann Addo on the importance of seeing the real lives of the communities behind festivals

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Feb 28, 2021

World-class cities, whether classically charming or rapidly gentrifying, are a draw for both tourists and festivals. Art, film, theater, food, and music festivals, as well as sports and other leisure events, attract visitors and inspire awe and respect. But what of the people who live there, especially those whose cultures are marketed as tourist attractions to the place, the city – who recognizes, knows, and admires them?

Long-standing cultural festivals may be put on official “billings” as tourist attractions, but they usually conceal more than they reveal about the people of a place. As an anthropologist, I am interested in the place-based cultural meaning of heritage festivals – the often celebratory, usually calendrical, always commemorative occurrences that have a place in a city’s history and as forms of patrimony for specific groups of inhabitants. Heritage festivals are not simply in a place but of a place because of who already dwells there. It is as if place produces aspects of a people that require expression in the form of a given festival.  

St. Patrick’s Day (religious-cum-street parade), Lunar New Year (religious, community, and business festival), or Caribbean Carnival (political protest-cum-public “dance” parade) festivals are all celebratory happenings with an outer face and an inner heart. The public aspects of a festival – while attractive to tourists – do little to index the specifics of the everyday for these ethnic and religious communities. Do we know the struggles, resiliency, and ambitions of members of that community? Specificity matters.

Temporality also matters. Often analysts refer to festivals as “ephemera,” even though numerous ethnographers have proven that, if we are only there during a festival period, we would not likely learn of the prayers offered, financial sacrifices made, and costumes painstakingly wrought inside homes, workshops, and places of worship in order to finance or otherwise facilitate the displays in public spaces. Dropping in at festival time is not a way to experience the multi-faceted culture of a people in place. Dropping in is not culture; it is tourism.

In gentrifying cities, minority communities are invested in the myriad meanings that their heritage festivals hold, and they often genuinely welcome the visibility that festivals afford them as people of a place. Tourism may certainly produce monetary value, but tourism is rarely, in itself, a value. Moreover, while tourism as an urban (enhancement) project may benefit from heritage festivals, heritage festivals have no inherent need for tourism.

Focusing on value (what one will give up to access something, like one’s festival heritage) and values (how one expresses what that heritage means), anthropologists see public performance and spectacle, to which tourists are typically drawn (or steered) as minor aspects of the unfolding story of a place. Other crucial aspects include on-going (and never static) processes of cultural creativity, political and gendered resistance, community preservation, youth expression, and vernacular education – to name just a few.

Whether we are researchers, visitors, city planners, or residents, if we use tourism as a lens onto the realities of place, we will likely find that we can barely see through the fog of our own particular concerns. Rather, if we train our lenses to the conditions that locals live under in their everyday lives, we will know that we do not know, and we might also recognize that we can always learn. We can research, recognize, and respect who local people were and hope to continue to be as the city around them changes. Thus, the festival context affords us meaningful, informed ways to encounter and understand the work, culture, history, community, and face and heart of people of a place.


Schuster, J. M. (2001). Ephemera, temporary urbanism and imaging. In: Vale, L. J. and Warner,
S. B. Jr (eds) Imagining the city: continuing struggles and new directions. Brunswick, NJ: New
Centre for Urban Policy Research, State University of New Jersey Press, pp. 361–397.

Ping-Ann Addo is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She is an ethnographer whose methodologies start with the arts and whose current research focus is on interactions between ethnic community building, minority women’s entrepreneurship, and place-keeping.

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