Besides direct brainwashing, can political entities like a government, state, or party subtly use tourism to build political support? The answer is ‘yes’. But how?
Like it or not, political entities can adapt tourism to achieve political goals like supporting patriotism and nationalism. Such support relates to a citizenry’s voluntary acceptance of political authorities. Although these entities can use brainwashing to garner such support, it often causes civil resistance. Hence, they sometimes adopt a softer measure: patriotic tourism.
Via a ‘love-me-and-love my-dog’ mentality, when people love a sovereign state, they also love its policies, ideas, and actions. Encouraging such love facilitates political acceptance of policies promoting economic growth, social cohesion, and nation-building. For example, despite its criticism as a brainwashing project, Red Tourism has helped the Chinese government obtain massive support from its citizens, easing the enforcement of many economic reform policies.
Red Tourism is the marketing and consumption of state-sponsored heritage sites in China. It exemplifies how tourism can build political support when tourists seek a personal experience while the government seeks public support. Marketing heritage tourism sites reinforces state governance because these sites often reflect political values; for example, the Forbidden City traditionally represented emperors’ omnipotent authority. Similarly, Jinggangshan and Yan’an were deemed the cradles of the Chinese communist revolution. Marketing these two areas as heritage sites attracted sightseers, whose visits helped secure support for the Chinese Communist Party and government.
Rebuilding the State’s political reputation and social acceptance via Red Tourism
Multiple factors have driven Red Tourism. Since the 1990s, growing business privatisation, layoffs of state-owned enterprise workers, pervasive officials’ corruption, and the inflow of alternative values (e.g., democracy, liberty, equity, human rights, and individualism) have unsettled the Chinese government’s operations. That government now uses several overt strategies (like brainwashing)—implemented via formal education, public propaganda, administrative orders, laws, and rules—to rebuild its declining political reputation.
Through these ‘hard’ measures, citizens were indoctrinated to love the country, the Chinese Communist Party, and the government. However, because of many citizens’ resistance, the Chinese government increasingly chooses subtler strategies—such as entertainment media, pop culture, and social welfare programs—to ‘softly’ extend its political acceptance. For example, by watching movies and TV series about sacrifices during WWII, Chinese citizens are unconsciously indoctrinated in patriotism and nationalism.
Subtly sustaining a state’s political reputation and social acceptance is like marketing a commercial brand. Red Tourism’s marketing and consumption merge commercial (e.g., logistic services, economic exchanges, local GDP growth, and personal experiences) and political aspects (e.g., revolutionary history, cultural revival, modernisation, industrialization, patriotism, and nationalism). Such marketing and consumption combine tangible (e.g., heritage sites, scenery, logistics, and historic buildings) and intangible elements (e.g., political expressions and political support).
The supply and demand of Red Tourism
Red Tourism’s marketing and mass consumption satisfy two desires. The first is tourists’ desire for pleasure, socialization, historical exploration, conspicuous consumption, and political expression. For example, some tourists frequented Red heritage sites to show their economic success, whereas others consumed Red Tourism to express their political status. The second is the state’s desire for political support, spurred by tourists becoming more amenable to state-preferred values.
From the supply side, Red Tourism enhances the state’s political and popular acceptance by advancing (1) state-preferred values like sacrifice, morality, thrift, and self-control and (2) state-preferred doctrines like patriotism, socialism and communism. Companies (private or state-owned) view Red Tourism as a thriving business opportunity that creates high economic returns. As a result, Red Tourism attracts state and private investment.
On the demand side, Chinese tourists are Red Tourism’s primary targeted consumers (sometimes via virtual visits). Diverse experience drives Red Tourism consumption. Whereas younger tourists visit Red Heritage sites to see the attractions and socialise with friends, many older tourists participate in Red Tourism nostalgically to cherish the pre-Cultural-Revolution old days eulogized as job security, non-corruption, social harmony, national pride, and personal integrity.
In addition, many older tourists were attracted to Red Tourism because ‘red’ in Chinese culture refers to happiness, prosperity, and good fortune. The descendants of famous Chinese revolutionaries or previous leaders often participate in Red Tourism, which reflects political support for their forefathers and an eagerness to sustain socialist governance. Moreover, bandwagoning with other people’s consumption of Red Tourism creates more demand. For example, many young tourists visited Red Heritage sites mainly because their friends had done so.
Socio-political meanings of consuming Red Heritage Sites
To complement state-sponsored socialist education programs, Red Tourism creates vital venues for Chinese tourists to experience state-preferred values. Tourists generally believe Red sites, often located in remote, underdeveloped rural regions or those arranged as city museums in relatively wealthy metropolitan areas, embody profound socialistic values (e.g., economic equality, resistance to social decay or oppression, a clean government, and social justice) for Chinese society. Statues, monuments, theme parks, museums, and ‘Red education bases’ were erected on these sites to ‘brand’ such values and shape citizens’ acceptance of current governance.
Red Tourism consumption and the higher demand for related products (e.g., food, transportation, and hospitality) create jobs that translate into mass support for the state. For example, local economies boomed when restaurants, hotels, and taxi companies near Red Heritage sites hired many local people to serve tourists. Red heritage sites also increased residents’ awareness and pride in their hometown, helping to build grassroots political support for the government.
Red tourists share their experiences via online platforms (e.g., WeChat, Youku, and many personal blogging accounts), in-person word-of-mouth, and other communication channels. This process helps to market state-preferred values and build political support for the state and the Chinese Communist Party.
Red Tourism’s effects and backlashes
Red Tourism can softly ‘sell’ state-preferred values to sustain and enhance China’s political reputation. Its marketing and consumption boost the Chinese state’s political reputation and acceptance in three ways. First, it is a state-sponsored activity for mitigating the late-1980s and early-1990s state governing crisis attributable to worsening corruption and layoffs of Chinese state-owned enterprise workers. Second, it is a marketing strategy many heritage sites and related companies have adopted to improve the local economy, create jobs, and grow corporate profits. Third, it helps local officials build their careers (as local GDP has been adopted as a major indicator to evaluate officials’ performance) and allows tourists to seek a place for recreational experience or political expression.
However, Red Tourism created many problems, including using public funds to fund government officials’ Red Tourism, traffic congestion, the often unintended destruction of historical legacies physically and culturally, and local ecosystem degradation. Moreover, tourists have criticised some sites’ poor service (e.g., poor internet access, crowded transportation, low-quality food, etc.) or overcharges.
Yan, T., & Hyman, M. R. (2023). Softly enhancing political legitimacy via Red Tourism. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/13683500.2022.2077180