Consuming nirvana : an exploration of surfing tourist space

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The purpose of this inquiry is to explore the social construction of surfing tourist space in the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia and to expand existing theory to explain the process by which tourist space comes to be overlaid upon the geographical and social domain of destination communities. A review of surfing tourism literature revealed a modest body of knowledge that was largely descriptive, and devoid of any clear theoretical and philosophical perspectives. In order to gain an understanding of the historicity in the production of surfing tourist space, a review of academic and popular surfing literature was undertaken. This review indicated the importance of commercial surf industry discourse, disseminated through a specialist surf media, in defining and maintaining an idealised surfing tourist space (labelled ‘Nirvana’), which is based on the search for, and consumption of, the ‘perfect wave’. A social constructionist interpretation of grounded theory was employed in order to collect and analyse observations and indepth interviews of surfing tourists, surf tour operators, surf industry and media representatives, and locals, from which a number of interpretations were drawn. Firstly, surfing tourist space – Nirvana - is a fragile and contested space based upon four symbolic elements: perfect waves; uncrowded conditions; cushioned adventure; and, a pristine tropical environment. A four-phase process (referred to as Nirvanification) was developed in order to interpret the way in which tourist space is overlaid upon the social and geographical domain of destinations. It is argued that this space is remotely constructed, highly symbolic, and ‘disembedded’ from local realities in the Mentawai Islands. Nirvanification revolves around the construction of symbolic elements of tourist space where it is threatened by alternative discourses, which the industry counters by deploying various myths. The ramification of Nirvanification for local communities in the Mentawais is marginalisation from the economic benefits from tourism. In conclusion this study identified channels for resistance and change which provide an alternative theoretical and philosophical position from which to question the assumptions that underlie socially constructed tourist space.
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