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Art, Craft & Souvenirs

February 18, 2023
Harold Goodwin
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Although the selfie has displaced the sending of postcards and travellers are less motivated to take back souvenirs to prove that they have been there - the selfie has preceded landing back home, whereas the postcard would often arrive after you had returned to work. We talk about trophy photographs which now perform the same function as the souvenirs purchased for friends, families and sometimes workmates.

This "platform for change" draws heavily on personal experience as a tour leader and tourist, on research in The Gambia, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia and consultancy visits in Kerala and Madhya Pradesh.  Definitions of art and craft are many and held with passion, I will not add here to that debate except to remind us of the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and one person's art is another person's craft and vice versa. Souvenirs are more easily, and less contentiously, defined as things that are kept as a reminder of a person, place, or event.

These souvenirs may be regarded locally in the culture in which they are produced as art or craft, and defined quite differently by the tourist or traveller, depending on their home culture; and the home culture will not have a simple view of what counts as a souvenir.

So amongst the souvenirs that grace the bookcases and windowsill of my home, there is a Maasai Milk Gourd, kitchens tools from China, Slovenia and Indonesia, a Cataplana (cooking pot) from Portugal, a length of coir rope I made in Kerala during a Village Life Experience, and I have a collection four different mouse traps from Slovenia - there are many more. The is a whole culture of dormouse hunting in southern Slovenia - be distracted and take a look.

I have a very large collection of more traditional sources, backrests from Uganda, pewter from Rwanda, Marioska Dolls from Russia, musical instruments from India, early skis from Slovenia, rugs and textiles, a tea set from China - these, and many more, are conventional souvenirs.  A very fine cheetah purchased from an antique shop in Deal and a stunning Komodo dragon from a secondhand furniture shop in Faversham function as souvenirs, they carry memory but they were not brought by me in the country of which they remind me.

I have had the experience of meeting the last man who could make a number of traditional objects in Saudi Arabia, crafts are still threatened, for example in Japan there were more than 300 gold leaf craftsmen in Kanazawa. Now there are fewer than 20. If you have time watch this video The Last Master Swordsmiths In Japan - Master And His Last Disciple - Katana Documentary

In many nations, there are concerns about the disappearing arts, Egypt, UK,  India, Tanzania,  tourism can be a way of enabling crafts to survive and evolve, they are heritage. The British Museum now has an Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP) that aims to call attention to, research and preserve the crafts, skills, practices and knowledge of the material world that are in danger of disappearing.

In 1880 an English textile designer William Morris declared to his Birmingham audience: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  He led the Arts and Crafts Movement motivated by (a) a rejection of cheap inferior goods produced in poor conditions for low wages in factories; (b) a concern to conserve traditional skill; and (c) a desire to see art and design thrive.

The import of factory-manufactured cheap craft replicas, often from another country, can undermine local crafters and artists. The local crafters and the tourists are cheated, the crafters lose on sales and the tourists are duped into buying a souvenir which is not from the place they wish to remember. The destination loses because it is "cheapened" and heritage is lost because heritage needs to be actively inherited and practised by the next generation if it is not to become a relic culture and die.  Living cultures must thrive beyond the museum.

William Morris's wise words "know to be useful or believe to be beautiful" are important in understanding the market for arts and crafts. Crafters and artists have the opportunity to discuss their art or craft with purchasers and potential purchasers, to ask what they like and don't like and how the product might be made more attractive. Within their cultural tradition small amendments in design or producing something of utility to the ttourists may increase sales - for example a bag, paperweight or decoration

Sargaalaya Arts & Crafts Village in Kerala was established to raise awareness of the state's art and craft heritage, to preserve and enrich them and empower traditional artists and crafters. Arts and crafts naturally evolve.

Adama Bah worked with a number of informal sector groups in The Gambia and we learned a great deal about craft markets there. By engaging the craft sellers and producers in the research it was easier to secure beneficial change. The research methodology and findings were published: Bah A & Goodwin H (2003)  Improving Access for the Informal Sector to Tourism in The Gambia Pro-Poor Tourism, London

This list of ideas, do's and don'ts,  are intended to provoke thought, they are not prescriptive, although they are based on experience in a number of destination cultures which attract tourists from around the world. However, it is always important to take into account local cultures and the source markets, domestic and international,  for the destination you are working in. There will be less hassle and better revenues if the craft is sold at fixed prices - however, it can be culturally difficult to reduce bargaining particularly  given the unequal relationship between the artist or craft vendor who really needs to sell to feed their family and the tourist who may buy or not on a whim. Guides and guide book writers can assist by reminding tourists  that people's livelihoods are at stake, that the relationship is very unequal and they should not exploit their power to drive a hard and unfair bargain

  • Encourage hotels & resorts to offer craft vendors, one or two at a time on a rota, to set up their wares within the grounds and sell there. In The Gambia, this made a made large difference to their earnings.
  • Work with the craft vendors to reduce hassle in the markets through Codes of Conduct and to collectively police the rules, this significantly  increased earnings  in The Gambia
  • Encourage experimentation and product diversification and reduce price competition.  Securing sales through price alone creates hassle and reduces earnings for those involved.  The photograph at the top of this page of a craft stall piled high with products produces a great photograph but does nothing for sale "pile them high and sell them cheap" is not a great marketing strategy
  • Packaging and presentation matter
  • Sales are more likely when the craft or art is being practiced on the stall. This also encourages the commissioning of craft items. These changes contributed to increased sales.
  • Labelling and small interpretation panels about the craft products, demonstrating the cultural background and often prolonged production process also contributed to increased sales.  At Bwindi in Uganda  a local artist was employed to work with local basket makers to make them more visually attractive reflecting the landscape, see photo to the right)  and of higher quality, the volume of sales increased as did the women's earnings per hour of labour.
  • Accommodation providers can assist by using locally sourced art and craft in the public spaces and guest rooms and by selling the products in a hotel ship or encouraging guests to visit the artists or artisans. Tour operators can take guests to visit the artisans and crafters in their studios and workshops and refrain from taking commissions on sales.

  • Consider how the craft or art is to be transported home. This will affect both size and packaging. In Zimbabwe § there is a good deal of car travel from home to the destination and back, making the roadside sale of even large sculptural pieces and furniture possible. Tourists returning by air could not purchase such products. Where fragile crafts or pieces of art are for sale consider encouraging two producers to work together, for example, to make a basket in which to carry home the piece. It may also be possible for a mainstream tourism business or shipper to offer to pack and ship sales.
  • Tourists like to buy directly from the artist or crafter and to have a photograph taken with them. This also means that the artist or crafter secures the whole value losing no margin, often substantial,  to the hotel shop or craft vendor.
  • As the consciousness of waste and upcycling grows, there are many opportunities to turn waste into saleable souvenirs.  Take a look at the work of Isatou Ceesay, the Gambian Queen of Plastic.
  • Labeling can tell the story of the art or craftwork, explaining its cultural origin and value and the time & skill required to make it. This assists in making the original sale but may also encourage further sales when the purchasers show off their souvenirs to others and are able to recount the story, particularly  if they purchased directly from the crafter or artist with a photo
  • For after sales an online business can create a alrge additional market. See for example
    India indian.handicrafts.gov.in/en
    Philippines balikbayanhandicrafts.com.ph/

These Platform for Change pages are not static - if there are resources or ideas you would like to add please send them in.



§ Goodwin, H J, Kent, I J, Parker K T, Walpole M J (1997) one of four reports on Tourism, Conservation and Sustainable Development. Vol IV Southeast Lowveld, Zimbabwe Department for International Development, London pp 293-305

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