Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

One consequence of globalization is an acceleration in the gap that's widening between host cultures and local cultures. The implications for the travel industry are significant.

Hawaii is the destination that perhaps provides the clearest distinction between a host culture and a local culture.

The Hawaiian traditions, language, customs and, above all, the aloha spirit, define its host culture. Sacred as that is, the influences of everything and everyone who have passed through or settled on the islands has made an impact on modern Hawaiian life and shaped a distinctive local culture that's quite different from the host culture.

World War II GIs can take credit, if they want, for the prevalence of Spam on local menus. And Japanese tourists' demand for familiar ingredients has helped the local cuisine evolve in, well, less processed ways.

In Hawaii, host culture and local culture coexist in relative harmony, in large measure because few in the local culture challenge the importance of the host culture, and the host culture's spirit is so inherently welcoming that many outside influences are not viewed as conflicting with traditional beliefs.

But elsewhere, globalization has been accused of contributing to the dilution of dominant host cultures while concurrently contributing to the homogenization of local cultures.

This part of the story is familiar: Fast-food outlets, retail stores and hotels have become brands without borders. Popular culture, from singers to movie franchises, is similarly ubiquitous.

It would seem that the world is moving toward sameness just as it's getting easier for more people to move around and explore the world's differences.

But there are other perspectives. I sat next to Tim Zagat, co-founder of Zagat Surveys, on a flight between New York and New Orleans last week. The company he and his wife, Nina, developed (and ultimately sold to Google) polls diners to create reviews that, in a few sentences, telegraph the combined impressions of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have eaten at a given restaurant.

Zagat remembers that when the company was started, there were only 19 identifiable types of cuisine in New York. There are now more than 90. Then, there were 10 nationally recognized cooking schools in the U.S.; now, there are 100.

Being a chef was considered a relatively low-class job. Today, it's a path to celebrity.

Zagat traces the revolution in gastronomy and its impact on local cultures in U.S. cities to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1966 and the expanded use of commercial jets. Immigrants brought their recipes along with them, and jets brought the fresh ingredients they needed to open "authentic" restaurants.

The ability for people and products to move has had a tremendous impact on local cuisines, not just in New York but around the world. New foods are introduced into local cultures every day. The world has come a long way since Spam was seen as a culinary innovation.

And with the increase of varieties of food and in professionalism among chefs, "you have a radical change for the better," Zagat believes.

The ubiquity of global brands, whether McDonald's, Marriott or a Marvel superhero, has contributed to the increase in demand for authentic travel experiences. But interestingly, the definition of "authentic" is proving surprisingly elastic.

Major hotel brands, including ones in Marriott's portfolio, take pains to deliver consistent standards but also "localize" the experience with authentic touches.

Which is not without its challenges.

Earlier this month, I had breakfast with Medhi Eftekari, the new general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. He was still adjusting to the job, having moved from that position in Los Angeles less than two months ago.

Managing a major hotel in a megacity has likely never been more difficult. One balances the needs of an incoming international clientele with a local community that meets and eats in the restaurants and bars in a style consistent with local culture.

Providing an authentic experience for the guest is a goal, but so is tailoring each visit to a guest's preferences.

"New York is much more formal [than Los Angeles]," Eftekari said. "It's more relaxed on the West Coast, dress is more casual and someone will grab a cappuccino and work on their computer [during a meal]. But in New York, it's a suit and a meeting, and they have to make time work for them. Every minute counts. Knowing this makes a big difference in how we provide service."

In L.A., half the items were vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free, he said, but "here, it's steak, burgers, a lot of red meat. There, it was being calorie-conscious, but then driving everywhere. Here, less focus on calories, but you walk everywhere."

We spoke during "upfront" week in New York, when television production companies, many L.A.-based, come to New York to preview their next season's shows for advertisers. Some clients who frequented Eftekari's L.A. bars and restaurants were now overnight guests in his New York hotel and were sitting at tables adjoining ours.

What struck me was that they were indistinguishable from native New Yorkers. They were wearing suits and signaling for their checks with New York brusqueness.

Is that homogenization? Or perhaps cultural sensitivity on the part of guests?

I remembered that, indeed, when I go to Hawaii, I wear an aloha shirt. For New Orleans, I pack my Haspel suit.

For every move toward globalized standards and homogenization, I believe a local culture mutates away from sameness and a host culture clings to unique expressions.

And a wise traveler seeking authenticity meets local and host cultures at least halfway, adapting in dress. Or when ordering from a menu.

Or, perhaps, by suppressing the urge to command that even the Four Seasons bend to your every hometown preference. They can do it, but why would you want them to?

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