Framing Culture: The Semiotics Tourism

“…isolate somewhere in the world (faraway) a certain number of features
(a term employed in linguistics), and out of these features deliberately form a system”
- Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs

We’ve all seen at least one: That poster or commercial inciting a curious gaze upon a perfectly framed scene of some distant land; lush landscapes, distinctly ‘uncommon’ flora and fauna, juxtaposed against some natural or man-made wonder. Possibly even, the image of foreign peoples returning your stare. Such a well-crafted ad allows you to conceive of this space in a certain way. You’ve never been there, and yet you can now, somehow, imagine the experience of place.
This is not uncommon. Growing up, I was bombarded with these sorts of exoticized, spectacle campaigns and I used their signs to index my own cultural understanding as well as those of others. However, just as I used these cultural productions to inform my own identity, I became increasingly aware that these representations were unofficial ambassadors, the flashes that Barthes encountered in Empire of Signs while attempting to quantify a faraway culture within a system.
Our increasingly global and networked world has decentered cultural hubs across the international landscape, situating tourism as the largest multi-service industry. Interconnectivity between the industry and globalization aside, tourism is the epitome of consumption, not simply in economic terms but in semiotic ones, as well. It is precisely this phenomenon that also qualifies it as ground zero for semiotic activity. It is also where we will focus our analysis, paying particular attention to the way airlines in developing countries frame their respective cultures in hopes of attracting tourists and potential customers. I will employ both historical and contemporary advertisements to make this point.
Through the entirety of a tourist’s journey—from transit to lodging to sightseeing—several culturally-based choices are made. Whether made consciously or unconsciously, these decisions are determined by previously consumed markers, such as advertisements and marketing materials, which mediate semiotic exchange. They inform these decisions, by communicating significance to the tourist. These markers are signs that have been carefully encoded with meaning and distinction and they are essential to the sign system created by global tourism.

In his book, Deconstructing Travel, Arthur Asa Berger states:

…long before we go abroad to visit new lands, we become virtual tourists who imagine what the places we will visit will be like, based on what we’ve seen in advertisements and on television documentaries and read in magazines, newspapers, and guidebooks (pg 17).

Indeed these advertisements are apart of a significant language of signs for the tourist, but what allows them to communicate effectively and universally is their use of recognizable and visual tropes that allow unfamiliar tourists to become easily familiarized with unknown cultural groups and locations. A successful encounter with a sign is evaluated by its ability to temporarily transfigure, or virtually transport, the viewer.

Flagship Airline Advertisements = mini-sight-seeing
Sight seeing = sign seeing

Such a hotbed of semiotic confluences and interactions would require an intensive mediological approach, as theorized by Regis Debray, which could prove a useful tool in attempting to understand the multifaceted nature of tourist-focused advertisement and its social influence. The travel ads employed by the flag-bearing airlines of developing countries occupy a hybrid space of being both tourist (representing location) and travel (representing transportation) advertisements. As both product and provider, they are targeted in their efforts to present their respective countries to the mass public as desirable locations, while maintaining themselves as the appropriate form of transportation to get you to this and possibly other ‘select’ destinations. As such, their motives are driven by both commerce and culture, with the latter often serving as a means to achieve the former. However, the consequences of serving two masters are evident from the stylized, yet hollow caricatures that frequently dominated the early aesthetic designs of earlier tourist ads, as presented below, and echoed in later versions, unaware that these productions were caught in a cycle of simulacra.

Bergman elaborates on this consequence by quoting Daniel Boorstin, who states that cultural tourism is not an output of:

spontaneous cultural products but only those made especially for tourist consumption, for foreign cash customers… earnest honest natives embellish their ancient rites, change, enlarge, and spectacularize their festivals, so that tourists will not be disappointed. In order to satisfy the exaggerated expectations of tour agents, and tourists, people everywhere obligingly become dishonest mimics of themselves (Boorstin as quoted by Bergman, 103)

As the official airlines of their respective countries, the exotic or wondrous sentiments expressed in company advertisements are usually considered to be state sanctioned, if not sponsored. The social implications of these transmissions and the agencies that sponsor them can be left for another paper. The more intriguing issue here remains the sign system that the tourist industry engages in through its transient cultural practices and campaigns.

The Language of Myths

In their book Semiotic Landscapes, Jaworski and Thrulow suggest that

the emergence of symbolic and mental landscapes as part of the regional and national identity building takes place through a semioticizing processes referred to by Sörlin (1999) as the ‘articulation of territory’, whereby landscape features (such as mountains, rivers, costal areas), alongside architectural (church spires, typical rural dwellings, bridges, etc.) and other, large-scale landscaping and engineering interventions (parks, dams, water reservoirs and so on), are described, reproduced and recreated … through the social practice of tourism (pg. 7)

Tourism advertisements are riddled with these attractive features in order to demonstrate difference and market otherness. As Bergman explains “advertisements are a genre of communication that uses words and images to convince people purchase the product or service being promoted” (pg.71). The intended design of these ads is then to capitalize on their cultural commodities by emphasizing any differences and unique attractions. In Myth Today, Roland Barthes, elaborating on Ferdinand de Saussure communication model suggests a method for identifying the players within, what he calls a “semiological schema”. He introduces the signifier: the sign: the signified, and after utilizing this model a pattern begins to emerge.

A Formula For Advertising the Exotic: As Seen through Examples of Ethiopian "Attractions"

The Presence of Man-made Wonder(s)an-overview-of-touring-ethiopia-1.jpegbete-giorgis-lalibela-etiopia.jpegEx. Ethiopia’s 15th c. Castles of Gondar, & Rock Hewn Church of Lalibela

The Highlighting of Cultural Distinction / Curiosities
Ex. Member of the Remote South Omo Tribe, Ethiopia

The Backdrop of a Natural Wonder
Ex. Water Fall of the Blue Nile, Ethiopia

Evidence: Developing Countries Framing Themselves

1970’s Air India Magazine Advertisement where well-dressed gentleman evoke modern tastes with distinct flair. In this image India exoticizes its self with a Western sensibility.

In this Air Afrique poster from the 1950s, sponsored by the French Air, presents a pair of undefined “natives” drawing water from the river. They remain dislocated from any specific country or location, and gaze distantly at the airplane in the sky. State sanctioned framing of otherness.

On this 1939 Air Afrique leaflet we find a kind of cultural amalgam where the images of different ethnographic groups are montaged across an image of the entire continent of Africa. Despite the erroneous nature of such a monolithic view of African ethno-diversity, the ad is successful in playing-up its “otherness” for the viewer, featuring palm trees, desert sands, and tribal peoples.

In this Air Afrique advertisement from the 1970’ s, A blonde woman lounges peacefully in a hammock on the beach the distant images of a straw huts in the background. The French caption translates to “truly discovering black Africa”. The absence of black Africans in this ad while presenting a white women on the subject of discovering some kind of true or authentic “blackness” speaks to the spatial components in the semiotic relationship- that of absence and presence within the system.

In this Ethiopian Airlines advertisement from 2009 a nameless, faceless child, remains a shadowy figure on a hilltop, with his arms stretched up towards the sky, they entice the viewer with a possibility of excitement. The slogan confirms this attraction: “Our World Awaits You”.

This sign system carries over into commercials as well. Notice how in the following three commercials about travel to Ethiopia via Ethiopian Airlines, although produced for different outlets, all employ the same language signs. Terms such as anticent, ancestors, featuring distinct wonders and native peoples, all withe the intention of evoking wonder and curiosity.

The juxtaposition of these visual markers referencing Africa’s exoticism and otherness in addition to the text play into the larger significance of the sign. The literal language often qualifies the scene and validates a curious gaze. The viewer is directly and indirectly given cues of difference: “Our World Awaits You.” Employing the use, not of “the world” “but “our world,” alludes to a need for distinction; an imaginary line beyond borders. And to this end, the textual element of advertisements is very successful.
In Deconstructing Travel, Berger explains the relations between the text or copy and the image with the following:

… One device is to use association that people will find positive or attractive. This technique is known, technically as metonymy. The other is to use analogies that will affect the readers, a device known as metaphor. A great deal of our thinking is metaphoric in nature, even though we may not recognize it. (pg.72).

Almost all of the advertisements employ at least one, if not all, of the above listed techniques. The use of metonymy and metaphor appear in the highlights of man-made/natural wonders, cultural distinctions and Western appeal. Typically, the presence of a native or cultural representative comes with limited agency. I scrutinize the peripheral role these figures even have in advertisements due to lack of direct address. Several of the examples used for this paper, present people who cannot make eye contact, which is the first sign of a recognized existence.

Considering the obvious lack of inclusion and agency offered in tourist and travel advertisements, the role of the gaze becomes that much critical. The tourist gaze, in particular, is essential to understanding the extent of transmission and influence that these precise visual heuristics have within a system of signs. The idea of “authenticity” has been framed, packaged and reproduced for the Western traveller’s eye in an ongoing effort to preserve cultural spectacle. Bergmen explains this phenomenon as “scopophilia (scopo =seeing and philia =loving), or loving by looking” suggesting an “implicit erotic and even sexual dimension to the tourist gaze”(pg.24). With the advent of photographic technology, the line between experience and advertisement is further blurred through sight. If seeing is believing, then the tourism industry acutely impacts our global faith and practice. Undoubtedly, the signs we follow tell us where to go.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Introduction. Empire of Signs. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. 3-5. Print.

Barthes, Roland, and Annette Lavers. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.

Berger, Arthur Asa. Deconstructing Travel: Cultural Perspectives on Tourism. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira, 2004. Print.

Berger, Arthur Asa. Tourism as a postmodern semiotic activity. Semiotica, Volume 2011, Number 183 (February 2011), pp. 105-119, <>

Jaworski, Adam, and Crispin Thurlow. Semiotic Landscapes. London: Continuum International Group, 2010. Print.

Works Consulted

Clark, Hillary. "The Universe of Interpretations." Rev. of Yuri Lotman & Umberto Eco.Semiotic Review. Web.

"Ethiopian Historical Attraction." Ethiopian Historical Attraction. Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Web. 15 May 2012. <>.

Hall, Stuart. "36." Encoding/Decoding. 507-17. Print.

Jules-Rosette, Bennetta. The Messages of Tourist Art: An African Semiotic System in Comparative Perspective. New York: Plenum, 1984. Print.

MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken, 1976. Print.

Morgan, Nigel, and Annette Pritchard. Advertising in Tourism and Leisure. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000. Print.