Honors Thesis Spotlight: Conversations on the Top Steppe: The Impact of Tourism on Traditional Siberian Culture

Olkon Island, in the Southeastern Siberian region of Russia, is home to the Buryat people. Tourists now flock to Olkhon Island to witness Buryat culture and the practices of shamanism, the widely practiced religion on the island, but this was not always the case. While the Soviet Union was in power, their goals of “Russification” harmed Buryats (and other indigenous people). The Soviet Union prohibited Buryats from practicing shamanism and restricted the diversity of the Buryats’ economy by pushing for collective farms. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the tourism industry boomed and introduced economic opportunities to Olkhon Island. However, while global tourism can positively affect the local economy, it can simultaneously negatively impact the nature of Olkhon Island—a crucial aspect of Buryat shamanism—and the people that live there. The author of this thesis conducts six interviews of people who live on Olkhon Island to create a pilot project of an oral history of the Buryat people and consider the effects of tourism on Buryats, shamanism, and the environment.

            The author initially asks interviewees personal questions about their nationality, education, economic status, and religion. The proceeding questions address the correlation between tourism and its effects on the environment, Buryat culture, and shamanism. The connection between the environment and tourism is significant, as shamanism and Buryat culture are very connected to nature. Shamans and shamankas are believed to be directly connected to the spirit world, and gods and spirits are believed to have resided at many sacred landmarks on the island. However, the practices of tourists threaten the environment of the island; tourists litter on the shores of the island, and their transportation endangers Siberian permafrost.The author also asks interviewees general questions about the social and political climate of the region, as well as how people who live on Olkhon Island feel about tourists paying to participate in shamanist and other cultural rituals.

            After analyzing the six interviews, the author identifies two outlooks on tourism that consistently appear throughout the interviews: interviewees viewed tourism on Olkhon Island as “a necessary evil” or as “holistically beneficial.” One interviewee, a Shamanka, Registered Nurse, Businesswoman expressed the most approval of tourism; however, the author offers this approval might stem from her own business where she performs shamanist rituals for tourists. The author suggests that if the Shamanka, Registered Nurse, and Businesswoman expressed discontent with tourism ethics, her business would decline. Nonetheless, she believes tourism increases cultural awareness and provides economic opportunities for people working on Olkhon Island. The other interviewees are less enthusiastic about tourism’s effects, recognizing that tourism is good for the economy but not necessarily beneficial for the people living on Olkhon Island. The Museum Director, a Cook, and the Two Horsemen report that they notice residents on the island—some interviewees specifically highlight the younger generations—are now more susceptible to alcohol, poor diets, and working and practicing religion less. On the other hand, the third interviewee (a Bus Driver) offers that these trends of the younger generation are not unique to Buryat culture and are prevalent everywhere.

            While no interviews explicitly mentioned the distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, many interviews broached the subject. One prominent example is the Matriarch, Museum Director, Educator’s interview. She strongly emphasizes the distinction between educating and entertaining. She believes that when tourists pay to be entertained by participating in religious gatherings, they invade the privacy of those practicing the religion. In contrast, it is more respectful for tourists to simply learn about Buryat culture and shamanism rather than participating in rituals they do not appreciate or understand. The Wife, Cook, Christian, and the Two Horseman express similar beliefs to the Matriarch, Museum Director, Educator. They believe that allowing tourists to participate in shamanist rituals makes shamanism feel inauthentic, and the Wife, Cook, Christian argues that tourists distract younger generations on the island from practicing true shamanism.

            Nonetheless, while most interviewees express negative opinions about tourists participating in shamanism, they acknowledge the tourism industry’s economic opportunities. The Engineer, Veteran, Tour Bus Driver exemplifies this. He emphasizes that the tourism industry dominates the economy of Buryatia—he makes more money working with tourists on Olkhon Island than being an engineer on the mainland. However, the Wife, Cook, Christian, and one of the Horsemen highlight that while tourism is good for the economy, it is becoming increasingly expensive to live there.

            Several interviewees discuss noticing negative environmental changes such as more trash, cars, litter, and roads that accompany tourists. Many interviewees expressed discomfort about discussing certain topics, such as Russia’s policies towards Buryatia. The Matriarch, Museum Director, Educator, offers that Russification provided some benefits to Buryatia but was too forceful and hindered their self-determination. Furthermore, after speaking with the Wife, Cook, Christian, who placed heavy emphasis on supporting the Russian Orthodox church, the author wonders if there is an unspoken shame of associating with the minority group of the shamanists that causes the Wife, Cook Christian, to identify with the Russian Orthodox church instead. 

            The author highlights that many issues that Olkohn Island faces, such as limited economic opportunities, alcoholism, negative environmental impacts, and a transition from a criminalized culture to one that tourists are interested in, also impact indigenous people in the U.S. This pilot project also emphasizes the appreciation versus appropriation conversation and provides many more avenues for future research. The author plans on remaining in contact with interviewees in the hopes that interviewees will expand on their previous interviews and more people will interview in the future, which will increase the sample size of this project. The author addresses that an increased sample size allows different perspectives to be heard. Nonetheless, this pilot project provides interesting insight into the opinions of several residents on Olkhon Island.

Grace Elizabeth Micheals is a graduate from the College of Social Science and Public Policy at Florida State University. This post was based on Grace’s honors thesis, written by COSSPP Blog Intern, Jacqueline Rao. You can learn more about Grace here. You can learn more about this project here.

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