The growing appetite for Asia: Culture, travel and more
With the upcoming Lunar New year, also referred to as the ‘Chinese New Year’, ‘Tet’, ‘Spring Festival’ and other festivals such as India’s vibrant ‘Holi’ and the cherry blossom season the world is increasingly turning its attention to this dynamic continent.
In an era of unprecedented global interconnectedness, cultural landscapes are undergoing a seismic shift, the allure and rise of Asian culture with trends from the east transferring to the West. From K-Pop anthems dominating music charts to the global obsession with ‘Squid game’, the West is experiencing an undeniable hunger for all things Asia. This fascination spans beyond entertainment, influencing fashion, cuisine and even travel aspirations. But beneath the glossy veneer of ‘Kawaii culture’ and trendy bubble tea shops lies a complex reality teeming with questions: Is our ‘appetite’ for Asia genuine cultural appreciation, or simply a fleeting fad fuelled by exoticisation and stereotypes?
With AMA award winning artists like BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan) known for top hits like ‘Butter’ and ‘Dynamite’ and the rising success of emerging K-Pop groups like Le Sserafim and New Jeans – Korean music has solidified its place in the west. However, it doesn’t just stop at music. There has been increasing accessibility to K-dramas with both Prime and Netflix ‘Originals’ highlighting this global interest. Furthermore, Academy award winning Parasite (2019) by Bong Joon-Ki was the first foreign language film to win Best Picture, while the newly released animation ‘The Boy and the Heron’ (2023) by the acclaimed animation house Studio Ghibli recently won a Golden Globe reinforcing East Asia’s media ascent. However, the global appetite for Asia reaches much wider than its role as a media superpower. It has asserted its position through market liberalisation, technological breakthroughs and an emphasis on human capital development which has surged its rapid rise and enhanced its global economic prosperity.
The travel industry has capitalised on this ‘Asian Fever’ despite the effects of COVID. Countries like Thailand, Japan and Indonesia are rapidly rising in popularity as tourist destinations. The travel industry’s growth has been fuelled by improved infrastructure, increased flight connectivity and the rise of digital nomadism, making Asia more accessible than ever. However, the promotion of these ‘exotic’ destinations and curated experiences raises critical questions about responsible tourism practices. This can be seen through the capitalisation of the white middle to upper class desire of ‘finding themselves’, through backpacking across countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. Because of the allure of Southeast Asia as a ‘gap year paradise’, a destination dedicated for finding yourself, with beautiful vibrant culture, stunning landscape, and a different way of life, the region seems to offer the perfect escape. However, beneath the idyllic Instagram posts lies a more complex reality, prompting us to critically examine the narrative of ‘finding yourself’ in Southeast Asia. This romanticised view often stems from colonial era stereotypes, painting the region as mystical and otherworldly. This ‘exotic’ lens disregards the region’s rich history, complex challenges, and diverse identities. Ultimately, the idea of ‘finding yourself’ is driven by privileged individuals with the financial means and limited awareness of the power dynamics at play. Backpackers and short-term volunteers (through ‘Voluntourism’), though well-intentioned, inadvertently contribute to unequal power structures and gentrification and lead to critical questions about responsible tourism.
‘Voluntourism’ is a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for charity. The work they can do may include social work such as volunteering at orphanages, agricultural work, healthcare, and education. However, voluntourism has led to local communities’ resources being drained and child exploitation. Research has shown that short-term orphanage volunteering can cause damage to children’s development and emotional well-being, creating unhealthy short-lived attachments and separation anxiety.
Therefore, whilst the growing appetite for Asia reflects a global recognition of its dynamic and diverse nature, it is important to recognise the region’s diverse socio-economic realities, political struggles, and environmental challenges to foster a genuine appreciation and respectful engagement. As people continue to explore its rich cultural heritage, rapidly developing technology and engage with its art and entertainment, this fascination with Asia highlights it’s not just a fleeting trend. However, a nuanced and respectful approach is needed to truly understand and appreciate the rich tapestry of cultures and histories that make up the continent to ensure cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation.