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Folk festivals and tourism development *
4/4/2018 10:36' Send Print
Dau village Festival in Binh Luc district, Ha Nam province. Image: nhandan.com.vn

Folk festivals, an important resource for tourism development

According to official statistics of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2008, Vietnam boasted 7,039 folk festivals organized in villages, regions and areas throughout the country. This shows that Vietnam has great potential to develop tourism. Moreover, folk festivals are very diverse in form; each festival has unique values associated with each region and area, such as Fire Cracker Festival in Dong Ky, Bac Ninh province, Bull Fighting Festival in Do Son, Hai Phong city, Tro Tram Festival in Phu Tho province, Nghinh Ong Festival in many central and southern coastal provinces.

Festivals and tourism are closely linked. Jubilant village festivals in the past when the term tourism had not yet existed, already attracted visitors from other villages, regions or at least sister villages or closely related villages. No (or rarely) folk festivals were attended by only people of that community without people from outside the community. Pilgrimage and tourism started since then. At present, while folk festivals have become a trend, in the context of international integration and modern society, they have become more attractive to tourists and pilgrims. It is the combination of folk festival boom and rapid development of tourism that leads to the formation and dissemination of the terms "cultural tourism," "community tourism," "discovery tourism," "experience tourism," " travel to the root," in which festivals are always important and the term "festival tourism" has come around.

Folk festivals meet the increasing demand for religious practice of people. Festival goers may not play, or may not watch anything but they cannot fail to practice worship for themselves. Reality shows that worship is the greatest, most important and most sacred need of almost all festival goers. This is also a common practice of pilgrims from the past to present. Most of the village festivals have been restored and attracted visitors to come for religious practice. We have long festivals, such as the Perfume Pagoda Festival, the King Temple Festival, the Yen Tu Festival attracting a large number of pilgrims. This shows that festival tourism is increasingly a great demand of many people.

Folk festivals meet the needs for entertainment and leisure of tourists who are increasingly looking forward to folk festivals because the nature of tourism is to find new and strange things, enjoy the scenery, discover life or local specialities and have fun and entertainment. Folk festivals fully meet these needs. Therefore, folk festivals, which have been associated to people's life, have been expanded and developed in rural areas, from delta to remote mountainous areas; festivals in the remote, out of the way and secluded regions are more attractive to tourists. Moreover, folk festivals are often organized in sacred spaces, with beautiful and traditional architecture and decorations, poetic landscapes, and in traditional villages so they very attractive to visitors.

Associating to tourism, folk festivals’ recreation role has been enhanced, both mentally and physically, and to a higher extent become a spiritual relief. Folk festivals help attendants find psychological balance, relieve stress in life and create peace of mind.

Folk festivals meet the current needs for contribution and investment in spiritual activities as well as the religious complexes. With the attendance of visitors from different places, festivals are enriched with new resources including material (money donation and expenditure of visitors to festivals) and spirit. Thus people where festivals take place earn more income, and find that their festivals are respected. They feel encouraged to restore and preserve cultural values of their festivals to attract more tourists.

So, tourism has contributed to the development of folk festivals in a positive way. Thanks to the development of tourism, folk festivals have been preserved, promoted and enriched; customs and cultural values in folk festivals have been restored for tourism; cultural identity of each festival, each region, each area have been confirmed amid pride and sense of responsibility to conserve, and promote outstanding values of festivals of the local people. Vice versa, folk festivals support the growth of the tourism industry, contributing to enrich Vietnam's tourism picture, offering a variety of choices, and the attractive identity of Vietnamese culture for visitors. Given these diverse and unique cultural resources, the tourism industry has attracted a large number of domestic and foreign visitors.

Current trends in folk festivals and issues for tourism development

Amid the country's renewal atmosphere, folk festivals have gradually been recovered and that is an important basis for the trend of restoring folk festivals in present day life. Villages have looked up in their traditional cultural treasure elements related to festivals to restore, and shown unique cultural characteristics of their localities. Festivals which have not been interrupted or fallen into oblivion have been promoted, others which have been interrupted have been restored. In some places where festivals were events of the past, local people have still tried to restore the festival from ancient documents, and memory of the elderly; some elements have been created or assimilated. There are many reasons for this trend and one important reason for the restoration of festivals is to confirm local identity and attract tourists. The need and objective of restoration of folk festivals is very legitimate, but also leads to disputable issues, such as festival restoration is only to attract tourists; many elements of festivals are newly created and alien to local traditions; many folk festivals are not well organized , some even causing chaos and discontent among tourists and society.

In the objective of developing folk festivals for tourism, over the past ten years, there has been a tendency of renewing folk festivals to promote local tourism. Building on folk festivals, these tourism festivals convey new messages, new purposes, held mainly in populated urban areas to promote tourism, and attract tourists. Beside successes, there are problems causing by this trend that do not always turn this type of festival into tourist attractions. The problems are clumsy and hasty combination of elements of folk festivals or dramatization of a variety of folk arts unacceptable to tourists; the "record syndrome" (such as the largest pair of square and round cakes, the biggest traditional orchestra with the largest number of musicians, the largest noodle soup pot, the longest ceramic dragon, the longest dress flap) only shows pompousness, arbitrariness and poor quality that make festivals becomes mixed, miscellaneous and less attractive to tourists.

Commercialization is probably the most common trend in today's folk festivals, though public opinions has come out against it. Attempts to attract tourists in different ways, donation boxes placed everywhere, booming belief services, coercion of visitors, fight for festival goers, decoy, service delivery instead of festival activities, and unreasonable prices of food and fees have commonly been found in festivals. Ticket sale and open collection of high service fees have diminished the beauty of festivals, and commercialization has also crept upon sacred ritual spaces.

Looking at the number of festivals one can see that Vietnam’s folk festivals are diverse and various but the trend of festival assimilation have become a common practice, thus folk festivals lose their unique characters and great affect festival tourism. Folk festivals, which closely associated with each village, each region, area and unique feature, have been organized in almost the same pattern, sequence, and script, thus becoming monotonous and less attractive.

In addition, the secularization trend has also brought new, everyday life features to folk festivals making them less sacred. The secularization trend has created diversity and closeness to folk festivals. Many people go to festivals not to worship gods, or genies; many people do not know which gods or genies the festivals worship; they just go and mingle themselves in the spiritual atmosphere, and that is enough. On the other hand, many people go to festivals not for the purpose of worship but to hang out, and festivals are the place to meet friends or get together. Many opt for worship but do not know anything about rituals or offerings. Psychologically, they pray gods or genies for their daily life ordinary needs. This trend also contributes to limiting the sacredness of festivals, making festivals even more liberal, even somewhat arbitrary, confusing, and no longer meets tourists’ expectation.

With booming folk festivals, management is necessary. However, state-controlled festivals have brought about constraints. Several folk festivals have been controlled by the State and lost their inherent traditional values. For examples, abuse of festival script, fierce competition for reputation, excessive interventions by local authorities, and orientation, direction to use festivals for propaganda purposes. All these have led to decreasing folk features of festivals and reduce people’s role as festival creators. State control has also been reflected in festival decentralization. Not only that, the "festival upgrade syndrome" has also caused rivalry, leading to waste and even division in communities. As a result, festivals are likely become nominal, no longer festivals of the people.

Folk festivals are often associated with religious complexes, so with the development of folk festivals, religious complexes have been restored, embellished or newly constructed with larger space for organizing festivals. At present, the restoration, embellishment and reconstruction of relics from pagodas, communal houses, temples, shrines, and palaces in remote rural areas to those in urban areas have become regular and continuous. The embellishment of relics creates favorable conditions for tourists to visit and attend festivals. However, it also causes controversy and contradictions. As restoration is done arbitrarily, some relics lost their inherent values; some were painted colorfully; their wooden pillars were replaced with cement pillars; and many old carvings were replaced with newly made ones. So relics have looked similar, and visitors no longer have the need to discover different relics and festivals. Festivals and relics have no longer been attractive to tourists, especially foreign visitors.

Turning folk festivals into an important resource for tourism development

Like many other cultural events, folk festivals in contemporary society embrace both innovation, creation, preservation, and restoration of traditional values after certain ups and downs that they must undergo. There are losses, changes and even new things and creativity, but it is important that folk festivals still meet cultural needs of the majority of people and partly meet inquiries of international travelers when tourism is now an important industry in many countries.

To turn folk festivals into a sustainable resource for tourism development, first and foremost, it is necessary to preserve folk festivals’ diversity (forms, rituals, cultural expressions unique to each festival, and local community) to meet tourists’ desire to explore, and experience many different festivals, in different regions, areas and localities.

Second, avoid to the maximum rampant restoration and creation of new elements for folk festivals in an arbitrary, inappropriate and nominal manner. The restoration, creation, and renewal of festivals should be carried out by festival creators in close association with cultural institutions and professionals so that the process meets people’s needs and expectation.

Third, do away with extreme commercialization of folk festivals, arrange donation boxes in appropriate places, strictly control service delivery in festivals, avoid considering tourists as targets for making profits, one of the causes to no return of tourists.

Fourth, it is necessary to consolidate the sacred element, the core element of folk festivals, so that folk festivals become truly sacred, and sublime for both the local community and tourists.

Fifth, folk festivals can only attract tourists when they are cultural products of the people, created, preserved, practiced and handed down by the people. State management is necessary, but it does not mean taking full control, and "marginalizing" people from their own festivities.

Sixth, be cautious with restoration, embellishment and renovation of relics, important space of festivals. Tourists always want to discover artistic and traditional values of relics, not patchy, alien, too modern or too ostentatious construction.

It is clear that folk festivals with their diversity, richness and uniqueness have been an important resource for tourism development. However, when the relation between folk festivals and tourism is better understood and more closely intertwined, the resources will be more efficient and effective. Folk festivals become more lively, can be developed and expanded, and can generate more resources from tourism. Vice versa, tourism also becomes more bustling, attractive and in-depth due to outstanding cultural values of folk festivals. Nevertheless, folk festivals themselves can hardly become attractive tourist products without contribution of tourist makers and tourism can hardly grow without the fulcrum of cultural values and folk festivals. This means that owners of folk festivals and tourist makers need to work closely together on the basis of mutual benefit and for the sake of long-term goals. Only by so doing can folk festivals operate well in tourism development.
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(*) This article is part of a research within the framework of the project "Traditional festivals of the Vietnamese people in contemporary life" (Code VIII1.99-2013.04) funded by the National Fund for Science and Technology Development (NAFOSTED)

This article was published on the Communist Review, No. 903 (January 2018)

Assoc. Prof., Nguyen Thi Phuong ChamInstitute of Cultural Studies