Ester Bardone is a researcher at the Department of Ethnology of the UT Institute for Cultural Research and Fine Arts. Recently she defended her thesis, “My Farm is My Stage: A Performance Perspective on Rural Tourism and Hospitality Services in Estonia”, and now continues studying rural tourism and hospitality entrepreneurship in Estonia.
Why the performance perspective?
When I started my dissertation project I often heard comments such as: Why do you think rural tourism entrepreneurs are performing? Do you mean that they are deceiving their clients? You should study real rural life, not these fake attractions created for tourists! These assumptions reflect the challenges a researcher always has to face when getting involved in using theatre as a metaphorical analogy for describing social life.
Touristic representations of rural life, in turn, often amplify such assumptions, creating idealised or idyllic images of rural life, such as this image on the right, which is the cover of the Estonian Rural Tourism Association’s travel guide from 2009.
However, for my research, the performance perspective to rural tourism business did not mean merely describing similarities between theatrical performances and tourism services. It also included taking an interdisciplinary challenge and making sense of culturally complex processes, in Estonia as well as in the European Union, in which performing rurality emerges.
I was encouraged by two human geographers who value an integrative approach to studying rural issues. Michael Woods claims that the focus on performing brings to light particular actions and experiences that constitute rural life, as well as how the performances of rural actors in material settings contribute to the production and reproduction of discourses and representations of rurality.
Tim Edensor suggests that performance guides us to analyse how rurality is socially and spatially regulated, or staged. Indeed, rurality is ‘staged’ and ‘scripted’ not only by individuals such as tourism entrepreneurs, but also by institutions, media, and literature that produce certain ideologies and thereby facilitate the creation of rural idylls and imagery of the time.
My understanding of performing services in the context of rural tourism and hospitality entrepreneurship was likewise influenced by social constructivist and phenomenological views, especially social interactionism, which sees individual actors as active agents in the meaning-making process, and pays attention to how individuals perceive, experience, and act in the world.
It was important to study entrepreneurs’ activities as culturally creative practices and to examine their own perceptions of what, why, and how they are doing them. Therefore, ethnographic fieldwork and performance analysis worked as complementary methods in my study.
The shifting meaning of the rural in the Estonian countryside
As the Rural Development Report (2011) demonstrated, Estonian rural areas, rural life, and culture have undergone significant structural changes. Rural tourism has been believed and promoted by the European Union and local authorities to revitalise rural economies and lives.
The Estonian farm tourism enterprises that have emerged since the mid-1990s are quite different from many European counterparts in the sense that the former lack the symbiosis of agricultural production and tourism that still persists in many European countries with a longer tradition in farm-based tourism or with different rural policies.
However, it is interesting that the word talu (‘farm’ in English) is kept in the name of the enterprise as the symbolic reference to rurality, even when there is no connection to farm work. The family farm, long considered a pillar of Estonian identity and a symbol of cultural continuity, is now seen by the Ministry of Agriculture as a multifarious, multifunctional, and heterogenous rural enterprise.
As agricultural production has been concentrated in large enterprises, small farms have looked for alternative niche production or have taken advantage of the growing number of urbanites who see the countryside as a place for leisurely consumption.
I was likewise intrigued by how the principles of experience economy, which has been inspired by parallels between the theatre and business institutions, have been adapted in the rural Estonian context. Experience economy sees experiences as new commodities and believes that the more senses a service or product engages, the more likely it is to create memorable experiences for the clients.
Novel rural commodities in Estonia include a great variety of events and services, from adventure sports to places for silent mediation, from guided heritage walks to gourmet dinners, staged and performed for urban tourists. Leisurely consumption of the countryside, in turn, creates changing representations of what is rural.
Although I did fieldwork in several different rural tourism enterprises, for the articles compiled in my thesis I selected examples of micro-scale rural tourism and hospitality enterprises that either use local cultural heritage as a source for the tourism experience or come up with completely novel experience opportunities.
The first type of enterprises are providing, for instance, the experience of having a smoke sauna (a traditional bathhouse and bathing practice in southeast Estonia), or showing how a horseshoe is forged, and accompanying it with storytelling by a working blacksmith. The second type is represented by a farm restaurant that uses hybrid and intriguingly contrasting combinations of urban and rural elements, offering gourmet meals with international culinary influences in a former storage house (The farm does not feature agricultural production). In all cases the host(s) perform important role as culture brokers, combining local cultural knowledge with personal stories and interpretations.
The challenges of staging and performing rural experiences
A performance perspective on rural tourism and hospitality enterprises did not only reveal the potential of using natural and cultural resources and individual creativity in experience-producing business, but likewise indicated several challenges and dilemmas.
Firstly, entrepreneurs may attempt to stage rural tourism experiences, but in reality clients’ experiences and impressions are also ephemeral, unpredictable, and personally as well as culturally constituted. One cannot undermine the role of improvisation and creativity of both the hosts and guests – experiences emerge not only in designed settings and events, but potentially in all everyday situations.
Secondly, there are likewise several personal costs often overlooked in tourism literature that relate to self-commodification of the micro-scale rural tourism entrepreneur, who often has to fight with the blurring boundaries of private and public life, as well as with the emotional burden of experience-providing service work.
Finally, each tourism enterprise operates in a particular socio-economic context, and the particular experience may be influenced by the overall experience the milieu provides – beautiful nature next to uncanny Soviet collective farm heritage, or the success stories of small entrepreneurs juxtaposed with aging or unemployed neighbours. The latter likewise perform rural life in Estonia.