Self-Otherness in Tourism. A Semiotic analysis of China Travel Posters

Публична комуникация

Public Communication


Neus Crous-Costa

Universitat de Girona, Laboratory of Multidisciplinary Research in Tourism (LMRT)


Abstract: The aim of this paper is to contribute to the discussion of how otherness takes shape in the discipline of travel and tourism, and how it relates to neighbouring fields such as postcolonial and decolonial studies. First, we will expose how otherness is regarded in tourism research. Second, we will conduct a semiotic study of travel posters, focusing on the representation of otherness in advertising. Methodology includes the study of a sample made up of 29 travel posters using a table adapted from Vergara-Leyton, Garrido-Peña and Undurraga-Puelma (2013). The results of this analysis show some interesting points: China’s political – territorial complexities, appropriation of the Orientalist (folklorised ima­ginary) for tourism promotion purposes, which can be linked to cultural diplomacy and changes in global power dynamics.

Keywords: tourism, poster, marketing, otherness, self-Orientalism, postco­lonial studies.



Panikkar (2014) [1] noted that the other acts as our mirror, in a way that I can discover another “I” within him/her. This seems to agree with Pa­rellada’s (2009) [2] definition of tourism as an activity based on human contact. Hence, it is easy to see why travelling to culturally different areas is believed to enrich one’s life experience and to widen one’s perspectives. In the late 20th century this seemed to have been encapsulated in the definition of “cultural tourism” (Reisinger 1994); [3] yet it permeates most, if not all, types of travel. For this reason, tourism is sometimes included in postcolonial and decolonial studies from a positive perspective (Boukhris and Peyvel 2019).[4] On the other hand, the tourism industry as well as the traveller’s behaviour may work as a structure that sustains the colonial/capitalist scheme (d’Hauteserre 2004 [5]; Tucker 2019 [6]).

In terms of tourismology, Chambers and Buzinde (2015) [7], point out that tourism studies themselves are largely Eurocentric with a remarkable effort from Latin American scholars to revert this. But this effort is not limited to America (Boukhris and Peyvel, 2019). As LingYang and Ong (2020) show, the re­searcher’s cultural background is relevant as it sustains different ways of building knowledge and wisdom (which should include managerial skills). [8] Their analysis consciously questions the criteria for the so-called “good scholarship”, as the systematic dismissal of other ways of thinking and doing is a fundamental part of the colonial project.

Interestingly, again Ling Yand and Ong (2020) find two main reasons for colonialist endorsing patterns in the academia. The first one relates to funding in universities that operate in the neoliberal capitalist setting. In this situation, survival of the research/researcher calls for complying with the requirements of policy-oriented and industry-focused priorities, hindering ground-breaking research. The second relates to the role of journal editors, as the gatekeepers of knowledge. The present research paradigm requires the constant production of scientific publications. This puts researchers on the track to produce <<cookie-cutter research that fits favourably with the dominant rules of tourism knowledge production>> (p. 6) in a setting in which the main gatekeepers come from or remain in the Anglo-westernised system.

As an example of a specific proposal to decolonise the academic scenario for tourism, we can quote the glossary coined by Hollinshead and Rukeya (2017). [9] It is not only a new definition of commonly used terms in this field, but to recognises and introduces other ways of thinking that include notions linked to cosmology, belonging or fantasmatics, to name just a few.

This largely colonised epistemic framework affects how knowledge is created, replicated and shared. Thus, it also affects how it is put into practice. Turismology is roughly one hundred years old, and, as shown, the turn of the century has brought new perspectives.

Lee (2017) carries out an awaken contribution from an indigenous (Tebrakunna Country) perspective to describe how male Western privileges (the Establishment) work against black female bodies. [10] Using tools such as indigenous ways of storytelling (which may be a way of packaging an experience for tourism) and ethics (which the authors insists cannot be universal), this author crafts a proposal that reverts colonising narratives to achieve an encounter that challenges (un)conscious cultural axioms in the visitor’s mind, thus creating a positive setting for both the host and the guest. Thus, the tourism encounter goes from a colonising device (relating not only to geography and politics, but also to other factors such as race and gender) to a mechanism to navigate towards social justice.

The aim of this paper is to contribute to discussing (de)colonisation patterns in tourism by means of a case study of otherness in the travel industry. First, we will expose how otherness is regarded in tourism research. Second, we will conduct a semiotic study of travel posters, focusing on the representation of otherness in advertising. The article ends with a discussion of the connections and tensions between theoretical framework and results of the empirical analysis.

The study of posters as research methodology

The word imaginary has somehow become a substitute for the anthropo­logical term cultural beliefs, sometimes related to fantasy, but it also stands for a shared cognitive schema (Strauss, 2006) [11] or even something that is distorted or repressed (Leite 2014). [12] Imaginaries play a relevant role in our lives since how we perceive something to be will shape our behaviour. For example, Aguilar Gil (2020) [13] points out that it may be necessary to deconstruct the imaginary associated to the idea of “one state – one nation” to finally be able to feel and politically function as mixes, rarámuris or purépechas (indigenous nations of Mexico).

In the tourism ecosystem, where the decision to consume and the actual consumption are dissociated in time and space, Salazar and Graburn (2014) [14] point out that the use of seductive and restrictive imaginaries is intrinsically tied to tourism and that they are a part of tourism consumption. Miossec (as quoted by Giannone 2002) [15] held that the tourist space is first of all an image. The author recognised three types of images: universal ones (solid images that have been installed in the collective imaginaries, “stereotypes”); induced images (those created by marketing agents); accidental images (created unintentionally and linked to a specific event) (Galí Espelt and Donaire Benito 2005). [16] These are all transmitted images that play a role in the travel experience and industry. Posters may draw elements from the universal or the ephemeral types, but they are essentially induced: a marketing effort with an investment of money and talent that sometimes is part of a more comprehensive management plan.

Challenges in studying travel posters have been identified before (Museu d’Art de Girona 2003). [17] For organizations producing them, posters are part of ephemera materials; they are hung and disseminated, rarely a copy is kept in the archives for further reference. Thus, historical archives seldom have these materials, and they almost never appear in the general catalogue, which makes it extremely hard and costly to find such promotional materials Private collectors are more reliable sources, although they are hard to identify – mainly it is done through personal connections – and most usually their stock will lack syste­matization.

Once a piece or a collection is located, other problems arise such as “minor” edited materials, posters usually skip official registration (ISBN or similar). Thus we miss important information such as the year of production, which is rarely included in another form. The editing organization is most commonly clear because it is a for profit campaign or because of political interests. This is not the case with the author of the image: the artist or the design studio rarely sign the piece or are acknowledged in any way, unless they are famous or part of the luring atmosphere. A good example of this is paintings by famous artists used as illustrations for posters. In spite of these difficulties, some catalogues have been compiled in recent decades. Imatge i destí (Image and Destination) catalogue, edited by the Girona Art Museum (Museu d’Art de Girona 2003) [17], is but one example.

This study will take as a source of materials from the Archive of Tourism Posters in the library of the University of Girona. It contains 2,117 items including the Marc Martí collection (Fons Serratosa). [18] To narrow the sample, we have used the following criteria: posters advertising places out of Europe to be able to assess how otherness is portrayed for Western eyes. This is not only because of an author’s origin (which could otherwise be seen as a bias) but also because Europe has traditionally been the biggest outbound market: 48% or international trips worldwide in 2019 were done by Europeans (World Tourism Organization, 2021). [19] To choose a specific country, we have used the World Tourism Organisation’s (WTO) ranking of most visited destinations in 2019. The first non-European country is the United States (3rd place, 79 million of in­ternational arrivals). In order to best assess how otherness and especially exotic­cism are portrayed, we skipped the United States as part of the Western region and selected China, which is the 4th most visited country in the world, receiving 66 million of international travellers. This narrows the analysis sample to 29 posters.

We will adopt a semiotic approach to the study of how otherness is represented in this sample of tourism posters. The central idea of semiotics is to decode ideas, metaphors and signs at play: signifiers and the signified (Harvey, Michael and Malcolm 2001). [20] Of course, potential customers from diverse cultural backgrounds may attribute different significance to the same signifier, since meaning (significance) is based on a network of connections encountered in the past (Monty 2000). [21] However, some meanings are shared by groups of people large enough to be used in advertising. Culler (1981), commenting on Barthes, points out that a tourist is interested in everything as a sign of itself, an instance of a cultural practice <<a Frenchman is an example of a Frenchman, a restaurant on the Left Bank is an example of a Left-Bank-Restaurant: it signifies “Left-Bank-Restaurantness”>> (p. 127) [22] in spite of any attempts of locals to explain that a restaurant is merely a convenient place to meet and have a meal. In tourism marketing semiotics are taken care of very carefully.

Van Gorp and Béneker (2007) [23] state that projected images used in tourism reflect the ideas of their producers at the same time that they influence visitors’ perceptions and, subsequently, behaviour. Sources of information and advertising play such a crucial role in the travel experience since the destination is most usually purchased prior to arrival. In this regard, Van Gorp and Béneker (2007) mention that although there is a growing number of studies on projected image, still little is known about how potential tourists interpret them.

The study of our sample will follow a model adapted from Vergara-Leyton, Garrido-Peña and Undurraga-Puelma (2013). [24] First, it has to be kept in mind that this study focuses on the promoted image. How it is perceived and used by the audience (which would link to exotopy or the appropriation of otherness) falls beyond the limits of our analysis. Second, a matrix will be used to systematise the information. It is organised as follows:

  • Aesthetic codes: symbolic elements, dominating colour scheme, compo­sition
  • Message: main text, secondary text
  • Value or experience promise (inferred semiotic meanings).

Otherness in tourism

The Center for Intercultural Dialogue defines otherness as <<an articu­lation of diversity as well as a definition of difference>> (online), something that is inevitably linked to sameness: there is no “they” without “us”. With few exceptions, “us” has positive connotations while “they” tend to be associated with not so desirable values. Although the figure of the other used to be relatively fixed, three mobility revolutions (human migrations, communication techno­logies and globalizing factors) created ever changing categories (Praxmarer 2016). [25] Tourism, understood as the democratisation of leisure travel, should be considered as part of these new mobilities.

Travel – moving away from everydayness – is by definition a place to encounter what and who is different. As a child of the post-exploratory age, tourism is, amongst many others, a discourse on the exotic (Harkin 1995) [26], albeit a domesticated exotic. To be more precise, following this scholar, tourism is a form of exotopy. For the traveller, otherness is temporary and even reversible (how the other is framed is subject to change). Possibly due to this temporary connection with this other, the constructed discourse can only be metonymic: a collection of signs that point out to fragments of the visited place or culture. Here, maybe the most iconic illustration would be the material or immaterial souvenir, which will always recall a part of the whole. Hence, tourism can hardly build a consistent, deep narrative about the other. It will be a collection of statements connected by “and”, which still hold value in the formation and integration of experience. Interestingly, Harkin already points out that in the future (he writes in 1995) [26] the figures of the anthropologist and the tourist will most probably come closer together.

Salazar (2013) [27] is critic as to what kind of anthropology has permeated today’s popular culture, as TV shows or leisure travel. Certainly, not the contemporary approach to anthropology, but its colonial predecessor that labelled so many peoples of the world as “savage”. On this basis, shows are filmed and half-scientific, half-adventure tours are crafted. For the stay-at-home traveller, there is a rather extensive offer of re-enactments of historical (real or not) cultures yet another example of the commodification of cultures which often compro­mises accuracy and what could be generally understood as authenticity. This situation is so to the extent, Salazar argues, even the role of the anthropologist has been commoditized by tourism.

Travel puts us in direct contact with others and, necessarily, other parts of ourselves. These contacts create a series of paradoxes and differences that force us to enter other levels of experiencing. This is, at least, one of the items that have a luring effect for the traveller (Mowatt 2016). [28] The compilation by Picard and DiGiovine (2014) [29] touches specifically this topic, recognising that part of the success of a trip is to return home transformed to some degree. Tourism, then, is the setting (or chronotopos) that makes us dialogical, fertile relationship possible. Even further, otherness is to be found also, or above all, within our­selves: in the manner that we experience, present and position ourselves around it (Gillespie, Kadinaki and O’Sullivan-Lago 2012) [30]. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion is that geographic movement entails the construction of semantic meanings. Interestingly, this whole reflection is what pilgrimage lies on: outer movement triggers inner movement (reflection) in such a manner that the way itself becomes the goal and, ideally, the geographical destination is reached approximately at the same time than intimate (emotional, spiritual…) needs.

Like for so many science practitioners at the early times of their speciality, it seems that the (serious) tourist moves between the commoditized anthropo­logist and the dialogical self-development. Linking back to the idea that differ­rence is an attraction factor within the tourism industry, it is worth mentioning how some groups have cleverly othered themselves (Salazar 2013) essentializing and commodificating their cultures, almost enacting an stereotype, in order to obtain income from visitors, but possibly also as a way to share their real cultural heritage. To which extent these “othered” representations can work as the Hegelian mirror to improve understanding of both the other and the self (Brons 2015) [31] remains open for discussion.

Case study: representations of China in travel posters

As acknowledged before, one of the main challenges in the study of travel posters is to compile the materials themselves. In the case at hand, Marc Martí collection holds 29 posters of the Chinese territory. Interestingly, none of them refers to the mainland. Seven advertise Hong Kong; six, Macau; fifteen, Taiwan and one last one announces the services of China Airlines (CAL).

Most of them are without a date, except for a series of four Macau posters marked 1980. If those announcing Hong Kong had the name of the producing agency on them, we would have a chance to establish if they were produced before or after 1997, when the sovereignty over this territory was formally re­turned to China by the United Kingdom. As for Taiwan, the posters are endorsed by the Tourism Bureau Republic of China, but since the mainland never formally recognised their separation (which occurred de facto in 1949) it is hard to use it as a factor for venturing a year of edition. Although a specialist in arts could offer a reasonable approximation by observing the style, all in all this impedes creating a time series which does not undermine the value of our analysis. It is also im­portant to note that not all posters feature the editing agency or the author.

To sum up, according to the partial information posters offer, we are dealing mainly with a self (Chinese) created image. That is equal to saying that the projected image here is an “indigenous” way of packaging (commodifying) the culture and of othering themselves.

Table 1 summarizes the descriptive information, the symbolic elements and the promise (semiotics) of each piece. Fields left blank indicate unknown in­formation.

Table 1: Semiotic analysis of travel posters about China

in the Marc Martí Collection – Fons Serratosa as available

in the library of the University of Girona. Source: author’s.

Starting with the single poster that advertises CAL Airlines we can see that it relies heavily on colours and images quickly associated with the “traditional” culture of China. The background is red, the auspicious colour of fortune. The style of the human figures reminds of ink and water painting figures. We could even point out that the main figure is a man in a highly gendered society, surrounded by small children. They are dressed in rich, elaborated robes which give the spectator the idea that they will encounter a distant, exotic other, but in a culture equally refined (or more) than any in Europe/ the West. This is a state­ment that permeates all posters studied here that include “traditional Chinese” items.

Image 1: CTMM01607. Source: University of Girona. Library. Tourism Posters.

Second, we are presented with the series of four Macau posters. They date from 1980 and were edited by the Macau Tourist and Information Bureau. They share the same composition, big white letters displaying the name of the place over the photograph and a lower strip with the slogan “The past is present”. These pictures show a Chinese style gate, casino lights, the entrance into a historical site of Western style and a Christian Easter procession. They promise quite different things, possibly aiming at different market niches: “authentic” historical sites of a culture equally “developed” and maybe even more refined than any in the West; modern fun, Western-like (familiar) amusement; familiar historical places and events in peaceful atmospheres. The former is best seen in the pro­cession poster: there is no difference between Macau and its ex-metropolis. The remaining two Macau posters echo these same values: familiar sites far away from home and the possibility to discover “indigenous” culture, which is attractive, fun (even engaging), highly elaborated and safe.

Here we can already identify some tensions that appear in other posters: the place is exotic/different and at the same time similar (in architecture, events, amusement) than “at home”. It seems safe to assume that the campaigns are aimed at a Western audience, since names of places are written in Latin alphabet (and sometimes in Chinese characters) and slogans and names of organisations are in English.

Image 2: CTMM01615. Source: University of Girona. Library. Tourism Posters.

Image 3: CTMM01695. Source: University of Girona. Library. Tourism Posters.

Image 4: CTMM01696. Source: University of Girona. Library. Tourism Posters.

Image 5: CTMM01697. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 6: CTMM01698. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 7: CTMM01699. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

North East from Macau lies Hong Kong. Promises of a refined culture and exotic-familiar places and people are also found in these posters. Maybe a remarkable difference is how nature is used. In the case of Macau, trees and na­tural elements seemed to add a touch of peace to the settings. In the case of Hong Kong, the parts of mountains that can be seen add grandiosity of cultural heritage: in this case, the opera. The view of the bay makes the place, if not quiet, then recognisable when photos of the modern (again, Western-like) city are used. The tension between exotic-familiar is best exemplified here with the adverti­sement of restaurant food. We must keep in mind that food is one of the main concerns of travellers for several reasons (MacLaurin, MacLaurin and Loi 2000 [32]; Bjork and Kauppinenn-Raisanen 2016 [33]; Said, Adham, Muhamad and Su­laiman 2020 [34]), hearty food which may be prepared in different (exotic) ways, but it shows familiar elements like the cuts of meat and types of vegetables. The four male cooks are dressed in white (cleanliness) and the female host is formally dressed in a bright red (fortune, dignity) qi pao. So, again, the atmosphere is wel­coming and exoticism is not overwhelming.

The poster edited by Swissair, clearly of a non-Asian making, contrasts with the rest in the colour scheme (less bright) and the style of the arrangement of elements. Some sampan boats are clearly artificially arranged in a circle in the water, which is of a dark, not vivid, blue. Possibly it is the photo that shows a traditional item in a humbler manner (sampan boats are regular merchant’s boats) with no intention of greatness or glamour. It would be too daring to speak of a more honest view.

Image 8: CTMM01034. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 9: CTMM01642. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 10: CTMM01643. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 11: CTMM01644. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 12: CTMM01645. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 13: CTMM01646. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 14: CTMM01647. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Finally, we will see the posters announcing Taiwan. Luckily, we are presented with fourteen posters that seem to be part of one same series, endorsed by the Tourism Bureau of the Republic of China. Again, we encounter the image of a refined, friendly culture and the tension to present what is familiar (night light shows) with what is exotic (architecture that relies on different solutions and aesthetics). Natural spaces, such as the bamboo forest are either empty, sugges­ting exclusivity or discovery, or with a timid human presence: a distant couple or an enigmatic diver with which the spectator could identify him/herself, or a faraway temple, a welcoming place amidst a majestic lake scenery. This sense of explorer-like discovery, encapsulated in deserted images is very typical not only of tourism advertisement, but also of the photos taken by travellers (Galí Espelt 2005). [35] Also, the image of the Taroko Gorge, with the place crossed by a highway, suggests the idea of tamed, safe nature. One could infer yet another meaning from this loneliness: the runaway from over stressed daily life back at home. This easily links to all the advertisement campaigns led by slogans such as “run away from it all” that were common in the 1990s and early 2000s in European cities. This also connects with the will to balance tradition with the sight of modern cities.

The fifteenth poster is edited by CAL and shows a young maid in a tradi­tional, stereotypical, costume embroidering by hand. This sums up the meanings for cultural assets: sophistication, exotic yet familiar and an overall sense of proximity and availability to interact with visitors. In this sense, traditional culture is not frozen in time, but alive and happy to welcome foreigners.

Image 15: CTMM00346. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 16: CTMM00348. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 17: CTMM01576. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 18: CTMM01605. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 19: CTMM01572. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 20: CTMM01573. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 21: CTMM01602. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 22: CTMM01608. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 23: CTMM01634. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 24: CTMM01682. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 25: CTMM01606. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 26: CTMM01574. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 27: CTMM01570. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 28: CTMM01636. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Image 29: CTMM01571. Source: University of Girona. Library.

Tourism Posters.

Zooming out of the actual content of the image, one notices that all but one are photographs. This is a way of showing the “real” place, yet one must keep in mind that it is always a selected, staged and framed reality. As for the posters with a literally framed image, this aesthetic border may act as a symbolic border between this “ideal” place (where you may want to enjoy a holiday) and everyday life. Colours used either in these frames or in lower strips are either earthy or white, communicating a sense of calm and safety. Text is barely present, only to indicate the name of the place and, perhaps, a slogan (<<The past is present>>), meaning that the tourism imaginary is in fact made out of images, mainly.


Advertising is never innocent and the field of tourism is no exception (Small, Harris and Wilson, 2008). [36] The seduction of difference is an impor­tant item of the decision-making process: given limited resources (basically, time and money), to choose one destination over another. Of course, other factors like perceived security and safety, price range, notions associated with the symbolic consumption and sustainability (Richins, 2010) [37] play a role in this process. So, it becomes obvious that the first thing to take into account is the fact that the images chosen for a poster are carefully selected aesthetically but also in terms of the desired effect (through associated meanings) on the target audience. The desired effect, being of course to make an actual trip to China or, at least, to create a positive mental image of this country that generates processes such a positive word of mouth. The latter is important in as much as travel and tourism are part of cultural diplomacy (Carbone 2017). [38] In further studies it would be interesting to study the coincidence of semiotics (what the editor wishes to communicate) with the decodification by the audience, a gap that had already been identified by Van Gorp and Béneker (2007). Authors such as Wyer and Adaval (2003) [39] already explained how the intended message is not always the interpreted one. This may happen mainly for two reasons. One, due to a lack of pertinent knowledge on the receiver’s side. Two, because the form of the message (words, images) allow for multiple interpretations. These processes of conveying meaning can happen in more or less subtle ways, and in some cases the rhetoric implied can be used to add some poetry to a communicative setting such as advertising. In the case of tourism, Kantanen and Tikkanen (2006) [40] bring forward an example of using different messages to appeal to different types of audiences even though the item to be promoted is always a cultural asset (so the difference in the form of the message obeys to receivers’ features). In this case, the authors found that the communication materials follow an informative strategy, while in other cases bringing forward emotions, habits or satisfaction may be an efficient luring factor. It is precisely the ability to nail the luring factor for the target audience, and to rightly convey it in the content and shape of the message that holds the key of a successful promotional campaign. Thus, ana­lysing how a specific audience would interpret the China posters studied here would help building a pool of information both for marketing studies and for destination management practices since perceived, a priori, images influence the behaviour of the visitor.

As we have seen, twenty-one out of twenty-nine posters were produced by organizations of Chinese origin. In the (self-)building of this promoted other we have identified several concrete elements. First, images devoid of people (or almost), which may relate to exclusivity, a sense of discovery of rest (<<get away from it all>>). Sometimes this was visually associated with nature, but posters with opera characters or the maiden doing embroidery) suggest proximity, almost one-on-one (equal) relation with the potential traveller. Security and safety seem to have been coded in the welcoming feeling, as well as in details such as the cleanliness of food. There seems to be representations of both traditional, historical values (even in the text <<The past is present>>) and modernity, shown in the shape of contemporary cities. As for the category indigenous/exotic, it seems at least partially tied to tradition, but it is always a sophisticated tradition, that looks right into the eye of Western/European cultures. On the other end of the line, we find the sense of familiarity: a distant culture, but by no means savage and, what is more, featuring some sites and events that are equal to those “back home” (back in the former metropolis).

This opens the gate to introduce the notion of self-Orientalism in tourism. Orientalism is already a well-established term most famously discussed by Said (1990). [41] One important role of Orientalism is to sustain the “Western” identity, along with a discourse that seeks to maintain the image of still existing colonial structures. Therefore, in practice, Orientalism has <<substantially illuminated Western self-subjectivities and self-positionings in the world order>> (Yan and Almeida Santos 2009: 297) [42]. Although the sights included are quite different, aesthetically, our sample presents some similarities to the analysis carried out by Yan and Almeida Santos. The tension between the representation of the past and the present of the country is present; architecture and landscapes are portrayed in a manner that accentuates magnificence and the imagery is lined with poetics. Still, there are two main differences: given the studied posters, we cannot affirm that a will to present a feminized China exists, since men are also present in photographs (children, opera characters and historical illustrations); the second one does not identify the presence of any ethnic groups. This could agree with the idea of communicating one united nation, which may have evolved in the conceptualization of advertising in the 21st century. From a political point of view, which falls out of the scope of this research, it would be interesting to discuss the inclusion or exclusion of minor ethnic groups (91% of population is Han, the rest accounts for other 55 ethnicities).

In short, given the coincidences with the aforementioned study, the use of red and the appearance in the pictures of items that are closely tied to the exotic imaginary of China (bamboo, opera, “typical” architectural forms, even gambling) we can state that these posters are endowed with an Orientalist spirit. As some authors (Dirlik 1996) [43] have pointed out, former victims of Orientalism are now using new power dynamics for self-empowerment. In this particular study, it may be to position the country as a successful tourism destination for Western (English-speaking) travellers. This may be an example of what Salazar (2013) called to cleverly other oneself. Yet, by relying on the use of the already existing (extrinsic) form of otherness, Yan and Almeida Santos warn that China fails to present the intricate and diverse humane and natural richness: <<certainly not an ideal answer to China’s strive for self-identity in a globalized world>> (2009, p. 310). [42] It is worth noting that this is maintained over time, taking as a reference 1980 (included in some posters) and the China Forever campaign of 2003. How this self-Orientalism (a form of othering oneself) has evolved in the 21st century, a time in which China is gaining momentum in the global scene remains open for research.

In this light, our sample of posters show how Chinese destination marketing organisations (DMOs) have appropriated its own folkloric imaginary to use it as the (potential) luring factor for tourism flows. This may be seen as a way to regain power over this image of an exogenous origin and to use it to gain a space in the international tourism rankings. According to the aforementioned WTO statistics, this has been achieved, since it is now the 4th country in the world receiving more international visitors.

In a way, using this folkloric image may seem ridiculous at first, but let us keep in mind that the potential (leisure) traveller is not necessarily familiar with. So, China’s choice to present herself through the already known images appeals to familiarity (“habits”, as Kantanen and Tikkannen, 2006 [43] put it). One side of this strategy is to meet Western visitors’ expectations. The other side of the strategy is, possibly, to attract visitor flows by means of familiar images. When travellers become more educated about China, more complex and subtle charac­te­ristics of the place and the society can be included not only in tourism products, but also in tourism promotion – which is nowadays a wish of the demand. Pecuniary implications of bigger international visitors are already clear enough.

Yet another implication of this strategy relates to cultural diplomacy, a form of soft power, of which tourism is part of. For the most part, travel and tourism are pleasurable activities that create a suitable scenario to create a positive image of a country in the international imaginary (even modifying the one that already exists). Once this positive conceptualisation happens, it should be easier to establish smooth political and economic collaborations.

Using tourism as a presentation opportunity is not a strange strategy for governments. As explained by Liu (2008). [44] China has a long experience of planning cultural diplomacy actions to generate positive relations with the world, namely Africa through tourism.


If the tourism destination is first of all an image, we are presented here with a process of self-othering that culturally equals the “other” with the target audience (as an over generalization, the West). So, in this case exoticism is not linked to backwardness and savageness, but to other forms of cultural develop­ment. Interestingly, this is done by using pictures from the same Orientalist ima­ginary the West has created. Although this form of reversing power dynamics is interesting and useful in itself, it would be wise to avoid simplification of one’s own heritage for marketing purposes, as it fosters over commodification of places and ultimately makes the destination appear flat to the prospective traveller’s eyes, which works against the interests of tourism agencies, which are often public bodies.

As much as tourism is part of cultural diplomacy, it shapes relations between countries and peoples of diverse origins. Thus, it seems advisable for DMOs to pay attention to studies of otherness in order to better align campaigns with broader political strategies and socio-economic goals (i.e., not choosing an image because of its pictorial beauty, but in order to put in motion a process for the greater good of the host society).


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List of posters – from 1 to 29 – Source: University of Girona. Library. Tourism Posters.

Self-Otherness in Tourism. A Semiotic Analysis of China Travel Posters Neus CrousCosta

Manuscript was submitted: 10.02.2022.

Double Blind Peer Reviews: from 12.02.2022 till 27.02.2022.

Accepted: 28.02.2022.

Брой 51 на сп. „Реторика и комуникации“, април 2022 г. се издава с финансовата помощ на Фонд научни изследвания, договор № КП-06-НП3/75 от 18 декември 2021 г.

Issue 51 of the Rhetoric and Communications Journal (April 2022) is published with the financial support of the Scientific Research Fund, Contract No. KP-06-NP3/75 of December 18, 2021.