Tourism In Amish Communities

Tourism In Amish Communities

Douglas Michele Turco

On a two-lane country road in Arthur, Illinois, a motorcoach packed with 45 tourists speeds past a horse drawn buggy. “Look at them!” one shouts. The tourists crane their necks for a glimpse of the plain-clothed Amish couple. Several tourists hurriedly snap their cameras to record the scene. The bearded driver holds his breath to avoid inhaling exhaust fumes and carefully guides the horse along the narrow gravel shoulder. He and his wife do not glance at the tour bus. They have been through this many times before.

Ethnic cultures are popular attractions for tourists in the U.S.. New York’s Little Italy, Taos, New Mexico’s Indian Pueblo, and Amish settlements in Lancaster, Pennsylvania are examples of cultural “theme parks” which attract tourists. This article describes the Amish as cultural tourism attractions, discusses reasons for their popularity, and identifies the impacts (both positive and negative) of tourism on Amish life.

The Amish

The Old Order Amish are descendants of the Mennonites who fled religious persecution in Germany during the late 17th century and came to the U.S., settling primarily in the eastern part of Pennsylvania. Followers of Jakob Ammann later separated from the Mennonites in 1693 and were named the Amish (Pennsylvania Dutch Welcome Center, 2000). Old Order Amish are identified by their conservative attire, straw hats, black bonnets, and horse-drawn buggies. Most Amish families are farmers. They do not have electricity in their homes and send their children to private, one-room schools. Most Amish are trilingual: they speak a dialect of German called Pennsylvania Dutch at home, use German at worship services, and speak English when interacting with anyone who is not Amish. In 1890, there were only 22 Amish church districts in North America, and the estimated Amish population was 3,700. In 1994, more than 750 church districts, with an estimated population of 130,000, were located in 20 American states and Ontario, Canada (Pennsylvania Dutch Welcome Center, 2000).

Increasingly, the Amish have participated in the tourism industry: willingly, as entrepreneurs, or unwillingly, as cultural icons for tourists to view. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania has been commercialized for tourism for several decades (Smith, 1961). In 1978, Buck described the tourism scene there as follows:

Amishmen are reproduced and caricatured in tourist promotion materials, area maps and billboards. Large plastic Amishmen, some of which are animated, beckon tourists into gasoline stations, diners, souvenir shops and motels. Amish dolls, most of which are imported, are popular souvenirs. Restaurant placemats are awash with fabricated Amish dialect and humor. Pamphlets encompassing every degree of accuracy, picture postcards, posters, prints and paintings depicting Amish life are commonplace. Mass-produced Amish straw hats and felt hats sold in souvenir shops show up as teenage attire on city streets, beaches and suburban patios. (Buck, 1978)

Not everyone finds the commoditization of culture for tourism appealing. From Cohen’s perspective (1988), the packaging of cultural experiences for sale to tourists represents a “watering down” of cultural authenticity, and a cheapening of their intrinsic value (to some hosts and some visitors or “guests”) for the sake of short-term economic gain.

Kraybill and Nolt (1995) attribute the Amish movement into tourism to three reasons: (1) pressures on the dwindling supply of farmland in Lancaster County, the state’s most rapidly growing county; (2) the growth of tourist traffic in Lancaster County; and (3) the development of small business as a source of supplementary retirement income for Amish ex-farmers. These factors have led to a reduction in Lancaster County’s farmland in 20 years by 20 percent, or 82,000 acres (Thomas, 1998). In 1993, 28 percent of Amish households in Lancaster County contained at least one non-farm business owner. “Amish businesses … are growing, prospering, and thriving” (Kraybill and Nolt, p. 222). The Amish have a low business failure rate, 4 percent a decade compared to the 70 percent failure rate of new U.S. businesses within their first three years of operation (Kraybill & Nolt, 1995).

Tourists’ Fascination with Amish Culture

Mainstream society has conjured a romantic image of the Amish. Writes Cong (1995): “Authors have written articles and books to praise the Amish; photographers have produced awardwinning pictures to present a saint-like image of the Amish and a scenario of the Amishland as paradise.” The Amish have attained a museum quality and antique status among mainstream society. Amish quilts, Amish furniture, Amish foods, and Amish costumes are very popular with upper-middle class consumers (Cong). Amish cabinets are often listed in real estate advertisements as an attractive home feature.

What is it about the Amish that makes them so appealing to tourists? The Amish do not intend for their lifestyle to be admired, but in the eyes of the American public, immersed in a hustle and bustle, high tech, high-end consumer world, “… the Amish way of life is so distinct that it becomes irresistibly fascinating and fashionably old-fashioned.” The seemingly simple way of life of the Amish is envied by members of mainstream society who are “plugged in” but would really like to “unplug.” Adds Bial (1995): “… perhaps visitors to Amish country are looking for their own quieter days. Perhaps they seek not so much a lapse into nostalgia, but a respite from the social, cultural, and economic problems of today and their corresponding tensions.” Yoder (1998) identified several other reasons for the popularity of the Amish:

* their insistence on their right as a minority to be different;

* their “nature- friendly” relation to the environment through the use of alternative energy sources such as wind and waterwheels;

* their excellence as general farmers in an age when the American farm is statistically and psychologically on the decline; their costumes, which reflect present-day religious identity as well as peasant backgrounds from Europe;

* and above all today, their abstract, almost modern art quilts done in dissonant colors (which are bringing astronomical prices on the market).

The Amish in Illinois have become the darlings of the state’s tourism promotional campaign. The State of Illinois Bureau of Tourism web site (www.enjoyillinois.com) featuring a horse-drawn buggy in silhouette against an auburn sunset is one image used to attract tourists to Arthur, Illinois. Arthur is home to the Amish Interpretive Museum, and over 150 Amish owned businesses. To illustrate the increased interest in Arthur as a tourist destination, the Arthur Visitor Center recorded 29,114 visits and 1,805 telephone inquiries in 1999. In the first half of 2000, 26,606 have already visited the Center, and 1,744 telephone inquiries have been received. Visitors to Arthur in 1999 represented all 50 states and 56 countries. Similarly, Napanee, Indiana proudly promotes Amish Acres in its tourism advertisements, complete with a photo of a horse drawn buggy (www.amishacres. com).

Summary

The Amish prefer a simplistic lifestyle, and possess few symbols that reflect status or conspicuous consumption, other than land-ownership, home-ownership, horses, and buggies. Of these symbols, the horse and buggy may be the most prominent and identifiable for the Amish. The simplicity of Amish life is one of its most appealing qualities to tourists. Amish life is an alternative (and sharp contrast) to our high-tech, high-end, highly consumptive, and multi-tasking society, where cell-phones, voice mail, drive-through windows, and computers dominate.

The Amish strive to keep a distance from mainstream society but increasingly, mainstream society encroaches on their culture. Cultural tourism, by its very nature, is invasive, requiring host and guest cultures to interact. Amish youth, seeing their non-Amish counterparts wearing designer clothes, and headphones plugged-into portable compact disc players, while playing games like Tomb Raider on hand held computers, cannot help but be intrigued. Are non-Amish children similarly influenced by the attire and behaviors of Amish children?

Amish culture occupies an elevated status in mainstream society. Popular media voluntarily promotes the good image of the Amish people, and the popularity of Amish culture has been on the rise. Cong (1994) notes that the non-Amish who live close to the Amish hold a more realistic image of Amish society. Some local hostility towards the Amish does exist. For example, some motorists resent Amish buggies as traffic hazards.

Who is making the decisions to promote the Amish as tourist attractions? Non-Amish employees of state tourism offices? To what extent, if at all, do the Amish dictate their involvement in tourism? An increasing number of Amish are willing participants in the tourism industry, but what of those unwilling to be directly involved, yet are subjected to the intrusions of tourists in their communities?

A cultural contradiction exists in Amish communities where families actively seek to do business with tourists. While mainstream America holds a positive image of Amish society, many Amish have a negative image of mainstream society. Many Amish think that mainstream society is associated with consumer greed, wastefulness, and temptation to decadence. By commoditizing their culture for tourism, the Amish seem to be giving mainstream society more of what it wants, while moving closer to the same societal flaws.

References

Bial, R. (1995). A visit to the Amish country. Chicago, Illinois: Phoenix Publishing.

Buck, R. (1978). Boundary maintenance revisited: Tourist experience in an old order Amish community. Rural Sociology, 43, 222.

Cohen, E. (1988). Authenticity and commoditization in tourism, Annals of Tourism Research, 15, 371-386.

Cong, D. (1994). The roots of Amish popularity in contemporary U.S.A. Journal of American Culture, 17,1, 59-66. Spring 1994

Kraybill, D. B. (1989). The riddle of Amish culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kraybill, D. B. & Nolt, S. M. (1995). Amish enterprise: From plows to profits. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pennsylvania Dutch Welcome Center [Available on-line: www.800padutch.com].

Smith, E. (1961). Amish today: An analysis of their beliefs, behavior and contemporary problems. Allentown, PA: Schlecters, 4-6.

Thomas, C. The devil in Lancaster County. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (October 7, 1998), Editorial, Pg. A-21.

Yoder, D. (1988). Gifts of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The World & I, 649-50.

The steadfastly rural and often mysterious ways of the Amish people have long made their communities alluring tourist destinations. Can the intensely private nature of the Amish be reconciled with the undeniable curiosity about their way of life? According to Douglas Michele Turco, Ph.D., not only is the answer “yes,” but tourism may actually help the Amish preserve their traditional existence. Dr. Turco is an associate professor and director of the Recreation and Park Administration program at Illinois State University. He also serves as research director for the Bureau of Tourism & Recreation Research.

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