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Dharamsala: A tourist hub caught between identity claims and tourism development

Ellina Mourtazina
Traduction de Anne Mc Bryde
Cet article est une traduction de :
Dharamsala : Station entre revendications identitaires et développement touristique. [fr]

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Figure : The streets of Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India. October 2018

Figure : The streets of Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India. October 2018

1Taken in the tourist hub of Dharamsala in northern India, this photograph raises the question of the relationship between Tibetan identity claims and international tourism. Strolling along the main streets of this hub located at the foot of the Indian Himalayas, casual tourists cannot miss an urban landscape covered with murals, posters, and slogans. This visual patchwork is sometimes made up of advertisements promoting the region's tourism offer and sometimes of political messages advocating a "Free Tibet." The latter are mainly visuals displaying portraits of Tibetan political prisoners allegedly held by the Chinese government. More broadly, these types of actions are signs that aim to celebrate Tibetan culture and to raise awareness and even engage the international “tourist gaze” (Urry, 1990) in favour of the “Tibetan cause” in a context of Sino-Tibetan conflict.

2In the space of half a century, this former hill station of the British Empire has become both the place of residence of a large Tibetan community in exile and a Mecca for cultural and spiritual tourism. Today nicknamed "Little Tibet," " Little Lhasa," or "Shangri-La," Dharamsala has become a contact zone (Bruner, 2005) where economic and geopolitical issues linked to tourist and migratory mobility are meshed, a place where romanticized projections of a Tibetan culture and hopes for a future return to the promised land are mutually supported. (Bishop, 1989; Lopez, 1998)

3Oriented toward Tibetan culture and Buddhist spiritualities, tourism development in Dharamsala, from its inception in the 1980s, has oscillated between economic necessities and identity strategies. Tourism has become both an important source of income and a means of militant action. Against the backdrop of exponential public sympathy for exiled Tibetan communities, tourism in Dharamsala has been harnessed by some active members of these communities as a lever for action and a means of mediatizing the struggle for an independent Tibet. These identity and territorial claims have been translated into an instrumentalization and staging of culture. Through language courses, painting, cooking, dancing, and Tibetan medicine, along with folklore shows, language exchanges, and volunteer and sponsorship programs, tourists can become familiar with Tibetan history and the life trajectories of the exiles.

4Although the Tibetan issue is revealed through spatialities that are no longer geographically located solely on the Tibetan plateau, but rather deterritorialized on a global scale, representations of Tibet in the diasporic community in Dharamsala are nonetheless invested with the image of national unity and cohesion. "One people, one nation: fifty years of resistance" chanted a slogan posted for a long time on one of the resort's crossroads. However, as Yeh (2007) shows, this presentation of a strong, united, and supportive Tibetan culture tends to homogenize the complex realities experienced on a daily basis within the Tibetan community in Dharamsala and to simplify relations between tourists and hosts.

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Bishop, P. (1989), The Myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape, Athlone Press, London.

Bruner, E.M. (2005), Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Lopez, D.S. (1998), Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Urry, J. (1990), The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies, Sage, London; Newbury Park.

Yeh, E.T. (2007), "Exile Meets Homeland: Politics, Performance, and Authenticity in the Tibetan Diaspora", Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 25, pp. 648-667.

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Titre Figure : The streets of Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India. October 2018
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Ellina Mourtazina, « Dharamsala: A tourist hub caught between identity claims and tourism development », Via [En ligne], 19 | 2021, mis en ligne le 26 juillet 2021, consulté le 01 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Ellina Mourtazina

Université de Lausanne,

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Anne Mc Bryde

Chaire de recherche du Canada en patrimoine urbain

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Via Tourism Review est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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