For the middle classes, tourism is a recent phenomenon made possible by mass communication high speed transit and the leisure and resources generated by industrial and post-industrial societies. As Mennonites have assimilated (acculturation) into modern life they have also begun to travel to commercial tourist sites as well as to landmarks related to Anabaptist and Mennonite history. This article focuses on the development and impact of tourism on Amish and Mennonite communities. In the middle of the 20th century, the most conservative Amish and Mennonite communities attracted the interest of tourists since many of these communities lagged behind the larger society in their willingness to adapt to modern life. Amish and Old Order Mennonite groups with their distinctive clothing and the use of horse-and-buggy transportation provided a glimpse of an earlier epoch of North American life for urban residents caught in the fast pace of modern life. The Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church were assimilating into mainstream culture at the same time that tourism was developing in North America. Thus these groups never became the primary focus of tourist attention. Old Order groups, both Amish and Mennonite, who dared not to be modern, were the ones that caught the curiosity of tourists with their distinctive lifestyles. Tourist industries in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Manitoba, Ontario, and Pennsylvania, although not completely dependent on these plain groups, were nevertheless spurred by the presence of Old Order groups.
Lancaster County, PA, home of the earliest and oldest tourist industry accentuating the plain groups, hosted approximately 5 million visitors annually in the 1980s -- 350 for each Amish person in the county. The tourists spent more than 400 million dollars per year. Amish historian David Luthy dates the origin of Amish tourism in Lancaster County to the publication of a tourist booklet by Steinfeldt in 1937. By 1965, 2 million tourists were flocking to Lancaster County each year to see the Amish and the Mennonites. In 1958 the Mennonites opened a Mennonite Information Center and by 1974 an estimated 40,000 tourists visited the center annually (interpretation and information centers). The same pattern of evolution has occurred in other communities in North America who host a high concentration of Amish and Old Order Mennonites in close proximity to urban centers, as in Waterloo County, Ontario.
Tourist establishments for hospitality, entertainment, and education were owned primarily by non-Mennonite entrepreneurs in the early stage of tourism. Since 1970 Mennonites themselves have become increasingly involved in commercial hospitality as owners of motels and restaurants as well as bed-and-breakfast facilities. These commercial enterprises cater to local clientele as well as to tourists. Prior to the 1980s the Amish and Old Order Mennonites remained rather aloof from tourist establishments which were characterized by one Amishman as "leisure-lust playgrounds." Since then some Amish and Old Order Mennonites have become directly involved by opening hundreds of small roadside stands on the edge of their farms and lawns to sell produce and homemade crafts. These small native stands represent a negotiated compromise between the Amish and the tourists. On the one hand they provide tourists with a rare, but controlled, peek into genuine Amish and Old Order Mennonite life and the tourists, in turn, respond by purchasing Amish or Mennonite made products which bolsters their economy especially in areas faced with shrinking farmland. Tourist industries also provide a major source of jobs and income for non-Mennonite and Mennonite people in several local communities.
|House-barn at Mennonite Village Museum, Steinbach, Manitoba
Mennonite Bicentennial Photo.
Formal tourist sites play several important roles in structuring the encounter between plain groups and the modern world. They provide a buffer zone of sorts that protects the natives from the tourists. Tour guides and simulated attractions occupy the tourists' time and keep them a respectable distance from Old Order groups. Tourist sites and tour guides provide a structured restraint that permits daily Amish and Mennonite life to continue largely undisturbed backstage. For the most part tourists and their tour guides follow established routes and stop at designated places pinpointed on tourist maps. The guides and sites serve as a curtain that insulates Old Order groups from what would otherwise be a chaotic intrusion on their life. Tourist establishments also offer an educational setting where questions can be asked without fear of embarrassment and insult. They also provide descriptive information and an overview of Amish and Mennonite life that would be difficult to obtain from many rank and file members. Tourist sites in these ways are "front stage" operations which protect Old Order life backstage from the questions and intrusions of thousands of visitors.
A series of paradoxes thread their way through the phenomenon of tourism. To begin with, the European Anabaptists were violently persecuted and exterminated because they dared to be different. Paradoxically the defiance of modern culture by Old Order groups has brought them not persecution, but admiration and respect. The course of history has converted them from despised heretics into esteemed objects of modern curiosity. Moreover, the world which these Old Order groups have tried so hard to keep at arms length, is now reaching out to them. Oddly enough, the more separate and unique they become the more they entice modern curiosity. Furthermore, the tourists come to see the distinctively dressed Old Order people, not the progressive Mennonites who operate the information centers and serve as tour guides. In fact, if all Mennonites and Amish were as assimilated as those who operate the motels and information centers, tourists would pay scant attention to the Mennonites. The prime objects of tourist interest, the Old Order groups, show little interest in tourism, which they often consider a nuisance.
As a traditionally agrarian folk, Mennonites were somewhat slow to begin urban missions. The tourist phenomenon ironically brought urbanites to the front door of Mennonites and the more progressive and evangelical ones saw the tourists as a mission field which the Lord had brought to them. Mennonite information centers combine an attempt to provide reliable factual information with a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the beliefs of the Mennonites and Amish. Indeed, involvement in the tourist industry has served to sharpen Mennonite convictions and beliefs. Tour guides and information center personnel have been forced to study their own history and that of related groups in order to answer the incessant questions that tourists bring. Brochures on Amish and Mennonite beliefs and films and video interpretations targeted on tourists have also clarified and strengthened Mennonite beliefs among members themselves. The encounter with tourism has thus served to hone Mennonite identity and historical consciousness.
Among Old Order groups, tourism which appears to threaten solitude and privacy, may in fact bolster cultural identity. An Old Order Amish person noted that, "Today we get loads of praise for our way of life." Another Amish leader said, "We are no longer looked down upon." The fact that tourists from around the world have come to learn of their way of life has brought quiet satisfaction and enhanced Amish collective self-esteem. Tourism with its clicking cameras and staring visitors, like persecution of bygone days, reinforces the cultural boundaries and reminds the Amish that they are indeed different from the rest of the world. Tourism also creates expectations for Old Order behavior since the tourists come to see a horse-and-buggy , people who have turned their backs on electricity. Old Order behavior, thus in part, fulfills the expectations created by the tourist industry. Such external expectations may indeed fortify rather than endanger the Old Order way of life.
Perhaps the greatest irony lies in the new relationship that tourism has created between Amish and Mennonites and their surrounding communities. The larger culture from which the Old Order groups have fervently sought to remain independent, has now come to depend on them financially in order to sustain the tourist industries. The image and identity of Lancaster County, PA, for instance, is highly dependent on the presence of the Amish community. Although they are not assertive politically, their importance for tourism has given the Amish a newfound power and leverage to negotiate with modern officials over issues ranging from schools to zoning laws-all of which are essential to their survival as as people.
The negative consequences of tourism are many: congested roads, commercial development of prime farmland, disruption of normal social life, distorted images of many plain groups, commercialization of religious and cultural symbols, and rampant greed. Tourism, with all its ironies however, may indeed strengthen the cultural vitality of Old Order groups. It provides a mobile mission field for Mennonite evangelistic efforts, increases the profits of Mennonite entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry, and sharpens Mennonite historical and theological consciousness. It has indeed been a fascinating and profitable encounter with the modern world.
Beiler, Joseph F. "The Tourist Season." Gospel Herald (8 June 1976): 482.
Buck, Roy C. "Bloodless Theatre: Images of the Old Order Amish in Tourism Literature." Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 2 (July 1979): 2-11.
Buck, Roy C. "Boundary Maintenance Revisited: Tourist Experience in an Old Order Amish Community." Rural Sociology 43 (Summer, 1978): 221-34.
Denlinger, Anna B. "Just Ordinary People: the Growth of Tourism in Lancaster County." Missionary Messenger (April 1972): 12-13.
Denlinger, A. Martha. "Mennonite Encounter with Tourists." Gospel Herald (16 September 1975): 652-53.
Glass, Esther Eby. "Fifty Thousand Questions." Christian Living (June 1967): 8-10.
Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1980: 307 -10.
Kraybill, Donald B. The Riddle of Amish Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1989: 227-234.
"Life or Lifestyle: What do Tourists See?" Missionary Messenger (August 1975): 12-13.
Luthy, David. "The Origin of Amish Tourism in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania." Family Life (November 1980): 31-34.
MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: a New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.
Stahl, Milo D. "Tourism as Mission and Presence: a Serious Call to the Church." Mission Focus 16 (March 1988): 8-10.
Steinfeldt, Bernice. The Amish of Lancaster County. Lancaster: Arthur G. Steinfeldt, 1937.
Witmer, Eugene. "What do Tourists Come to See?" Missionary Messenger (October 1977): 10-11.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 888-889. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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