Published December 2001 in Leisure World Asia.

Beware of the Western Conquistadores

By Randy White

© 2000 White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group

The Ethnocentric American

Why are Americans so incredibly arrogant when it comes to their culture? I chalk it up to two things: our European heritage and our money.

America exhibits the arrogance and lack of respect for other cultures that were integral to the Western European cultures that shaped the founding of this country. We were born of conquerors and we behaved as conquerors, and often still do. Most of the people in charge of the entertainment industry continue to be the white males who led the charge to make America an economic and military superpower.

Which leads me to my second point: money. Americans can afford to be provincial and lazy. When most American tourists travel abroad, we expect others to speak our language and cater to our needs and it happens because they depend on our money. The same dynamic happens in the entertainment industry. America represents wealth and success, and America represents freedom, and it is impossible for many to understand how, if thousands of people from other countries are begging to be allowed to live here, immigrants' home cultures could have anything of value to offer us and them. We judge other cultures by our standards of affluence, which often blinds us to other gifts these cultures have to offer.

We have a partner in this arrogance: the UK. But perhaps the UK can be forgiven a little. Being an isolated island dependent on trade with other cultures for prosperity, it historically used domination and colonization to grow. Cultural arrogance is an integral part of that culture. While this is no excuse for its continued exercise by intelligent and enlightened beings, it does make it easier to understand.

In the 16th Century, conquistadores ventured out from Spain and Portugal to conquer new worlds to the east. They brought back to their homelands many treasures and the best of many of the cultures they visited. Today, residents from those regions of Spain and Portugal will tell you they are proud of these explorers as a part of their heritage. Talk to residents of countries they conquered, however, and you get an entirely different perspective on those who exploited and destroyed their cultures.

This pattern has been repeated many times since, whether by the British and French colonials or by Americans, who almost totally destroyed first nations' cultures in North America and Hawaii.

Today, at least in the West, a growing population practices cultural respect and understanding, and greater value is placed on native cultures and their preservation. This does not, unfortunately, extend to the entertainment industry, which continues to walk in the footsteps of the conquistadores. Replacing the armed warriors of old is a new conqueror, much less direct and more seductive, but just as destructive. It is the culture itself. Basically, most of us in the West just package our standard Western formulas, whether in our movies, TV or music, or our location-based leisure (LBL) venues, and plop them into other cultures. Then, we use sophisticated marketing techniques to sell the locals on the idea that they are good for will enjoy it.this is the modern way.

Call it brainwashing or call it whatever you want, the results are the same: Western customs and values are slowly replacing the traditions and values of native cultures. The Westernization that results is destroying those cultures.

And just like the conquistadores, we know that getting people of other lands to adopt our language accelerates this culturalization process. Research has shown that culture and language are integrally linked. Language originally grew and evolved to reflect its home culture, and it shapes the very thought processes of people who grow up there. Change the native language, and you have started the process of drawing people into the values of your culture.

Some threatened cultures take pride in preserving their cultural integrity and are taking the initiative to stand up to the Western conquistadores by saying "No." Hooray for the French, whether in France or Eastern Canada, who have steadfastly fought encroachment of the English language, understanding how important it is to preserve the French language as the foundation of their culture. (Disney learned this lesson at great expense at Disney Paris. The great American mouse was not so embraced by the French when he refused to adopt essential elements of their culture, including wine.) Hooray for India, where the names of cities are being returned to those from before the English occupation, and where the state of West Bengal has taken steps to save a culture it say is in decline, overshadowed by Western habits. There, English is being sidelined. All street signs have been changed and government business is now being conducted in Bengali. And hooray for nationals in the U.A.E., who have begun an Emiratization program to increase the number of citizen workers in the government now dominated by expatriates.

Sure, the West has many things to offer other cultures, including aspects of the entertainment industry. However, cultures need the opportunity to choose and adapt only those elements that fit or even strengthen their cultures, rather than have stock Western formulas imposed on them. I'll offer several examples, negative and one positive.

Many cultures have a centuries-old tradition of arranged marriages. While we in the West may find the idea of arranged marriages strange, that does not make our tradition of romantic love right. It's just different. In fact, in many cultures, arranged marriages lead to better long-term relationships than romantic marriages. Yet, in every form of entertainment the West exports, romantic love is an underlying value, whether in films or Cinderella's Castle. This has slowly undermined the value of arranged marriages in many parts of the world, with the result of an increasing divorce rates for those now based on romantic love.

Another example can be seen in LBL rides. In many Muslim cultures, the depiction of animals is against Islamic principles. Yet many a theme park or FEC in Muslim countries includes rides that depict animals. This undermines the religious value, especially with children. Or take coin-operated games, introduced into cultures that do not believe in guns or that believe that negotiation is the only way to resolve disputes. It is very difficult to maintain this value where the residents are constantly shown an alternative means of dispute resolution that seems both effective and exciting.

And now for a positive example. It is, oddly enough, the cellular phone. In cultures with strong oral traditions or tribal roots, the cellular phone has allowed people to maintain close connections in an increasingly mobile society. When they lived in tribes or villages, communication was easy because your kin were physically there. Today, often separated by kilometers or even oceans, it is still easy to maintain that connectedness via cellulars.

The location-based leisure industry can be just as profitable, if not more so, by respecting the cultures where projects are developed rather than being conquistadores of Westernization. International projects are more successful and have more staying power when they create a real connection with the local community.

Culturally respectful development of LBLs requires an approach that first examines Western leisure concepts to see which can be adapted to that particular culture. Then it's time to look for design solutions that don't exist in the West, but which will work within that cultural context. It's like trying to rewrite the evolution of location-based leisure. You have to try to determine what it would look like today if it had evolved in that culture rather than in the West.

One important aspect of such culturally-based LBL development is the storyline and theme. The storyline is the mythology that determines the theme and drives every aspect of design. A storyline and theme that has a connection to the local culture and the target guests' values will not become dated and obsolete. Rather, it will provide a strong brand identity, resulting in higher market share, higher frequency of visits and higher per capita expenditures.

The best way to create a strong brand identity for a LBL is to reintroduce the community to itself. In a sense, the community's culture, values and lifestyles become the brand. To accomplish this, you identify what about the target market makes its residents proud about their culture and community. You learn about their values, lifestyles and heritage and then you integrate that into the storyline and theme as subtext. The community and its culture becomes the brand and the brand celebrates the community and its culture. The LBL, then, has a strong emotional appeal, as it is based on what makes the local community proud. This not only connects the LBL to its community, it also gives the LBL a soul. Soul is something lacking in many international leisure projects whose superficial or Western-based themes lack any real meaning and relevancy to their guests.

Culturally-based LBL design requires extensive research and planning. It is the extensive up-front cultural research that produces long-term success. The research involves much more than what a typical feasibility study includes and it must go way beyond demographics. Although some of the research is based upon published information, most of the research deals with subtle cultural considerations that can only be unearthed by an astute trained observer who conducts research on-site. This research includes sociological, ethnographic and anthropological studies, trained observations and qualitative research with interviews and focus groups.

As an integral part of feasibility research and before our company even begins the preliminary design process for an LBL, we immerse ourselves in the culture to observe, research and analyze. Our research team is multi-disciplinary and includes mostly women. If the LBL will include families with children, our research team includes a child-development expert.

We read everything we can find that might provide cultural insights. We find out what the target market does for leisure and where it goes, and then we go there, to their restaurants, their parks, shopping locations, leisure and cultural attractions. We study the local architecture, design styles, home interiors and furnishings. We visit schools and meet with educators to understand both the pre-school and grade school education systems. We visit play areas to observe how children play and how parents and children interact. We search out sociologist and experts in the local culture. Our female staff members hold focus groups with mothers and children. And in cultures where nannies are prevalent, we research their needs as well.

In some cultures, religion is especially important. In Muslim countries, for example, religion and everyday life are inseparable. Religion's impact on design is everywhere. Considerations can include seating arrangements in café areas, parent-child interaction, design of restrooms, the need for prayer rooms and prayer preparation areas, the selection and preparation of food, even the rhythm and scheduling of the day's events. So we study the local religious practices and beliefs, keeping in mind that within any religion, there can be significant differences from one local area to another, as religious practice is a combination of religious doctrine and local interpretation and tradition.

In some cultures, history is especially significant, as it is important to residents' very cultural identities, and we study those aspects of history that most clearly shape the culture.

Our company's cultural research has uncovered many culturally-based design concepts for LBLs that are less obvious, but in many ways possibly even more important to project success, than the more obvious considerations.

One good example is an LBL we produced in Dubai, a city on the Arabian Gulf. Our research uncovered several cultural traits that we than wove into the fabric of the LBL. Our findings showed that:

  • Arab women were excluded from socializing in most restaurants and cafés due to the presence of men. There were few other places for women to socialize outside of the home. Woman were looking for places outside the home were they could congregate and socialize.
  • When Arab women do get together, they want to be able to remove their coverings and relax. (Many Arab women are fully veiled and covered in the traditional black hijab and abbayah). However, this cannot take place in any location where men or boys over age 9 are present or can see them.
  • Use of henna body ornamentation is still popular among Arab women.
  • Both children and the schools were becoming increasing aware of the need to protect endangered species and were interested in an environmentally-based theme and mascot.
  • The dugong, a cousin of the manatee, is endangered in that area of the world.
  • Dubai's earlier culture was partially based on pearl diving. The city's nickname, "the pearl city," comes from that heritage.
  • "Pearl" in Arabic is lou lou.

So we took the findings of our research and developed a culturally-based children's edutainment center called LouLou Al Dugongs ("pearl of the dugongs" in Arabic). The mascot is a female dugong called LouLou. The storyline is about how a camel, a falcon (popular in the Gulf) and a dugong educate humans on the importance of preserving endangered sea creatures of the Gulf. This was much more relevant than a storyline about saving tropical rain forest or some non-native animal. Children can become members of LouLou's Eco-Rangers club.

On weekdays, the center operates as a women's club where women can socialize in the upscale café with or without their children. The center is designed so that during these times, no one can see in. To facilitate operations during women-only times and to increase the center's appeal to woman, almost the entire staff is female. Special children's events include pretend henna and pretend fishing from a traditional dhow boat. School field trip curricula have been developed based upon saving the dugong and sea creatures.

Not your standard Western formula, but one that sure works in Dubai.

Everyone in the West now understands the value and need to save endangered species. It has become a standard Western value. Even LBLs are embracing it, whether it is cultural institutions such as zoos or for-profit ventures such as Disney at the Animal Kingdom. We in the leisure industry need to likewise embrace the cultural diversity of the world cultures that took thousands of years to evolve and develop our projects with respect for those cultures rather than continue to be the conquistadores of Westernization. We do not have the right to drive those cultures to eventual extinction. Embracing home cultures is not only responsible, it will also lead to greater success.


Randy White is the CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, Missouri, U.S. firm that specializes in market feasibility, consulting and design of FECs and family and children's venues. The firm has won many awards for the design of its domestic and international FECs. Mr. White can be reach at voice: +1.816.931.1040, fax: +1.816.756.5058, or via e-mail or on the web at <>.