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Amish Struggle to Adapt to Tourism


Nov 20, 2005
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South Cal, Calif.
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On a snowy winter day in Pennsylvania, the streets are deserted but for a solitary vehicle, which slowly trundles by. Bonnet gleaming, steam rising from the nostrils of its drivers, this however is no ordinary mode of transport - it is one of the antique horse-drawn carriages used to this day by the Amish.

< The Amish have long been a religious community that has fired the popular American imagination.

Some local residents feel the tourist industry is exploitative
Fleeing religious persecution in their native Germany, they arrived on American shores in the 18th Century. Soon, they separated themselves from other Anabaptists, through their commitment to a traditional mode of life - meaning no cars, no electricity and no photography.

The ban on photographs, which the Amish see as "graven images", is clear enough as the carriage passes. Tourists take out their digital cameras, and the driver, wearing the distinctive black dress and slicked-back hair of the Amish, instinctively ducks away.

This kind of evasive action is becoming increasingly necessary for the Amish, as they unwillingly become one of most popular tourist attractions in the United States.

In earlier times, the community supported their distinctive way of life - which includes no schooling beyond the age of 11 and the random election of local officials - through agricultural labour.

However, as economic developments have hit small producers, the Amish have been forced to turn to other means of income.

During the 1990s, Lancaster County, where the largest Amish community resides, lost 7,855 acres of farmland a year to residential and commercial development.

A typical 100-acre farm, which would have cost $30,000 in the 1940s, was worth $1m by 2000. Increasing numbers of Amish began to work for the "English", the Amish term for all non-Amish Americans.

Tourist attraction

But the most dramatic new source of revenue has been the tourist industry.

The Pennsylvania Dutch Visitor's Bureau estimates that seven million tourists pile into Lancaster County each year, compared with the 22,000 Amish who form the subject of their attention.

How do the Amish feel about the tourist incursion into their community?

Donald Krabill, considered one of the leading sociologists on the Amish, says they "have a love-hate affair with the tourist industry".

"On the one hand, tourists have impeded their way of life, and made it hard for them to get around. On the other, they have to come to rely on it economically."

Mr Krabill identifies two types of tourist enterprise.

"The first, run by the Amish themselves, offers handmade products such as jam and quilting. But this group never refers to itself as specifically Amish," he says.

"The second, run by outsiders, offers general tours of the area, and generates the Amish brand."

The Amish are generally depicted in positive terms, Mr Krabill says, "as examples of a rare sense of community".

But a number of local residents feel that the industry is exploitative.

"The reality show Amish in the City was a perfect example of how Americans see the Amish", says Lancaster County resident Mary Pogatez. "It's an acceptable freak show, at a time when dwarf-watching is illegal."

At the Amish Homestead, the only genuine Amish house to be opened up to tourists, the truth seemed to lie somewhere between these two readings.

In the gift-shop, Doug McBride, a tourist visiting from New Jersey for the day, holds a moulded key-ring depicting an Amish carriage up to the light. "They're kinda impressive", he remarks. "But kinda weird."

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