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The process of modern state-formation witnessed the imposition of sharp borders between homogeneously-defined units of governance. As part of this process, state-builders targeted remote borderlands in particular because locals at the peripheries of states often contested centrally-designed identities and boundaries. Late nineteenth-century European ethnographers and travelers assisted the process of centralization by describing these isolated places as sites of national authenticity, integrating them into the wider nationalist imagery. Karelia for the Finnish, the Zakopane for the Polish, the Szeklerland for the Hungarians and the Highlands for the Scotts were transformed by romantic nationalist and primitivist narratives from unruly regions into tamed natural landscapes, home of original national traditions. In Austria-Hungary, Transylvanian ethnographers and travelers grouped around the tourist association called the Transylvanian Carpathian Association promoted the Szeklerland as the quintessentially Hungarian region. They called on middle-class tourists to visit these eastern borderlands and reconnect with their origins. They organized ethnographic exhibitions and museums in order to promote Szekler hand-made objects to an urban audience and described their travels to the isolated Szekler mountains in their tourist journal called Erdély (Transylvania). They called on prospective tourists to buy local products and invest in spa development in the region as way of expanding the national economy. But what these urban intellectuals framed as authenticity, locals experienced as deep poverty. Like many other such “authentic” regions such as the Scottish Highlands or Polish Galicia, the Szeklerland was characterized by mass emigration and recurring famine. As a result, Szekler elites refused to become mere objects of bourgeois imagination and, instead, appropriated the imagery on authenticity in order to attract central funds and maintain their monopoly over representing their region. On the one hand, they assisted the creation of inroads by the modern state in their remote area, in the form of railways for example. On the other hand, they manipulated the narrative of a homogeneous identity for quite concrete political and economic gains. In the end, Transylvanian tourist imagination buttressed the emergence of a discrete Szekler identity that frustrated central control in the borderland by Budapest.
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