Tourism is instinctively taken as a given by most as an undoubtedly good enterprise. So its advocates would consider that subjecting this popular activity to scrutiny is uncalled for. Tourism’s presence is
worldwide, including strikingly in the Global South. With the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) calculating global ‘tourism arrivals’ – the total of individual units of travel undertaken – to be a billion plus per year now, and trending to 1.6 + billion annually by 2020, this sector is estimated to be equivalent to 8 – 10% of the world’s GDP, and is listed as one of the four largest industries on the planet, alongside oil and fuels, arms, and pharmaceuticals. Global South tourism that attracts millions is a major player in this modern ubiquitous phenomenon. The question may well be raised: how are South communities impacted by a tourism shaped within the philosophy of the free market?
Tourism is routinely posited for developing countries as a godsend deemed benign, non-polluting, green, relatively costless, and ‘easy’ means of poverty alleviation. It has become almost a sine qua non for most economic development models and plans – often moulded in the ethos of neo-liberalism – applied in most developing societies. The notion that tourism is an unmixed good is mostly unchallenged, and stays embedded in our consciousness and public discourse as can be intuited from how favourably it is portrayed in media coverage, television programmes, business deliberations, advice from economic
planning bodies and multilateral institutions, and so on. Considered a low hanging fruit, tourism is a magnet for South governments who eagerly endorse expensive advertising strategies to entice more and more tourists to their shores. That tourism is a boon is the subtext to the plethora of slogans such as
‘Incredible India’, ‘Thailand: Land of Smiles’, and others, invading our screens and other media.
For countries in the Global North, as well as the well-off in developing countries, tourism in a South destination is usually focused on airlines, hotels, relaxation, and an enjoyable and fun time. As a sizeable chunk of the global tourism numbers head for destinations in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and Latin America, their perspectives are those of privileged travellers embarking with a sense of entitlement on a holiday to relax and unwind, sometimes alloyed with cursory ideas of altruism towards the local population.
But their decision-making and plans has little reference to the real consequences of their tourism in the communities in whose midst it takes place.
The significant social, economic and environmental damage brought about is glossed over.
Is mass commercial tourism a gift to the Global South?
Already from the seventies – when the tourism sector would have been equivalent to around 5 % of a much smaller global GDP than today’s –there was awareness of its unspoken negatives. The ‘Third World Tourism Workshop’, held in Manila in 1980, and which brought together South civil society, churches and other groups, asserted that shared experience showed that free enterprise, laissez faire tourism itself is a factor in the impoverishment of their communities.
A critique of tourism points to dimensions that apply at a deeper level of people’s lives, than the superficial the sector is happy with.
is an industry that parades what it has not produced. The societies and cultures it features in its advertising have taken millennia. Landscapes, forests, beaches, sea and coastal vistas, hills, mountains and other natural offerings – the stock- in – trade of contemporary tourism – are not just spectacles
but the habitat of local people. Tourism is not a holiday for them as it alters the social, cultural and economic fabric of their society as essential resources such as land, water, energy, food, state revenue and other assets are diverted to serve the interests and expectations of tourists. Along the way, biodiversity – the subject of much of the ballyhoo on so-called ecotourism – is sacrificed,
threatening the survival and sustainability of local life. Dependence on the ‘lazy income’ from tourism creates a false security that undermines traditional occupations including farming, fishing, skilled work, arts, handicrafts and other cottage industries, the mainstay of local people for generations. Some may
be employed in the tourism industry, if fortunate to secure a job, while the others miss out. People’s movements for justice and dignity in some countries are sometimes restrained to protect tourism, whereas elsewhere it serves to mask the conflict in their lands, as currently in Palestine. Deteriorating social costs include the abuse of women, children and men for sex tourism, child labour and trafficking. Local employment is often touted as a raison d’etre of tourism, as was argued with this writer by an Asian cabinet minister that critiquing tourism hurt the livelihood of his people. Yet the employment generated is often low status, low paying, seasonal and insecure, with poor working conditions.
Moreover, vis-à-vis anthropogenic climate change and global warming, tourism is an important source of carbon emissions with its massive use of fossil fuels-based energy, inter alia, for aviation, cruise shipping, hotels, utilities, maintenance and expansion of airports and the construction of new
ones as tourism numbers explode.
As it is structured, mass tourism can be understood as another contemporary form of objectification, making a travesty of human dignity by commodifying human beings as objects and means for enjoyment. With the template of modern tourism crafted around personal gratification, its blueprint is drawn on the basis of the myths, demands, and the financial power of the tourist. In this sense, sex tourism becomes objectification when the other, including children, is consigned to the status of an object of pleasure for one in a superior economic position. Similarly, local people come to be regarded as instruments of service and entertainment, while earning a pittance with little work guarantee and satisfaction but much alienation. Advertising depicts, and markets people and whole nations with simplistic labels and slogans with little reference to their culture, history and values but which resonate with the exaggerated notions of tourists. Nature, too, becomes a mere object when it is peddled as scenery and ‘must see’ destinations. The fantasy, make-believe, and shallow notions of ‘bliss’ and ‘a taste of paradise’ that stoke its escapism have made South tourism evolve as a movement of the relatively few rich to the lands of the predominantly poor for the purpose of self-indulgence.
Some of the consequences and impact of tourism outlined above may be classified under Non-Economic Loss and Damage (NELD), but they incorporate the negative economic fallout inflicted on communities that are supposed to benefit from tourism. A form of tourism other than mass commercial tourism can
preclude most of the NELD outcomes. With the right outlook and will, a transformed tourism such as Community Based Tourism (CBT) is possible. Given how it is configured, it is fair and environmentally sustainable tourism geared to creating greater economic benefits for the local communities, enhancing their quality of living, building local capacity through collaborative decision making, and fostering mutual understanding by enabling visitors to interact with local people to gain insight into their real situation and context. Owned, managed, and assessed by the community, CBT ensures a positive exchange between them and the tourists who are assisted to responsibly enjoy local habitats and wildlife, and celebrate traditional cultures, rituals and wisdom. It is a kind of tourism that enshrines values of sharing, and of human dignity. But it is shunned within the monolith of free market-orientated mass commercial tourism, and is left to poorly resourced communities to implement.
Tourism and Neo-Liberalism
Commercial tourism is generally formulated within the belief system of the supposedly ‘scientific’, ‘rational’ neo-liberal free market
economics that has attracted a backlash in our times. Expounding his thinking, Milton Friedman wrote: ‘There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits’. Profit maximisation in a free market environment has been a destructive formula for society. Even though a neo-liberal ideology has brought some benefits, the evidence is that their economic and other costs outweigh them. Global free markets are now defined by economic inequality, and it is likely that the current economic stagnation will worsen. Yet the prescription is more of the same: deregulation. Governments, following such advice, are led to believe that a tourism (and other areas, too) fashioned in this light will lead to poverty alleviation. This is fanciful given that free market-ordained profit maximisation indubitably secures the enrichment of the elites but, while exploiting people and natural resources, has been unable to ensure equitable outcomes for the rest, thereby creating an underclass exacerbating the dysfunction in society.
The reach and dominance of mass tourism make it a pervasive facet of life in the Global South. A tourism, however, that typically benefits a few at the cost of an unjust and harmful imprint on people and nature requires serious investigation. Ethical and moral values necessitate a structural analysis of its paradigm within which it operates. The evaluation of tourism should not be dictated by those who spruik it, and profit from it, but by the victims of contemporary tourism. The human cost of this industry is not borne by the financiers and the privileged, but the vulnerable, including women, children, indigenous peoples, those dispossessed of their land, and the marginalised. The weight of the travel numbers, and how they affect in various interlocking ways should concern us. We cannot be satisfied with supposedly intuitive, shallow views of the goodness of tourism. Justice for the many disadvantaged by tourism demands structural solutions to their poverty. We cannot let governments and the industry off the hook when they justify mass tourism, one that rewards a minority, with the facile logic and rationale of ‘ half a loaf is better than none’!
(Caesar D’Mello is a Consultant on development issues, following his roles as director of the Ecumenical Coalition On Tourism that was based in Thailand, and of Christian World Service (Australia), an international aid and development agency. He is the lead editor of ‘Deconstructing Tourism: Who
Benefits? A Theological Reading from the Global South’. He can be contacted at email@example.com) Source: Just International