I’ll be traveling in Southeast Asia in a few weeks, and a lot of questions have been on my mind regarding my own position within the dynamics of world travel. In my search for resources to plan my trip, I came across a lot of travel guides and websites, including lonely planet, that were really hard to swallow. Travel literature seems to be so dominated by language that really dehumanizes and exoticizes (literally, the word “exotic” seems to pop up in every description) the people who live in these countries and describes their cultures as commodities to be freely consumed, curiosities to be feasted upon. While I won’t be joining any orientalist fantasies, conscious of how my identity and the identities of all people of color are constantly exploited by representations of the foreign, I know I still fall into problematic tendencies of romanticizing the idea of world travel in a world where it is an extreme privilege, and largely a one-way street.
Also, while I have had great backpacking experiences in the past, it seems to be, in many ways, a more self-aggrandizing form of tourism, in the way that backpackers often set themselves above the rest of the tourist crowd because they think they’re “roughing it” and really immersing themselves in cultures, when they are really just following paths beaten by other western travelers and staying at westernized hostels, and consuming and twisting the countries they travel to their needs in the same way.
I hope that this trip will help me to decolonize my mind, rather than further emphasize, the racist, imperialist tendencies of western society, whose depictions of the foreign have only ever been for the purpose of highlighting western/white supremacy and universality. The first step for me will be to deal with the travel culture that so clearly echoes this mindset. (Dear lonely planet, histories of colonization are not cute.)
While googling to see what kind of consciousness has been raised about these questions already, I came across an interesting article on tourism, which I am posting below:
‘Tourism consumes the places on which it alights,’ says Jeremy Seabrook in taking issue with its exaggerated claims of benefits for the host country.
THAT tourism has become an industry should not surprise us, since almost every human activity seems to have been industrialised. Animal husbandry has become a dairy industry, celebration in song has become a music industry, rites of mourning have been turned into a funeral industry, maintenance of health is a health care industry. Travelling, transformed into tourism, is now the most lucrative industry in the world, said to employ more than 200 million people.
People have always travelled and explored. Great migrations have occurred, transfers of humanity from one continent to another, often under outside pressure – conquest, depletion of resources or a ruined habitat. Humanity has always longed to know what is on the other side of the mountain range, what lies beyond the ocean, what are the customs of the people across the river.
The irrepressible curiosity of looking beyond boundaries and limits is one thing. It was quite another when it became institutionalised in European voyages of ‘discovery’, which then laid claim to territories in which indigenous people had subsisted for millennia; for this led to slavery, imperialism, annexation of lands and subjection of peoples.
How far have we have moved from those crude journeyings of dominance? This is not an idle question. The same sensibility lives on in those who regard the whole world as a ‘playground’, an amenity to be enjoyed and consumed by people of privilege. The result is a tourist industry which in 1971 saw 170 million people generate $216 billion. By 2000, 698 million recorded ‘arrivals’ spent $478 billion. It is forecast that by 2020, 1.5 billion tourists will spend $2 trillion.
Eighty percent of the world’s countries number tourism as among their top five foreign exchange earners, while for 38% it is the main source of income. It counts as an ‘export’ in economic accounting systems. It is also an extractive industry.
Tourism, promoted as an engine of development, exaggerates the benefits to the host country. Even a destination as sophisticated as Thailand sees 70% of its earnings lost in ‘leakages’: the majority of money spent by tourists goes on airlines, international hotels and companies which supply the foreign luxury goods and services rich travellers expect. In addition to this, the receiving country incurs heavy costs in the creation of infrastructure – airports, luxury villas, golf courses and highways (usually planted with palms, oleanders or advertising panels to conceal the slums of the capital city). Tourists pre-empt the best local produce, which not only robs local people of the most nourishing fish, fruit or vegetables, but also raises the prices of basic necessities for them. Employment is more and more dependent upon the whim of tourists: in the Maldives, 80% of labour is owed to tourism; in Jamaica it is 34%, in the Gambia 30% and in the Seychelles 21%.
Many of these countries have fragile ecosystems. They are liable to damage from storms, cyclones and tidal surges. The social injustice which sets rich foreigners cheek-by-jowl with impoverished residents may lead to unrest or riots which destroy the industry overnight. Secondly, excessive construction on certain sites of unique beauty spoils the very raison d’etre for people to visit them; and hitherto undiscovered beaches and scenery must be found further afield. Whole islands, over-developed resorts, urban agglomerations and polluted beaches lie neglected and abandoned.
Tourism is often cited as promoting mutual understanding between peoples. This is rarely the case. Rich foreigners admire the self-effacement and eagerness to please of those who serve them, sometimes mistaking this for exotic cultural features. (How unspoilt they are!) Tourism consumes the places on which it alights, predatory, omnivorous and yet protected from any contact with disagreeable realities like poverty, squalor, crime and violence. It sanitises and cleanses, offering people an experience prepackaged in the great factory of illusion, sensations crafted by an industry which masks real relationships in the world.
Types of tourism
In response to some of these well-rehearsed criticisms, different forms of tourism evolve. Medical tourism is offered to the global rich by Thailand or India, where operations may be had at a fraction of the price at home, and with lovely scenery, as well as attentive nurses who cannot do enough for them, unlike the surly functionaries of home. Whole new enterprises dedicate themselves to ‘ethical’ tourism, whereby conscience-stricken travellers may pay to have some trees planted in Tamil Nadu to efface their carbon footprint, which nevertheless leaves its deep traces upon the lined faces of servitude. Adventure tourism scatters debris and waste in formerly inaccessible places on the earth; pristine mountain slopes, ice-floes and high plateaux receive their quota of mementos from the unquiet visitations of people avid for sensation and novelty. New concepts – disaster tourism, poverty tourism, development tourism – bring charitable individuals to repair, heal and commiserate with the damage they have helped to inflict with their incontinent lifestyles. I once ran into a party of visitors in Dharavi in Mumbai gazing at what was advertised as the biggest slum in the world; they looked on with the same lugubrious indifference with which parties of visitors regard Balliol College or the Eiffel Tower.
The lure of sex tourism is now worth several billion dollars a year. Consuming the youth and beauty of the poor is one of the least attractive forms of plunder on earth. When I was researching in Thailand, I was struck by the mismatch between the expectations of the sex-tourist and the purposes of the provider of tenderness: he was looking for love, she was earning for an extended family. When he became aware of the difference in their objective, he became angry and accused her of being dishonest, of cheating him. He was seeking a relationship; she was looking for survival.
The tourist has her or his mirror-image in the migrant. The former possesses the golden key to all the magical places of the earth, since the secret password can be spoken only in the language of money. Yet when it is a question of traffic in the other direction – the starveling and the refugee seeking to gain admittance to the citadels of wealth which have also been the agents of his or her dispossession – they find a fortress, implacable custodians debarring entry into the forbidden cities of privilege.
The emergence of an extensive middle class in Asia and elsewhere now sends streams of tourists in the opposite direction. Europe is now a favoured destination for parties of south Asians, who can now travel across the world to enjoy the delights of Indian and Chinese cuisine in London or Toronto. Tourism encloses people in an invisible protective bubble, so they are never compelled to reflect upon the relative nature of their values, or be exposed to any disturbing questioning of their culture. The smiling waiter, the pleasant hustler, the eager cleaner and agreeable driver convince them that their presence is a blessing; they must do so, since their livelihood depends upon the decorative servitude in which they present themselves.
The British government has just announced the construction of a third runway for Heathrow, the busiest international airport in the world. This will double its capacity. It is occurring simultaneously with the anguish over green growth, reducing carbon emissions, sustainable development and all the other fairy-tales we tell ourselves to make believe we are doing something to halt the ruinous consequences of our brief time on earth. Between 1978 and 1998, the real cost of air travel had fallen by 35%. One thousand miles of air travel requires 61 fewer hours of work than it did 25 years ago.
Purposeless mobility has now become a basic need for well-to-do people; a busy hither and thither which distracts from the most disagreeable question of all – what is wrong with home, that it can no longer furnish us with delight or satisfaction? It seems the realm of the imagination, the internal landscapes have been even more used up than the sites of fantasy to which we flee. It is a paradox, as yet unaddressed by politicians, economists, experts and all the self-appointed saviours of humanity, that we lay waste both the inner and outer worlds in an attempt to escape from the most escapist societies ever known.
Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in the UK.