Thursday, January 21, 2010

Is Tourism Good for Developing Countries?

I've had this on my mind for some time now and it often seems to pop up in classes, readings, books, etc... Is tourism good for 'developing' countries? I have a lot of thoughts on the issue but I will try and keep them somewhat concise and try to focus on some solid examples.

Just today this article graced the front pages of, Haiti Cruise Draws Ire, Support. A cruise company has built a small enclave in Haiti that it has used for some time now, essentially just a beach and a tourist 'experience' for those who want to say they've been to Haiti - a beach, hair-braiding, a straw market. Now with the recent earthquake (you've heard of this, yes?) people are questioning whether or not it is okay to holiday in Haiti while people are dying on the other side of the island.

NOW they're questioning it? Seriously?

Beyond that, the article goes on to quote from an organization called Sustainable Travel International, an organization I am guessing created to prop up the travel industry on the prickly ethical questions it might face. STI (interesting acronym to choose...) states what has been stated since the beginning of time - tourism brings money into the country which means it is good for the country.

Except that study after study shows this to be false: Western based corporations take the largest cut ("Welcome to Puerta Vallarta, Thank you for flying Northwest airlines", "We hope you enjoyed your stay at the Hilton..." ), nations take very little revenue and even less of that "trickles down" to the "common person". You say tourism gives people jobs, I say tourism exploits the neediest, forcing them into positions of servitude and exploitation.

The most succinct quote I have come across to date is from Carol Davies' book Black women, writing and identity:Migration of the subject. It states:

"So, if we are clear that tourism never really brings economic prosperity, the multinational corporations who own the industries take their made-money away, the tourist installations often destroy the environment and displace many people, the people are denied some of the most beautiful areas of their country because of tourism, that the local people are constructed perpetually in positions of service, then the link between tourism and invasion is not far fetched..."

I want Sustainable Travel International to tell me exactly how sailing with this cruise company is going to help those stuck under rubble, needing water right now, or needing medical attention.

I struggle with this; I desire a warm beach, daiquiris all day and a waterfront bungalow as much as the next person and yet I know that such 'high-end' tourism is neither sustainable for the host country nor equitable. It feeds our Western need for consumption and luxury at the cost of others.

The article ends with a person who they interviewed deciding to go on the cruise anyways, justified by the fact that it will help Haiti in the end and with the disclaimer that she "won't enjoy that day in Haiti", as if somehow this absolves her from the guilt she's obviously feeling.

I feel like this is the answer we/I usually take: find a convenient out and hold onto it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, find a way to make that vacation seem okay - "I need this break", "I give lots of money to charities already", "It helps the country I'm visiting", etc...

We can and should question if it is right to vacation in places like Haiti after such a disaster but we should also be questioning if we should be vacationing in places like Haiti to start with. After all, if it is dying people you are worried about, people die in Haiti everyday from things like disease and malnutrition.

Carol Davies, in the book I quoted earlier, talks about the difference between luxury tourism and finding ways to make "meaningful encounters". She doesn't seem to be against learning about new cultures, meeting new people or visiting new places - she seems to be more against taking from new places, disadvantaging new places, exploiting new places, and making servants of new people. There's obviously a fine line sometimes between these two sides, many a "meaningful encounter" has been exploitation under the guise of a humanitarian intervention or cross-cultural exchange.

This is something that directly affects me and something that at times I've ignored. I enjoy traveling and the onus is on me to find ways to make meaningful encounters when I travel rather than feeding my own need to consume at the expense of others. I also battle my inner self who just wants to forget that people are suffering and sit on a beach, under an umbrella by the pool side bar. There's no quick and easy answer to this. Sometimes, struggle is the beginning and we need to be content that we're on the journey. Still, I don't see myself booking any vacations to Mexico/Hawaii/Dominican/Thailand/Haiti anytime soon....


Jen said...

I've thought about this a bit too. We just got back from Cancun and it seemed like every person who lived in Cancun worked at one of the resorts or tourist attractions. So is this good or bad? I wondered. Creating jobs & providing salaries (and surprisingly good ones we found out at our resort!) or taking over their homes and forcing them into job of servitude?

Tough one.

Gillian said...

So is there a place for responsible tourism then?

I thought about this in conjunction with our travels through the South Pacific, my time in Kenya and now with the upcoming trip to Myanmar.

Certainly, in Kenya I was not doing the work my parents were: I was merely tagging along. Yet I don't think I was a "tourist" either. I truly wanted to meet and get to know locals as best as I could with the language barriers. I wanted to see how they live and gain an understanding of them. We purposefully avoided organized safaris and the like.

Again, going to Myanmar where responsible tourism is a big deal: how much of what I will spend will go to the locals and how much will line the pockets of the junta? Fortunately, we're going as guests of locals so minimal amounts will make their way to the junta, but that probability still exists. At the same time, our friends want us to come as a tangible expression of our support and so we can take their stories outside of the country and share them.

But day stops in Haiti on cruises etc.? I'm not down with that.

Eric said...

I think it's a question that everyone who travels needs to answer for themselves and I imagine the line would be different for each person. Where does exploitative tourism end and "meaningful encounter" begin?

A challenge for myself has been to realize that it is natural for us to draw the line in our favor, justifying certain things that perhaps shouldn't be justified simply to suit our leisure activities.

There's certainly a lot of complicating issues, even beyond what I raised here. How do Western influxes affect cultures and traditions? Does tourism provide accurate cultural representations or do they play on stereotypes(for example: in "tribal" dances for resorts, luaus in Hawaii, etc...)? What role does travel itself play on ecological degeneration?

There's really no easy answers.