Tourism: Mutual Benefit, or Modern Colonialism?

picture: Linh Nguyen, Flickr

Travel & Tourism is the world’s biggest industry, contributing almost one-tenth of world GDP, and employing more than 266 million people. Originating in 17th century Britain, it involves travel for business and medical purposes, but its most important form is leisure or recreational tourism. Despite its important role in economic growth and employment, the environmental, cultural and social effects of tourism are still controversial. This begs the question of whether contemporary tourism can be interpreted as a form of modern-day colonialism? As Nils Finn Munch-Petersen explained on his SASNET/UPF lecture, it is rather tourism can be conceived of as ”the appropration of local land, labour and natural resources for tourism purposes by local elites”. Thus, exploitation does not (only) happen in the West-East direction, but by the global higher class, inside and outside country borders.

”I was asked to talk about how the West was using its power to recolonize developing countries” – Munch-Petersen said as he started his lecture. But – he pointed out – tourism is no more a typical Western-only activity: today 40% of travelers are Chinese. They are the foremost in the case of internal as well as overseas tourism. The fact that the negative sides of tourism are also enabled by local elites goes against the colonialism paradigm as well. These include corruption, prostitution and human trafficking in the form of sex tourism, and elitist racism in the form of ethnic tourism.

One of the most significant cases is that of the Jarawas, one the indigenous people of the Andaman Islands in India. In 2001, a High Court judgment prohibited their relocation to a new reservation, as well as limiting the inflow of tourists. Today tourists can go to the forest only twice a day in a convoy, but despite its illegality, guides are still taking tourists to view Jarawas, and racist souvenirs are still sold in the shops.

As Munch-Petersen pointed out, numerous small countries of the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean are strongly dependent on tourism. The world’s first ”tourism country” is the Maldives: in 2013 the contribution of the sector to GDP was 94.1% (2.3 billion USD), and it employed almost 122 000 people, 86.7% of the working population.

The demand for the illusion of the ”paradise island” creates an alarming, yet invisible reality for the inhabitants. Next to the fully built-in tourist islands there are garbage islands, and tourism constantly destroys nature and oceanic life: there is no protected area on the Maldives. And it is not only the Maldives: as Munch-Petersen explained, ecotourism does not exist: the real sustainability-minded should not be a tourist, since travel always has an effect on the environment.

According to Munch-Petersen tourism can also injure local culture and customs. For instance, imported souvenirs are sold as originals for tourists – African masks are usually made in Indonesia. Another effect is that the demand for a liberal, and therefore ”West-friendly” environment, makes difficult the maintenance of strict religious customs, for example couples’ ”unruly behavior” of holding each other’s hand in Dubai. If we look at the Maldives, as Munch-Petersen explained, tourism is hardly ”promoting peace”: while tourists have a lot of fun on their islands, fundamental Islam is taking over the inhabitant islands, whose population has quadrupled in the last 30 years.

Recreational tourism was developed in the 17th century by British tourists, first inside, then also outside the country. The upper class, seeking cultural experiences, travelled to the Italian kingdoms, Greece and Egypt. Mass tourism, as we know it today, was also invented by the West, when free time become available for the masses. As Munch-Petersen told us after the lecture, forms of tourism are highly dependent on income level and social class. Most people want to escape from day-to-day happenings, monotonous work and boredom.

Nowadays tourism is a theatre, and the experiences offered to the public are – in most cases – illusions – says Munch-Petersen. Although, people often travel for the ”sun, sand and sea” – tourists also seek moments others did not live through. „It is important to have a story to tell when they go back home, thus they combine the beach holiday with a bit of culture, and a bit of nature, but these are just add-ons”. In the case of group tourism, everything is prearranged by ”tourism architects” to create the illusion: the safari pants have to get dirty, but tourists cannot be subjected to any real danger they would experience in more ”real” circumstances.

Tourism has serious environmental, social and cultural effects in the destination countries, but it also gives work to millions of people, contributes to the world’s GDP more than any other global sector and allows more than one billion people every year to spend their free time pleasurably. Beyond the definition as modern colonialism, tourism enables the exploitation of the underprivileged in the form of taking over local land, and use as tourist spectacle by local elites. Can it work better, or shall we really stay at home?


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