By Lasantha Pethiyagoda –
Third World governments invariably justify the promotion of tourism as a driving force for economic development. I question this claim and say that it is time to stop treating tourism as a holy cow to be protected and nurtured at all costs.
Tourism discourses are full of high-sounding rhetoric, liberally peppered with such terms as ‘poverty reduction’, ‘economic growth’, ‘sustainability’, ‘fair trade’, ’employment generation’, ‘good governance’, ‘corporate social responsibility’, and ‘peace-building’.
Moreover, concepts of ‘new tourisms’, such as community-based ecotourism, cultural tourism and niche markets are projected as ways forward to reform mass tourism, which is increasingly dreaded because of its negative impacts.
But what about the reality behind the glossy rhetoric that smacks of populist propaganda? What can be observed is, the more tourism authorities vow to protect ecosystems and natural resources in vulnerable destinations, the more the environment gets thrown out of balance due to the continued frenzied construction of tourism facilities.
The more we are told about tourism as a force for peace and understanding, the more the world is affected by both ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ wars, many of which are against ideologies or cultures and human-rights-abusing dictatorships use tourism to prop up their bad image.
The more decision-makers parade tourism policies for poverty elimination, the more the gap widens between the rich and the poor among and within nations, due to aggressive and unfair economic liberalisation. While people in rich countries drown in conspicuous consumption thereby destroying their own and others’ life bases, communities in less and least developed countries only receive the crumbs from the wealth that capitalist growth produces.
A destructive global business
Like other big industries, tourism is characterised by unhealthy mass concentrations of people, mass production, and mass activities. Today, it is common for people to criss-cross the globe to search for an exotic paradise, go shopping, attend a conference, play golf, cheer at a big sporting event, gamble in a casino, get thrilled in a theme park, relax in a spa resort or have medical or cosmetic surgery in a five-star hospital.
En-route, the travelling consumers can satisfy their needs and desires in the same fast food chains, supermarkets and designer brand shops like at home. Tourism is a truly global business that turns everything on Earth – even the most sacred domains – into commodities.
Most travellers would not want to wake up to the fact that they are just feeding a multi-billion-dollar industry and contributing to unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. And there is little awareness that as always, it is the poor who have to pay for the social and environmental costs of excessive tourism.
Governments emphasise tourism as a driving force for economic development. The Asia-Pacific region is the acknowledged motor behind the global tourism growth, with China and India representing the fastest-growing markets.
Illusory economic picture
Positive tourism data often serve to justify expensive infrastructure developments that primarily benefit the top echelons in travel and tourism. Many of the projects are based on external borrowings, deepening the financial debt crisis for poor nations, and many of the supplies and equipment used in the development of these projects are imported and the personnel involved in construction engaged from abroad.
Meanwhile, governments increasingly neglect the basic needs of local communities. Sri Lanka spent huge amounts of aid and taxpayers’ money to help the tourism industry back on its feet, while fishing and agricultural communities were displaced; and until today, poor tsunami victims are lacking adequate housing, water supply, social services and opportunities to rebuild economic livelihoods.
Leakages and Tricking Down Effects
Tourism is a big money-spinner, but local residents do not get a fair share because most of the tourism revenue is siphoned away by urban-based and foreign investors. The tourism sector is notorious for causing financial ‘leakage’ (due to high import content, repatriation of profits by foreign-owned tourism companies, etc.), and unbalanced and inequitable distribution of income.
Globalisation has only worsened the economic conditions for poor countries. Tourism services negotiations have been used particularly by the US and the European Union to increase pressure on governments of developing countries to abolish restrictions on foreign ownership and to allow a high degree of self-regulation by transnational corporations in the sector.
As a result, tourism-related industries in developing countries are experiencing unprecedented mergers and acquisitions, squeezing local businesses that are ill-equipped to face the cut-throat competition favouring giant foreign firms.
New policies for tourism development just add to the increasing inequality and asymmetry. These often involve the selling or leasing out of vast tracts of land to private developers and allows massive unregulated exploitation of natural and human resources for tourism purposes.
In recent years, however, tourism has as never before been highlighted as a dependent and high-risk industry. Frequent natural and man-made disasters, oil price hikes, exchange rate fluctuations and political turmoil have shown up the extreme vulnerability of the industry.
Ironically, the worsening climate crisis, to which the tourism industry itself has contributed significantly, is now ticking like a time bomb for the industry as many tourist attractions may be irreversibly destroyed by the impacts of climate change.
Particularly threatened are low-lying coastal regions and small island developing states as they have developed tourism monocultures, with tourism receipts constituting the major source of revenue.
While large tourism companies have responded quickly to impending emergencies by sponsoring high-tech disaster-warning systems and anti-terror security schemes, urgent mitigation and adaptation measures to enable poor communities to cope with any impending catastrophe are often delayed due to governments’ lack of funding and corruption.
Tourism is seen as a boon in terms of employment for people in developing nations. But in fact, tourism-related jobs are uncertain, seasonal and part-time, with a high turnover of staff, not involved in production.
The loss of livelihoods through tourism, for example in agriculture and fisheries has rarely been subjected to research. But the high out-migration of locals from tourist centres is a clear indication that tourism destroys more production jobs than it creates in services.
Despite the tourism leaders’ new affection for ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR), exploitation of tourism workers remains rampant. Worldwide, the industry is taking advantage of migrant workers who provide the cheapest labour, endure the harshest working conditions and are least likely to organise in trade unions.
Women in tourism are found to have the most dehumanising and the worst-paid jobs. Tourism has an infamous reputation of boosting the sex industry wherever it takes root. Efforts to make industry comply with a code of ethics have not helped to curb trafficking in women and girls for sex work in tourist destinations, which in many cases deprives the victims of their fundamental human rights and exposes them to health risks such as HIV/AIDS.
Industry self-regulation has proven an utterly inadequate tool in tourist centres, where the sex, drugs and crime, gang violence, mafia-style politics and corruption are out of control.
The erosion of culture and traditional values is visible in all tourist destinations driven by over-commercialisation. Tourism, including ‘ecotourism’ also exploits indigenous and local communities and their cultures, turning them into mere exhibits for tourists’ entertainment.
The ugliest creations are ‘human zoos’ as set up by tour operators. Many indigenous peoples’ rights groups are therefore condemning tourism as a form of development aggression. Highlighting incidents of land rights violations and bio piracy, they have raised serious concerns about the rigorous approach of the ‘ecotourism’ industry that threatens indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and aggravates conflicts and tensions in their communities in tourism-related processes.
Severe environmental impacts
Tourism as ‘sustainable development’ is a myth as it continues to wreak havoc on land and marine ecosystems and biodiversity. Despite the industry’s ‘greenwash’ attempts, fertile agricultural lands are still being cleared, forests cut down, mountains flattened, beaches dug up, and coral reefs destroyed to provide resources for more and more monstrous tourism complexes.
Moreover, tourism accelerates unhealthy urbanisation processes and contributes to traffic congestion, noise and air pollution and the dumping of waste and untreated sewage. The depletion and degradation of scarce water resources, particularly due to mushrooming golf courses and spa businesses, aggravates the water supply crisis in many communities.
High energy consumption in tourism facilities and greenhouse gas emissions linked to transportation, especially the explosive growth in air travel, contribute significantly to climate change.
Given all these serious impacts, tourism must no longer be treated like a holy cow that is protected and nurtured at all costs. Particularly in these times of looming social and environmental crises, governments and inter-governmental agencies should prioritise people’s basic needs, particularly food security.
Decision-makers should take a more responsible approach to tourism, by establishing strong legal and regulatory frameworks and ensuring the enforcement of these rules and regulations on the industry.
Corporate-driven voluntary initiatives, such as guidelines, codes of conduct and accreditation schemes, are not the key to effectively tackling tourism-related problems.
What is needed instead is a people-centred approach to development that is aimed at reversing the negative impacts of globalisation and restoring the values of justice, democracy and self-determination in development; an approach that allows local communities to reclaim land and resources that have been unfairly taken away, to rehabilitate the environment that greedy corporate capitalists have ravaged and to revive traditions and cultures that have been distorted and exploited for profit-making purposes.