My relationship with travel and tourism is complicated. My parents never expressed a desire to travel, I cannot remember waving farewell to extended family members heading overseas holiday, so the idea of travel was not part of my childhood. There’s no question that my recent trip to Europe was a powerful, pleasurable and deeply important experience but while writing the last few posts about the trip my discomfort with the politics of travel has rekindled. This is the first of two posts reflecting on tourism as a phenomenon. I intend to look outside my personal experience and examine the impact tourism has on the planet and on individuals’ lives.
I understand the human need to peek over the back fence, peer around the next corner or look past the horizon but when I read recently that everyone wants to travel I had to disagree. Some people like to travel, others are vagabonds for whom settling in one place is an anathema, but there are many who refuse to traipse around the world because they find planes, railway stations and sleeping in a different bed every night a challenge they cannot face.
Since my trip I fall into the crack between the two; I enjoyed and I disliked the experience at the same time. I believe this is normal. I also believe there are many ways a person can learn about the world and most of them do not require stepping past the front door.
A tour is ‘a journey for pleasure in which several different places are visited,’ but tourism is ‘the commercial organization and operation of holidays and visits to places of interest’. (OED) Despite the obvious distinction, tourism – visits to celebrated cities, art galleries, museums, sacred sites and geographical wonders – is usually described as a moral ‘good’ and ‘tourists’ as benign consumers of the world’s bounty. But is tourism always for the good?
Australians, in particular, feel the need to experience the wonders of the Northern Hemisphere. From the late fifties through to the seventies droves of Australian Baby Boomers made an almost obligatory pilgrimage to the United Kingdom and Europe. Many, who despite being born in Australia, declared they were ‘going home’, if only for a visit.
What are the personal and cultural advantages of wedging oneself into a plane and leaving the comforts of home for exotic, unfamiliar or ancient sites? I believe there are three main claims to support tourism:
- Tourism exposes us to different cultures, beliefs, food, customs and ideas and creates a more informed, rounded individual. Travel enhances education and exposes us to different values, all of which leads to a better understanding of the self and of diversity
- Humans need a holiday. They need to escape from the pressures of life, to relax and have someone cook and clean for them. This is tourism as a mental health break, something to anticipate and, more importantly, to earn
- Tourism enhances the economy of a country or city. If tourists stop traveling, economies will suffer.
What counter claims can be made to the above?:
- The idea that tourism is a form of education is all very laudable but it risks objectifying the ‘other’ as, different, odd, cute, or even strange, thus confirming the tourist’s superiority and belief that their way of life is ‘better’ than the one they witness when away from home. Is this the origin of many an Australian tourist’s comment, upon return from an overseas holiday, that, ‘We’re the lucky country, all right, you’ll learn that when you go overseas.’ Does tourism reinforce racial prejudice, commodify other cultures, and risk imposing white Anglo-Saxon lifestyles on others races, cultures and classes? The notion that, ‘you’ll be a more rounded, better informed, less insular person once you’ve traveled,’ makes me wonder how and why travel per se grants entry to the august club of ‘travel improved citizens’? If overseas travel were truly educative, why the need to advertise it? The claim that travel exposes us to other cultures begs the question, ‘What really drives a desire to travel? Is it self-enhancement or a form of cultural prestige? An airline ticket merely confirms that tourists have the skills to plan and organise a trip, the good fortune to work in an industry that provides vacation pay, and the means to afford an overseas holiday. It doesn’t automatically grant the individual an open, curious and reflective attitude to the countries they visit
- A mental health break is certainly important but who caters to tourists’ needs while they escape the tribulations of everyday life? This question is better addressed by examining the third claim: tourism enhances the economy of the areas visited
- Is the claim that travel is motivated by benevolence justified? Who actually benefits from the injection of tourist dollars into the economy? Is it the person who picks towels up from the hotel bathroom floor? The manager of a cheap resort in Bali? Or is it the company that owns the hotel chain? Does the tourist dollar go to the wait staff in a French restaurant or the Travel Agency who planned and managed the traveling experience? Does a visit to Thailand include considering the resort hotel’s impact on the local infrastructure and environment? Where does the rubbish left in hotel garbage bins end up? Next to the hotel, or in the rubbish dump behind the hill alongside the village where the hotel cleaner lives? And what about the carbon footprint incurred flying millions of tourists across the world?
While writing this post, I read that residents in Venice and Barcelona have declared they have had enough. The unrest incurred by tourism seems to be spreading, and may not be just a reaction to terrorism. In the next post, I will examine why some citizens of Europe are wary of the current state of the tourism industry.