Tourism: Paradise Lost?

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Guilt-tripping the tourists won't save the planet.

The millions of pounds raised by ordinary people for those affected by the devastating tsunami along the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean indicate that, far from suffering from 'compassion fatigue', the reverse is true. Working people relate to the suffering of others and are prepared to help alleviate that suffering.

One of the effects of globalisation is an increased awareness of how others in the world live their lives. A study by the Association of British Travel Agents and the Tearfund development charity found increasing concern among consumers for the terms and conditions of tourism workers and for the preservation of the local environment around holiday destinations. This is coupled with a desire for the consumption of locally produced goods and services. The study showed that people were prepared to pay a premium of over 5 percent for guarantees in these areas.

Such attitudes suggest that to explain the impact of tourism - including its damaging effects on economic development and the environment - we need to go beyond moralising at tourists for their choice of holiday.

One popular destination is the Maldives. UN statistics show 30 percent of Maldivian children under five are suffering from malnutrition - as acute as sub-Saharan Africa. Holiday operators go to great lengths to hide such poverty precisely because most holidaymakers do care for others' welfare. Yet beneath the glossy veneer of many tourist destinations local people struggle to subsist, and suffer unfair trial, torture and imprisonment.

Tourism is big business. Statistics compiled by the World Trade Organisation and the World Tourism Organisation show that in 2003 tourism represented 7 percent of the worldwide export of goods and services (30 percent if only service exports are considered) - fourth after chemicals, automotive products and fuels.


The combined and uneven development of capitalism has meant that up until recently workers from industrialised countries have accounted for the majority of the world's tourism. But as capitalism spreads its tentacles across the globe this trend is changing. A recent article in the Observer claimed that one of the great tragedies of the tsunami disaster was not simply the numbers of people involved, or even the horrific circumstances, but also the type of people to whom it happened: 'They were on holiday, on honeymoon, on a gap year, in an idyll... The dead were not middle-aged miners, not oily roughnecks. They were... young and beautiful, perfect white teeth in a perfect face, in the perfect place at a perfect age.'

Statistics in themselves go some way to disproving this offensive and inaccurate notion. The 'Wot no Watneys?' Monty Pythonesque stereotype of Brits abroad is changing - more than 600,000 Britons a year visit Thailand alone. And visitors to Thailand are predominantly working class people from fast-developing Asian nations. Travel restrictions that have traditionally been imposed upon people from those countries are beginning to be lifted, although many workers have no automatic right to a passport or travel document. (Malaysia for example restricts the rights of ordinary citizens to travel and will not allow women over six months pregnant or 'people of scruffy appearance' to enter the country.)

As emerging economies grow so do levels of tourism. Between 1975 and 2000 tourism increased at an average rate of 4.7 percent a year and gross domestic product (GDP) at 3.5 percent. In many countries an increasing proportion of the economy thus becomes focused on tourism and this increases their vulnerability to the economic fallout of extreme weather events and their dependency on industrialised countries.

This is not how the tourist industry sees it. A recent press release insisted that the internationalisation of tourism was the 'key to recovery' from the tsunami and that 'the feeling of solidarity among visitors familiar with those countries will be a way of expressing solidarity with local victims as well as a good holiday choice.'


The continued economic growth of the Asia Pacific region, in particular the number of visitors from China to officially approved destinations, will also keep the tourist rate up. Intra-regional tourism accounts for 79 percent of all tourist arrivals in South and South East Asia.

People travel in order to escape the stress and alienation of work but also to explore the world we live in, a subject studied at some interesting and amusing length by Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel. Acres of newsprint and hours of television explore travel which, with the proliferation of cheap fares and the internet, is becoming more easily within the reach of working class people.

The World Tourism Organisation forecasts that almost 1.6 billion people a year will be travelling to tourist destinations by 2020. Of these, 1.2 billion will be intra-regional and 0.4 billion long-haul travellers. Long-haul travel will grow faster, at 5.4 percent over the period 1995 to 2020 compared to intra-regional travel at 3.8 percent. So although overall tourism is mainly intra-regional, there is a growing trend towards travelling further afield and visiting less developed areas. The irony is that although there is a growing awareness of environmental issues and the impact of tourism on local areas this trend is likely to exacerbate environmental damage.

The extent of the damage caused by the tsunami could have been lessened had not coral reefs and extensive mangrove swamps been cut back and damaged in the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean. A recent UN environment report stated that over a fifth of the coral reefs in the area have been permanently lost and a further half are under threat due to tourism, fishing with dynamite, global warming and sewage pollution. Mangroves have been cut back to make way for the development of coastal areas in Thailand, India and other parts of South East Asia for towns, tourist resorts and shrimp farms for export to western markets. These environmental changes would not have stopped the tsunami but the coral reefs slow down the waves and the mangroves further absorb tidal energy.

No corner of the world is being left untouched. The US is currently building a road through the Antarctic. The $10.56 million project is a 20-foot wide 1,020-mile highway passing through crevasse fields, snow swamps and packed ice, from the Antarctic coast of New Zealand to the South Pole. But the trend towards environmental tourism could cause ecological devastation from new bacteria being introduced and establishing infectious diseases. Over 15,000 tourists visit each year and this number is set to grow, polluting the environment and contaminating wildlife. Scientists say new bacteria do not die in the icy waters but grow, albeit at a slower rate.

But it is not true, as the bourgeois press and dystopian fantasies such as The Beach would have us believe, that the discovery of paradise islands need necessarily end in tragedy and death. It is the drive for profit and the anarchic nature of capitalist development that creates concrete monstrosities on pristine sites of natural beauty. It is the unequal and unjust distribution of resources in the world that drives the capitalist to deplete water tables that deprive local people in order that tourists may lounge around in swimming pools.

We know that it was the pursuit of the tourist dollar and the penny-pinching failure to put in a tsunami early warning system that was the real cause of so many deaths around the Indian Ocean. The same drive is apparent in the process of reconstruction. In Sri Lanka, for example, new regulations against coastal development are being deferred for major hotels. Major multinationals are thus profiting from the death and misery of small traders. It is not our desire to see the world and experience different cultures that is the problem, but the systematic priorities that distort every human relationship.

There is a politically positive drive towards 'eco-tourism'. The travel industry has identified it as a growth market. Research shows that increasing numbers of people want holidays that 'minimise the impact on the natural and socio-cultural environment and that generate benefits for local communities'. Although studies indicate eco-tourists are from 'relatively high social brackets, with higher levels of education', all trends point to growing 'social, cultural and environmental awareness'. An extensive study completed in 2002 from seven countries in Europe and North America showed that campaigns by NGOs and 'general consumer trends' have increased so called ethical consumption.

Whatever the questionable assumptions within the term (with its implication that consumers can be morally culpable for exploitative production), it is clear that the internationalist instinct behind 'ethical consumption' has led to increased interest in responsible and sustainable travel. Increasing levels of travel and tourism may lead us to more fully understand our world and the people in it - all the better to change it.