Do we tourists accept any moral or political responsibility for the people and places we visit?
The villages of Gundrang, Nepal, have on the wall of their community centre a photograph of a smiling, bearded young man with a backpack. The villagers say he was the best ecotourist ever to visit their community: he brought much of his own food, stayed at a local's lodge, helped repair trails, and was concerned about the villagers' use of fuel wood — he never asked to take a hot shower. He even carried his own water jug to use in place of toilet paper.
They say they wish all ecotourists could be as sensitive and helpful. A description of this ‘perfect ecotourist’ is found in Deborah McLaren’s Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel. However, how many of us fit that description when we travel? Julia Harrison’s Being a Tourist talks of the “camera-toting, garishly dressed, vociferous, culturally insensitive tourist, who is disconnectedly shunted, sheep-like, from destination to destination on a package tour.”
Most foreign and local Indian tourists probably meet this description. In fact, writer Jamaica Kincaid, writing of her native Antigua, speaks of the anger, frustration, humiliation, and sense of depravation generated by the presence of tourists in her home community. She sees tourists as individuals who are rude, arrogant, and insensitive to the reality of their impact in Antigua.
The Noble Tourists
King George III (1738-1820) was probably the first “tourist”, taking regular holidays to the seaside town of Weymouth when in poor health. In the 18th Century educated and wealthy British noblemen travelled to Rome, Tuscany and the Alps as part of their education.
But leisure travel in it’s present form began in Britain as the industrial society was the first to offer time for leisure. Initially it was restricted to the owners of the machinery of production, the economic oligarchy, the traders and the new middle class. In the 20th Century, manual workers got paid holidays and jumped on the tourism bandwagon. The era of mass tourism in the mountains of industrialised countries began soon after the Second World War, the result of many factors including increase in urban populations, income, vacation time and mobility. For the aspiring middle class, the conspicuous consumption of leisure became an important status marker.
Since tourism was merely a leisure activity, it neither respected the environment nor indigenous groups. While initially, the ecological impact was brushed aside, it was argued that locals benefited the most from tourism. But that has not been the case. Tourism's financial gains are highly unevenly distributed. Most of the money ends up in the hands of international or local elites — hotel-owners, package tour operators and airlines.
Tourism was assumed to be a neutral option for development of developing countries because, “it relied largely on natural resources already in place - e.g., sand, sun, friendly people”, but it has also ended up causing a “collective humiliation” of people at tourism sites. In fact, says a cynic, “Tourism simply puts a hedonistic face on neo-colonialism.”
While that might be an extreme view, statistics show that it has made developing countries more dependant on the West. International tourism accounts for 3-10% of GDP in advanced economies, but up to 40% in developing economies! Till all the inequities are addressed at the local, national and international level, tourism can do more harm than good. And of course, there’s also the issue of ensuring that environment stays protected.
Writes Christian Adler in Tourists Cannibals of Culture, “Ladakh has changed more in the past seven years than in the past seven centuries, once it became accessible to tourists.” As more and more shining middle class Indians head off to their favourite destinations for shopping and entertainment this summer, we need to stop and reflect on how our travels impact this world. Need we be the Great Indian Ugly Tourists?
Can anyone who has flown halfway around the world in a jet powered by subsidised fossil fuel and puffing out greenhouse gases qualify as an eco-tourist – whatever the shape or content of the holiday that awaits them?
Take away tourist
First take a look at tourism. Tourist sites require reconstruction of the landscape and increased use of petroleum products and toxics such as chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides. These cluster sites greatly disturb natural human patterns of living, are at odds with wildlife and the natural world.
Tourists, on the other hand, also have a huge ecological footprint, bringing with them their consumption-driven city lifestyle, with little regard to the habitat, ecosystem or locals that they happen to visit. So it is in effect a double whammy for the environment.
Enter ecotourism, an alleged mantra to solve the problems of both the tourism industry and ecosystems. But first, what is ecotourism, anyway? One definition is tourism that a) provides for conservation measures, b) includes meaningful community participation and c) is profitable and can sustain itself.
Easier said than done. In 1984, Mexican conservationist Ceballos-Lascurian helped set up a travel agency Ecotours to give tourists a quality education experience and boost the local economy. Ecotourism became a buzzword after that and soon came to encompass any form of tourism that was related to nature or made token murmurs towards sustainable development.
In fact, the ecodevelopment Papagayo project included construction of 1144 homes, 6270 condo-hotel units, 6584 hotel rooms, a shopping centre and a golf course. So much for saving the environment.
And in Malaysia, lands were cleared and locals displaced for a huge dam project just to provide ecotravelers with electricity in Malaysia!
Another example is a casino in Laos being described as eco-tourism because it was sited in untouched countryside!
The truth, according to The Ecologist, is that Ecotourists are no different from other tourists and consume non-renewable resources to arrive at their destinations; perhaps even more since the areas they target are often the most remote and pristine.
In fact Rosaleen Duffy, in A Trip Too Far — Ecotourism, Politics & Exploitation, comes down heavily on ecotourists, saying that, “In their pursuit of reefs, rainforests and ruins, they did not reflect on the environmental impact of the construction of hotels, the use of airlines, the manufacture of diving equipment, the consumption of imported goods or even something as visible as taking a motorboat out to the reef, which polluted the water.”
In fact, adds The Ecologist, “Ecotourism's perceived lack of widespread benefits for local peoples is substantiated in a recent UNCTAD study, which shows that, despite the efforts of governments to develop suitable policies dealing with tourism, their efforts are often undermined by external forces beyond their control.”
Even the World Bank, a champion of ecotourism development for a decade, has published studies that suggest few ecotourism projects have actually generated substantial income for the parks they are intended to protect, much less the local people living near them.
Points out Anita Pleumarom of Third World Network, “Ecotourism is increasingly introduced in Third World countries in form of a development package, involving capital, expertise, technology and management systems, and is, thus, becoming something like a new Green Revolution.”
Adds the Ecologist, “But just as the Green Revolution initially led to high yields, and soon gave way in many places to darker stories of soil degradation, loss of indigenous plant species and knowledge, and dependence on monocrops, so the picture of ecotourism's environmental record is revealing a darker side.”
Eco-tourism has been called ‘egotourism’ by author Ian Munt, as it is much about confirming one's class identity, educational sophistication, disposable income, and cultural capital as it is about visiting nature in far away places.
Tourism, which sells luxury and indulgence, can be a profligate consumer of natural resources
Good Golf Grief!
Worldwide, 50 million people play golf. Each year, up to 5,000 hectares of the Earth's land surface — an area the size of Paris — is cleared for golf courses. The planet's 25,000 golf courses use large areas of land and require huge amounts of water (an 18-hole course can consume more than 2.3 million litres of water daily), fertiliser and pesticides to produce the smooth, green surfaces that golfers demand.
(Philippine Human Rights Information Center, 1999).
Source: People & Planet 2000-2004