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.