Tourism: the new colonialism?

Tourism: the new colonialism?


Conquering the world, one destination at a time.

My first sight of Beijing was a big green Starbucks sign. Stepping out of the arrival gate of the airport this January, I was greeted not by an enlightening expression of Chinese culture, nor a restaurant for Chinese food, but instead by the oh-so-famil­iar green and white emblem of cor­porate consumerism and American culture.

But it wasn’t just China that bore the mark. In my Christmas travels I was able to enjoy my Grande Café Latte in five different countries: Can­ada, Hong Kong, the Philippines, China, and Germany. For some rea­son, this wasn’t very comforting.

In fact, tourism might even be the newest form of colonialism.

Beneath its pleasantly exotic ve­neer, the multi-billion dollar world­wide tourism industry often con­tributes to unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. This is especially true in countries and communities that are less equipped to capture some of the revenue for themselves.

It is widely assumed that tourism in third world countries contributes positively to local economies by pro­viding desperately-needed jobs and revenue streams. However, accord­ing to Anna Hundt from the Journal of Travel Medicine, recent research shows that much of the revenue from hotels, airlines, resorts, restaurants or tour operators go to investors from first world countries.

Though tourism does produce employment opportunities, native people are usually given bottom-rung jobs while the high-paying po­sitions are given to foreigners. Anita Pleumaron of the Tourism Investiga­tion and Monitoring team in Bang­kok maintains that, essentially, com­munities in less developed countries receive the crumbs from the wealth that tourist developments produce.

To struggling third world gov­ernments, first world investment to develop tourist opportunities often seems like a quick fix. In reality, however, the relationship that of­ten develops between first and third world countries is parasitic. Unin­formed tourists enjoy themselves while locals are further marginalized from reaping the benefits of their beautiful and exotic homelands.

After visiting the Philippines in particular, I was wildly convicted of the negative impacts of my presence on that commercialized island. What is the purpose of tourism, I asked myself ? To gain a cultural experi­ence? According to Hundt, tourism inevitably causes a loss of culture; loss of language, exploitation of traditional ceremonies, disruption of native political and economic bal­ance, and it causes an adoption of Western dress and values.

While in the Philipino island of Boracay, I wondered why all of the locals seemed to be on the beach as early as 7:00 am. I quickly found that, as 10:00 am hit, the beach would be overrun with white and Asian tour­ists. In countries like the Philip­pines, locals often lose use of com­mon areas such as beaches, parks, or lakes, says Hundt. Many are bought or appropriated by exclusive hotels.

Beyond the overwhelmingly negative economic and cultural impact tourism can have on lesser developed countries, concentrated influxes of visitors into “beautiful” or “pristine” habitats often causes massive damage to local environ­ments. The Philippines is known for its snorkeling, and having just been on the Hawaii travel study with Trin­ity Western University, I was thrilled to explore new waters. To my utter disappointment, however, the coral was bleached; the fish were small and trained to swarm tourists when they enter the water in hopes of re­ceiving bread crumbs.

Hundt reveals that this phenom­enon is widespread. Tourism can also result in the introduction of in­vasive species and the death of native species, increased pollution and ero­sion, a depletion of natural resourc­es, as well as simply the ruinous vi­sual impact of tourist infrastructure.

The analogy to colonialism is clear: wealthy, powerful countries dispossess local people, exploit their resources—in this case beautiful beaches, “quaint” villages, or tropi­cal climes—and relocate the wealth back to the centres of power.

But there are ways to turn tour­ism into a more locally-responsible and beneficial industry.

In Rwanda, for example, tourist programs offered through Millen­nium Villages, a non-profit humani­tarian organization, and in conjunc­tion with the Rwandan government, ensure that at least 70% of revenue stays in local hands.

Another key step to developing a more responsible tourism indus­try, says Hundt, is that first world tourism planners and international funding agencies need to share their knowledge and skills with third world countries who are exploited for tourist potential. If planned re­sponsibly, tourism can benefit the actual communities who provide the services.

Currently, I am in Germany and planning my next tourist trip. I am clearly not against travel per se. But I am sick of participating in and perpetuating a cycle of parasitic, colonial domination. Before I “es­cape” to find adventure in another third world country, I want to seri­ously consider where, why, and how I travel.

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