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.