How mass tourism is harming
the developing world

The notion that commercial tourism benefits poor countries is a myth, writes Caesar D’Mello.

 Australian travellers need to wake up to the damage commercial tourism causes to local peoples, cultures and economies.

Marketing of developing-world tourism as a benign, harmless enterprise that is good for the local people glosses over the significant social, economic and environmental damage it inflicts.

PHOTO: iStock

By Caesar D’Mello

September 15 2015The notion that tourism benefits poor countries is a myth, and Australian travellers need to wake up to the damage commercial tourism causes to local peoples, cultures and economies, argues Caesar D’Mello, a development consultant and former national director of the Christian World Service (now Act for Peace), National Council of Churches in Australia.

Tourism for most Australians in a developing country is generally about airlines, hotels, relaxation, and enjoyable activities, with little thought for the local people in whose midst this experience takes place. Yes, as churches we rightly focus on justice, peace and human concerns but tourism and how it impacts developing countries is missing in church and public discourse when it should not be.

We hardly consider the real short- and long-term effects on developing societies of a mammoth sector in which we participate that is listed as one of the four largest industries on earth, besides oil, arms and pharmaceuticals. The potential for harm of the billion “tourism arrivals” each year globally should worry us, but we are satisfied with supposedly intuitive, feel good yet superficial notions promoted by tourism interests and governments that it is a benign, harmless enterprise that is good for the local people, and fosters mutual understanding. However, they gloss over the significant social, economic and environmental damage inflicted by such tourism.

A million Australians per year head for Thailand alone, with another million for Bali, and many others towards destinations in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and Latin America. The perspectives and considerations of well-off travelers, embarking on a holiday with a sense of entitlement to relax and unwind, are not a matter of great import to the people of the developing world who face life concerns that are further exacerbated by traditional tourism. Should we not be troubled with the ethical issues that arise? What should be the Christian perspective?

Already from the seventies it was beginning to be realised by churches and groups in developing countries that free enterprise, unregulated tourism itself is a factor in the impoverishment of their communities. Tourism is an industry that markets what it has not produced. Its manufacture is linked with societies and cultures that have evolved over millennia. Landscapes, forests, beaches, coasts, grasslands, hills and mountains are not just standalone marvels but the homes and backyards of local people. Tourism is not a holiday for them as it alters the entire social, cultural and economic fabric of their society when essential resources such as land, water, energy, food, state revenue and others are diverted to serve the interests of tourists, while biodiversity is sacrificed.

Depending on the “lazy income” from tourism creates an unrealistic sense of security that undermines traditional occupations such as farming, fishing, trades, arts and handicrafts, reducing people to labouring in the tourism industry when fortunate to secure a job. Artisans compromise their art to deliver cheap souvenirs. People’s movements are sometimes limited in their own lands. Social costs include abuse of women, children and men for sex tourism, trafficking and child labour. The much-touted employment from tourism is low status, low paying, seasonal, and insecure with poor working conditions. We need sound structural solutions beyond the line of “half a loaf is better than none”!

Moreover, as Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ and other contributions call us to account on anthropogenic climate change and global warming, it should be stressed that tourism is an important source of carbon emissions with its massive use of fossil fuels-based energy, among others, for aviation, cruise shipping, hotels, utilities, maintenance and expansion of airports and the construction of new ones as tourism numbers explode.

Mass commercial tourism as a “poster boy” for globalisation and neo-liberal free market economics is increasingly being questioned. One of the free market pioneers, Milton Friedman, wrote: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” Tourism and government entities argue that a tourism fashioned in this light will lead to poverty alleviation. Free market-based profit maximisation, however, has been a recipe for exploitation of people and natural resources, and unequal income distribution.

Mainstream tourism grounded in the neo-liberal doctrine of market primacy is unable to ensure social justice for all. With the right outlook and will, a transformed tourism is possible that creates greater economic benefits for the local communities, enhances their quality of living, builds local capacity through collaborative decision making, is fair and environmentally sustainable, and enables visitors to interact with local people to understand their real situation and context. One form of such tourism is community-based tourism. It is owned, managed and assessed by the community, ensuring a positive exchange between community members and tourists, helping them to responsibly enjoy local habitats and wildlife, and celebrate traditional cultures, rituals and wisdom. It is a kind of tourism that well reflects Christian values of sharing, of fairness, of eschewing materialism. But it is generally cast aside as unprofitable within the monolith of mass commercial tourism, and left to poorly resourced communities.  

A theological perspective on tourism

One way of understanding the ubiquitous phenomenon of mass tourism is through a critical analysis of its objectifying nature. There is much objectification in the economic and industrial world today. Mainstream tourism is another contemporary form of objectification. Created in God’s image, all human beings are the subjects of creation. Relegating human beings to objects for enjoyment by commodifying them is a travesty of human dignity. But the template of modern tourism is crafted around the creed and criterion of personal gratification. Tourism is conceptualised and driven on the basis of the myths, demands, and the financial power of the tourist who must be satisfied.

Sex tourism is objectification when the other, including children, is consigned to the status of an object of pleasure for one in a superior economic position. Local people come to be regarded as instruments and means of service and entertainment, while earning a pittance with little work guarantee or satisfaction but much alienation, and being not perceived and treated as human beings with self-respect and autonomy. Advertising depicts and markets people and whole nations with simplistic labels and slogans, with little reference to their culture, history and values. Nature too becomes an object rather than God’s creative act. To satisfy the tourists’ gaze, it is peddled as scenery and “must-see” destinations. Tourism would be a force for good if humility, equality, sensitivity and respectfulness for the host culture were its signal features. But with myths, fantasy, and shallow notions of “bliss” and “a taste of paradise” involving the sun, sand, sea, sex, and “unspoilt” nature stoking its escapism, it has evolved as a movement of the relatively few rich to the lands of the predominantly poor for the purpose of self-indulgence.

The reach and dominance of mainstream tourism among billions in the developing world make it a significant sign of our times. It is an industry that will still grow (tourism arrivals are predicted to exceed 1.6 billion by 2020!). A tourism that carries such a destructive and unjust imprint on people and nature requires serious theological investigation. We are impelled to seek a basis for our evaluation of tourism not offered by those who mainly profit from it, but from the victims of contemporary tourism development. The human cost of this industry is borne by the vulnerable, including women, children, Indigenous peoples, those dispossessed of their land, and the marginalised with whom our churches strive to stand in partnership and solidarity in koinonia.

The issues presented in this article are explored at length in Deconstructing Tourism: Who Benefits? A Theological Reading from the Global South, Eds: Caesar D’Mello, Wati Longchar, Philip Mathew (Programme for Theology and Cultures in Asia), and is available from wlongchar@gmail.com and caesarmdm@gmail.com. It can also be accessed at www.globethics.net