Exit Tourismo

March 24, 2013

Or, why everybody hates a tourist

[originally published in Rouge States, the Media Circus 2 reader]

Nicholas Beuret

‘Tourism is the worlds fastest growing industry. In 1950, 25 million people traveled abroad. In 1999 it was 670 million. By 2020, as many as 1.6 billion people will travel each year.’
—The World Tourism Organisation

So why does everyone hate a tourist?

Tourists are locusts. They strip bare the body of the earth. They render empty and desolate. They create the desert. They choke the air. Tourists float in on a cloud of cash, and buy up everything that can be neatly described in brochure-style adjectives. Their presence alone turns different cultures and peoples into petting zoos, where they can pay the price of admittance and gawk at the locals.

They’re colonialists, operating in the wake of war and imperialist expansions. They create theme parks in foreign lands, collecting images of Nature, Other People, and Difference, to put it in a jar called Overseas Experiences, and take it home for the coffee table.

Tourists consume everything they come across in their adventures—their footsteps remake the world as commodity.

Is it the massive economic and environmental damage they inflict? Is it the cultural destruction that ensues in their presence? Is it the plague of franchises and bland off-the-rack aesthetics that follow in their wake across the continents?

Economic reasons to hate a tourist

If you ask a government official about the benefits of tourism, they will no doubt start telling you of the enormous economic benefits that tourists bring. Foreign capital, spending on local goods and services, construction jobs, etc. This may be somewhat true for some countries. But it leaves out much of the story.

It leaves out tales of tax incentives and breaks given to foreign consortiums of resort developers. It leaves out the stories of local businesses being bought up by larger firms catering specifically to the bland, americanised tastes of tourists. It leaves out the flight of capital that takes place when multinational tourism firms own and operate all-inclusive resorts where all transactions take place inside their confines (in Thailand, 60% of the $5.7bn annual tourism revenue leaves the country).

Not mentioned are the loss of farmlands and fishing grounds to development and organised tours. Left out are the rising rents and costs of food and other ‘luxury items’. And not mentioned is the growth of casual, non-unionised service industry jobs that ‘development’ brings.

Ignored are the stories of village wells in Goa (India) that are running dry, and of rivers that are being polluted by effluent discharged from hotels. Untold is the fact that hundreds of thousands of people go without piped water during the tourist seasons in the Caribbean, when springs are piped to hotels.

Tourists take the best land, the drinkable water, and the money that they spend. They leave insecure hospitality jobs, rising rents and poor housing, expensive food, and polluted rivers and waterways.

Environmental reasons to hate a tourist

‘They run their boats onto the coal, they land their helicopters on the beaches and they leave mountains of rubbish behind.’
—Malaysian Tour Operator

The oceans hate tourists. The coral loathes them. Almost every one of the 670 million tourists who travel each year fly in shiny planes, eating complimentary cashew nuts. And each of those planes spews out tonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. With these emissions, the sky is being turned into a plastic sheet, warming the oceans and air. Corals bleach, currents shift, and marine animals die.

Each airport with its duty-free gift shop steals farmland from local people and clear-cuts forest, killing and displacing wildlife.

And each hotel is as bad as each airport. Farmlands, forests, mangroves, and dunes are all stripped bare to house rich westerners. Eroded hillsides glitter with Olympic-sized pools. Roads carve through jungles carrying busloads of overweight adventure seekers to sanitised Amazonian theme parks.

To feed the hotels’ energy needs, new generators are built, fuelled by ‘natural resources’ torn from the earth—the effects of mining, of climate change and of air pollution are all felt by locals. But they stand second in line when it comes to the benefits of power generation.

The hotels suck in water from quickly draining aquifers and springs. Springs from Ibiza to Barbados are being drained faster than they can be replenished or irreversibly polluted from over drilling.

In Spain, a tourist uses on average 880 litres of water a day, compared to 250 by a local.

The United Nations Food & Agricultural Organisation estimates that in 55 days, 100 tourists use enough water to grow rice to feed 100 villagers for 15 years.

Weeds and pest species tramped into sensitive local environments by tourists in Colombiaª walking boots destroy indigenous ecosystems, and threatened the existence of native plants and animals. Marine pests brought in via the ballast of Fairstar cruise ships attack corals and marine habitats, destroying the beauty that draws the overly-equipped snorkelers from Germany. (Or Luxembourg. Or California).

But the tourists don’t drive out to climb the mountains of waste they leave behind in their air-conditioned tour buses. That’s left to the people who can’t find work as waiters or sales assistants—those who can’t find work in the new ‘tourist service industry’ are left to scavenge through the waste the tourists leave behind.

And they don’t ever see the clear-felled forests, stripped bare to fuel the creation of trinkets for their mantel-pieces, and for timber to build their ‘rustic’ log cabins.

Social reasons to hate a tourist

Watch entire localities become service industries. Stare in amazement as local people’s lives start to revolve around tourists, as though the locals existed solely for them. Local businesses and services exist for the tourists first, and the locals second. With the arrival of tourists, locals become second-class citizens in their own locality.

With the tourists comes the illusion of work, of development. People displaced from their land by development, by unnatural disasters, turn to the illusion. They swamp tourist localities. With the flood of people come rising rents, more competition for jobs, decreased social services, over-worked and under-working sewage and health systems. With the rising tide of unemployed and underemployed people comes desperation and poverty. With it come prostitution, drugs, and bonded labour.

So then we watch as resorts hire security guards and hide themselves away behind rolls of barbed wire and gates. We see increased policing of the poor and the shifting of populations so as not to sully the panoramic view of the tourists. We see the locals become a problem to be solved, something to be managed so as not to hurt the tourist industry.

Cultural reasons to hate a tourist

‘It doesn’t matter whether it comes in by cable, telephone lines, computer, or satellite. Everyone’s going to have to deal with Disney.’
—Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner

Culture is a lived process—not a trinket or a BBC documentary. It doesn’t come off a rack, or in a handy carry-case, or in six exciting new colours. It is the story that binds and shapes a community or people. It is the habits of a social body. It is the collective imaginings and dreams of villagers and tribespeople, whether they are in Sarawak or Berlin. Tourism is a war on culture. It cannibalises local cultures, destroys differences. And it eats away at the tourists themselves.

There are two main impacts on locals—loss of community space, and the commodification of their culture.

Eating away at community space:

You can see it in the subtle shifts that occur in a town or locality when it becomes a tourist centre. Quietly, silently, the space becomes oriented towards the needs and desires of the tourists. The focus becomes servicing the tourists, entertaining them, making them happy so that they will spend just that little bit more time in town.

Town planning and spending stops being geared towards local needs and desires and becomes part of the tourist-complex, the tourism industry.

Local businesses, banks, and initiatives get bought up my larger national or international corporations. Public spaces become privatised theme parks. Shops filled with imported foods, goods, entertainment, etc, all to satisfy the desires of the tourist and their need for familiar tastes and services. Streets fill with people gawking at the sights; beaches and parks become saturated with picnicking yuppies on vacation from a hard working week making obscene amounts of money creating ergonomic objects that no one needs.

Commodification of culture:

‘1. The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.’
—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

Culture is a process. It can not be catalogued. It is not an object that can be quantified into a quick photo opportunity on a safari through West Africa.

The presence, or the threat of the presence of the tourist, takes culture and makes it into one more commodity; a modern rubber or tea shipment; a raw material like oil to be searched for, extracted and piped out. With the presence of the tourist, culture is commodified. Commodification is the turning of an object, event, or lived process into an object that can then be sold-bought-consumed.

Every time an image is taken of a ‘traditional practice’, or an ‘authentic village’, or a ‘sacred ritual’, every time a tour is organised so tourists can see the strange and exotic ways of the locals, that practice or event or space is frozen in time: it is crystallised. The fluid and lived process is taken from its context and made into an object that can be captured in a photo or coffee table knicknack. But its not just the act of representing the practice or event or space that commodifies it—its the act of engaging with it as though it were nothing more than entertainment, a theme park ride, that reduces culture to little more than part of Club Med’s program of Organised Fun. It ceases to be something that is a vital and lived part of everyday life, and becomes an exotic object that has no real connection to the way people carry out their daily lives.

The practice/event/space that the tourist has come to consume becomes trapped in a cage that is a parody of lived culture. They become image-objects that are a part of the tourists’ cultural landscape—and have little or nothing to do with how the practice or event or space functioned as a part of the lived processes of culture.

Travelling in air-tight circles—damage to the tourists themselves

‘Tourism… usually amounts to no more than a journey on the spot with the same redundancies of images and behavior.’
—Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies

The tourists never actually find themselves somewhere different, somewhere away from their own bland consumer wasteland. They are trapped in a world of objects—archetypes, cultural objects, meaningless trinkets, media images, pre-fab identities and off the rack personalities.

You pack your bags, board the plain, and arrive in Goa. String bags, hashish, and cotton pants—things bought at the funky little market right near the full moon party beach. But you can’t achieve spiritual enlightenment by consuming India—you are just adding that outfit to your wardrobe.

Trapped in a backpacker’s circuit, or in a series of hotels and organised tours, or in a series of social encounters designed to part them from their hard currency, tourists only end up increasing their own alienation from the rest of the world. The tourist can never become different through consumption. The tourist will never be closer to Other People staring at them through a lens, tour bus window or hotel balcony. They will never get a life by staring mindlessly at images of other peoples lives. They are forever trapped behind the counter. They will never be able to buy their freedom though the wide range of ergonomically designed sets of images.

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