Good tourist, bad tourist

January 4, 2008

The evils of mass tourism have been overstated and the ethical benefits of ecotourism missold, says Jim Butcher. We should stop feeling guilty and start enjoying our precious time off.

In the new year, many people's thoughts turn to summer holidays - snow-capped mountains, sun-soaked beaches, time away from deadlines and a chance to read purely for oneself. In the midst of a grim British winter it sounds like the perfect antidote to the rigours of working life, almost too good to be true.

Yet such seemingly uncomplicated pleasures are under fierce attack from travel supplements, guidebooks, niche tour operators, conservation non- governmental organisations - and substantial academic literature - all arguing that tourism must adapt to an ethical imperative.

A notable book in this debate is the late Jost Krippendorf's The Holiday Makers (1987), which paints a grim picture of modern tourism and at times reads like a manifesto for a new, "ethical", tourist. For Krippendorf, our freedom to travel "threatens to engulf us". Tourists may be fleeing "the monotony of the daily routine, the cold rationality of factories ... the loss of nature and naturalness", yet in the process they are spreading their damaging ways to societies less tainted by modern industry.

Another oft-cited book, Auliana Poon's Tourism, Technology and Competitive Strategies (1993), argues for a new, sensitive tourism and asserts that there is "a crisis of mass tourism that has brought social, cultural, economic and environmental havoc in its wake". The growth of holidaymaking - something that sounds like a cause for celebration - is viewed through a dark lens and seen as exemplary of damaging globalisation.

So should we feel guilty about our plans to "have a good time" and "get away from it all" even for a couple of weeks each year? As I've argued in my book The Moralisation of Tourism , we ought to resist the doom-sayers who want to spoil our fun.

If tourism's contemporary critics were simply expressing romantic disdain for the growth of leisure travel, then this would be nothing new. Eminent Victorian Sir Lesley Stephen argued that the only saving grace of resorts was that they confined "the swarm of intrusive insects to one place", and Thomas Cook was frequently criticised for developing travel opportunities for those deemed incapable of benefiting from them.

Today's critiques less often carry the overt snobbery that was good coin in Victorian England (although it is certainly still there). Instead, package tourists are deemed thoughtless and unaware - thoughtless with regard to their environmental footprint and unaware of the damaging impact on the culture of their hosts. In the opinion of a vocal lobby there is a need to rein in their pleasure-seeking for the sake of the planet and the cultures that inhabit it.

Writing in The Guardian on May 15, 1999, George Monbiot summed up this gloomy view when he asserted: "Tourism is, by and large, an unethical activity, which allows us to have fun at everyone else's expense." The same paper's ethical living correspondent, Leo Hickman, concurs in his apocalyptically entitled book, The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of Our Holidays (2007). This describes tourism as "a self-centred act" before proceeding to draw a comparison between drunken men on stag weekends in Tallinn and invading Nazi armies in the Second World War.

This hyperbole is not atypical of assertions in mainstream academic literature. A prominent sociologist in the field, Erik Cohen, has argued in the journal Social Research (39: 1972) that "the easy-going tourist of our era might well complete the work of his predecessors, also travellers from the West - the conqueror and the colonialist". This grossly exaggerates any damaging effects of tourism and, more importantly, trivialises the horrors of conquest and colonialism.

Crosscultural encounters on holiday are often presented as fundamentally fraught and problematic. Since the 1970s, tourism has attracted growing interest from anthropologists seeking to understand the "host-tourist" relationship, especially in the context of rural communities in the developing world. Concepts such as "acculturation", "the demonstration effect" and "staged authenticity" have been brought to bear on tourism and have no doubt helped sensitise researchers to cultural differences.

However, as Kay Milton has argued in Environmentalism and Cultural Theory (1996), anthropology's influence on rural development thinking also brought with it cultural relativism. This is certainly true of discussion about tourism's role in development, where host and tourist are commonly defined by their differences, and common aspirations for development are rarely ^alluded to. Implicit in many studies is a desire to protect communities from the excesses of modernity in the form of invading tourists. A one-sided sympathy for victims of external cultural imposition, rather than empathy with the aspirations of our hosts (including the desire to travel), is often the result.

Does mass tourism deserve this level of contempt? Is it really as bad as it is painted by the champions of ethical holidays? One place I have never heard associated with ethical tourism is the Spanish town of Torremolinos, immortalised by Monty Python as the resort of choice for drunken Brits abroad. Yet 50 years ago Torremolinos was a poor fishing community, with high rates of infant mortality and low levels of literacy. Partly due to the development of mass package tourism, it now enjoys levels of wealth and education that enable many Spanish people to join the (still exclusive) club of leisure travellers. Indeed, in late season, the Costas are frequented by Spaniards from the cities, who come to enjoy the cool breezes and conviviality - hardly an alien invasion, more a cause for celebration.

Moreover, the impact of tourism revenues from the 1960s played an important part in Spain's economic modernisation, and, some even argue, in breaking down social conservatism. For all its faults, the balance sheet in Spain, Torremolinos included, is surely positive. Julio Aramberri, former professor of sociology turned tourism expert in the Spanish Government in the 1980s, is rightly proud of the role of tourist development in bringing greater affluence to his country. He remains frustrated at the indifference to the benefits of the industry, warts and all, of many social scientists.

Another example is Malta, a small island with about 400,000 inhabitants that receives well over a million tourists annually. Are the Maltese up in arms over the colonisation of their island? Far from it: opinion polls have consistently shown a favourable view of tourism by a large majority. This is in sharp contrast to the view of many academic commentators who are quick to disparage the holiday destination, preferring to laud the "sustainable" benefits of the ecolodge.

At the forefront of attempts to make tourism "ethical" is ecotourism. Back in 1989, Karen Ziffer, ecotourism pioneer and co-founder of the International Ecotourism Society, set the tone in her paper Ecotourism: The Uneasy Alliance . In it, she argues that ecotourism can be more than a type of holiday; it is a philosophy and a model of development. Ziffer's view was prescient: in the last two decades ecotourism has undergone a transition from green niche market to favoured ethical type of leisure travel and innovative rural development option.

But can ecotourism sustain the high moral claims that have been made for it? Again, as I show in my latest book, Ecotourism, NGOs and Development , the arguments have been notably simplistic and one sided, built on flimsy and even offensive premises, which need to be examined far more critically.

As a model of development, ecotourism's claim to be "sustainable" and "ethical" resides in its ability to link conservation and development. It is part of the growth of integrated conservation and development projects that attempt to bring together these two apparently competing aims within biodiversity-rich areas. The argument is carried by its own circular logic: revenue through ecotourism means that conservation is incentivised, and conservation ensures that the ecotourist revenue will keep on coming. This has been characterised as a win-win situation, in which both conservation and development benefit.

Yet this formulation assumes a static view of human aspiration. Ecotourism can offer the prospect of development but simultaneously relies on capping it at a level that maintains a localised "harmony" between people and nature. Such a notion at a stroke rules out development on any transformative scale, as was experienced in economically developed countries. It is paradoxical that such limited horizons are consistently associated with "sustainable tourism development" and occupy the moral high ground in debates in much academic literature.

Mark Ewan, in an insightful paper presented at the 2006 Royal Geographical Society conference, looked at reactions in Nepal to a new road being built near to the Annapurna Conservation Area. This links the ascendant economies of China and India and follows a key trekking route alongside the Kali Gandaki river. Trekkers and ecolodge owners, and even a World Bank consultative report, objected to the road on the grounds of environmental damage and the knock-on effects on tourism. Local people, however, were positive, favouring transport by road vehicle to mule and porters and citing the beneficial impact of improved road links on trade, food prices and access to hospitals.

Ecotourism's philosophy is distinctly anti-modern. Take the Québec Declaration on Ecotourism arising from the UN International Year of Ecotourism in 2002. This influential document lauds ecotourism as being able to "strengthen, nurture and encourage the community's ability to maintain and use traditional skill, particularly home-based arts and crafts, agricultural produce, traditional housing and landscaping, in a sustainable manner". This raises the question as to whether the community would freely - outside staged participation exercises conducted by conservation NGOs - choose "traditional skill" over modern technology, "traditional agriculture" over high-yielding genetically modified seeds, and "traditional housing" over models better able to stand up to the ravages of nature.

The rise of ecotourism and other "ethical" alternatives to mass tourism perhaps says more about the age we live in than anything intrinsic to different types of holiday. These are holidays for our post-political times.

The failure of mainstream politics and collective political identities to engage people's aspirations has tended to promote the individualised politics of consumption and lifestyle as channels through which to "make a difference". Ethical and gap-year travel companies, keen to appeal to this sentiment, point out that travel can be all about a personal mission to do just that.

The mission, typically, is to help a local community by encouraging them to preserve their way of life and the environment on which they depend. Any notion of transforming the way poor societies relate to the natural world through economic development plays second fiddle to adapting to environmental limits. These limits are presented as closely linked to local tradition, which ties culture into the project. Some environmental NGOs even refer to the need to preserve "biocultural diversity". Given that the richest biodiversity and greatest impoverishment are often congruent, this outlook comes close to being a rationalisation of poverty, yet it is championed as "ethical tourism".

Ethical tourism tends to divert our attention from the big picture and focus it back on what we can do, as individuals, on our travels. The narrow confines of this realm of moral behaviour need to be questioned. The hard truth is that as ethical tourists we can change little. Buy the necklace and you contribute to the destruction of the coral reef; refuse to buy it, and the hawker's family are poorer - hardly a win-win scenario.

Criticisms of mass tourism are also telling with regard to the social climate. In the past, negative conceptions of the masses would have been contested by political movements that stood for their interests or tempered by a belief that growing affluence for the majority was a sign of progress.

Today, in the absence of a sense that more opportunities for people to travel is part of human progress, "the millions" can be presented as objects, duped by voracious advertising and in need of ethical direction. According to one popular analysis, Poon's aforementioned Tourism, Technology and Competitive Strategy , package tourism is "consumed en masse in a similar, robot-like and routine manner, with a lack of consideration for the norms, culture and environment of the host country visited".

In recent years, of course, leisure travel has become the focus of debates on global warming, in particular the carbon footprint associated with flying. According to the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change , world aviation accounts for a little less than 2 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which could rise to 5 per cent by 2050. Around three quarters of flights are taken for broadly leisure purposes (although business flights are more likely to be long haul). Reducing leisure travel would certainly have an impact on man-made carbon emissions.

But it will also have an impact on economies where tourism plays an important role. In the developing world, more often than not the focus for ethical tourism, nature's vagaries have long disrupted lives and devastated harvests and homes, irrespective of recent findings about the human contribution to global warming. Economic development, partly based on foreign exchange generated through tourism, creates the prospect of being able to adapt to climatic changes and find protection from natural disasters. Yet ethical tourism eschews development as damaging, and offers little prospect of liberation from poverty. In fact, it involves sacrificing the chance of development on any transformative scale on the altar of environmental and cultural limits.

So who is really ethical and who unethical? In the face of the advocacy of ethical tourism in the universities and beyond, the freedom to relax, have fun and explore in the way we choose is well worth championing. The preference for green tourism niches over mass tourism is fine as a personal choice, but disingenuous as an ethical imperative for all - far better to please yourself and, for a week or two at least, leave your cares behind.

Jim Butcher lectures at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is the author of The Moralisation of Tourism: Sun, Sand ... and Saving the World? (2003) and Ecotourism, NGOs and Development: A Critical Analysis (2007), both published by Routledge.

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