Sun, sea and sand - and a sense of spectral danger...

July 26, 2002

The West's faith in open borders, which has laid the foundation for a boom in tourism, has been shaken by events such as 9/11, says Raoul Bianchi

In a world of hyper-mobile capital, instantaneous communications and the mass movement of people, international tourism encapsulates the contradictory forces at play in today's world: mobility and freedom for the wealthy few, and immobility and disenfranchisement for the impoverished many. Since the onset of the debt crisis of the early 1980s, international tourism has become one of the most sought-after industries for poorer countries wishing to compensate for worsening terms of trade and find a secure foothold in a world economy. At the same time, the consumption of travel has been seen as a marker of status for those with the economic capacity and political freedom to travel and consume the cultural and ecological resources in a vast array of destinations. Thus, at a time when the concerns of travel, security and citizenship have become increasingly conjoined, the dynamics of immobility that either accompany or are exacerbated by tourism cannot be ignored.

Perhaps more than any other economic sector, the international tourism industry has been underpinned by an implicit faith in open markets and open borders. Although the culture of travel is not exclusively rooted in European societies - for example, the ritual obligations of travel and hospitality have for centuries been associated with the pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj, among Muslims - it would be safe to assume that since the dawn of industrialisation and the integration of a geographically dispersed network of places into an international tourism system, power has resided in a minority of core metropolitan capitalist states. International tourism represents the apotheosis of a quintessential western modernity, based as it is on an apparently seamless harmony between liberal notions of freedom (of movement), cultural exchange, peace and prosperity. Notwithstanding the fact that recent events, in particular September 11, offer a sobering reminder of the fragility of such ideas, organisations such as the World Tourism Organisation and the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism strongly believe that tourism and tourists can act as ambassadors for peace. However, while places such as hotels, motels and airports may signify a liberating sense of cosmopolitanism for some, where the boundaries of nationality are temporarily suspended, the imaginary geographies of travel are nonetheless layered by gender, class and ethnicity.

Given recent events, much has been made of the risks and uncertainties that travellers are exposed to. International travel removes the protective veil of modernity and prosperity behind which the privileged inhabitants of advanced capitalist states attempt to insulate themselves and exert control over the volatility and violence of the poverty, deprivation and ecological upheaval that afflict the majority of the world's inhabitants. It is at their destination where they are confronted with the spectral dangers lurking behind the staged authenticity of the Other; it is here that the "revenge of the native" occurs, as portrayed in the Tunisian film Bezness, in which working-class Tunisian men seduce foreign women in exchange for money and status. To some extent compensating for the disempowerment that has accompanied the decreasing terms of trade and declining prosperity in disadvantaged states, tourism is also accompanied by myriad small-scale entrepreneurial opportunities in the informal sector: tour guides, souvenir-sellers, taxi drivers, guest-house owners and restaurateurs. More tragically, it has on occasion placed tourists at risk of attack from certain members of the disenfranchised inhabitants of the world, who may view tourists as symbols of an exploitative western modernity. But despite the high profile of such attacks, for example the murder in Luxor in 1997 of a group of western tourists by Islamic militants, the manner in which these isolated events are portrayed says more about the attitudes of a predominantly western-controlled corporate media than it does about the real risks involved in global tourism. Most of the world's poor never see a tourist, let alone wish any harm upon them, while the inhabitants of such destinations are constantly exposed to radical insecurity and risk. Nowhere has this been more in evidence than in the occupied territories, where recent incursions by the Israeli army have left the Palestinian tourism industry in tatters and indeed, much of the economy.

It has often been said in anthropological and sociological literature that tourism destroys local cultures and converts traditional cultural performance and handicraft production into debased ethnographic display, that is into a sort of theme park. Indeed, tourism does have significant implications for societies, cultures and economies, but, as the French anthropologist Michel Picard has argued, tourism should not be seen as external to culture but rather as intricately embedded in everyday life, constituting what he refers to as "tourist cultures". The complex interactions between tourists, tourism and host societies suggest that, for example, cultural performances can be marketed for the benefit of tourist consumption while simultaneously acting as a catalyst for the construction of identities, cultures and traditions.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the immense changes brought about by economic globalisation and the increasing liberalisation of trade, which are reflected in the growing concentration of corporate power among a few transnational tourism corporations, and the increasingly precarious and casualised nature of tourism work. As a result of September 11, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that the tourism industry could lose about 9 million jobs worldwide.

Before this, however, the effects of globalisation and the application of free-market reforms in many countries had already helped to generate a harsh climate of competition in the international tourism industry, the result of which has been a further erosion in the living standards of workers, who the ILO estimates earn on average 20 per cent less than in other economic sectors worldwide.

Although there is evidence to suggest that tourists are becoming more aware of the ethical dimensions of travel, influenced by the work of campaigning organisations such as Tourism Concern, the danger remains that alternative models of eco-tourism may also serve to subordinate places hitherto beyond the circuits of mobile tourism capital to its materialist logic.

At a time when militarism and racism are on the rise, it might seem trivial to talk of the asymmetrical relations of exchange and power in tourism. However, as the growing tide of local resistance and citizen protest in tourism suggests, including in such popular destinations as the Balearic and Canary islands in Spain, and Goa in India, international tourism has emerged as an important terrain of emancipatory struggle in the wider politics of resistance to the privatisation of everyday life. Indeed, the globalisation of tourism, while extending the possibility for the further democratisation of travel, also embodies a restricted notion of freedom that is associated with markets, capital and consumerism, which tends to ignore the unequal relations of power on which the extension of mobility is ultimately based.

Raoul Bianchi is a lecturer in leisure and tourism at the International Institute for Culture, Tourism and Development at the University of North London.

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