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The view from on high

Mamallapuram, India – 10 Oct 2007

The view from the Shanti Café is, undeniably, spectacular. Beach, fishing boats, distant Shore Temples rising from the spray of the turquoise sea. And as the café is one floor up, there are additional advantages to the view, as the European owner points out: 'It's better up here where you don't have to be watched by poor people looking at your food as you eat.' Being one storey up means that customers are inaccessible to the women plying the scorching sands trying to sell bedsheets, or the men determinedly trying to interest tourists in stone carved elephants.

The next morning at the Bob Marley café, serenaded by a Boney M greatest hits compilation, a couple of young western women determinedly ignore a ten-year-old tribal girl for half an hour. The girl, sweet faced and with rows of beaded necklaces round her arm, even provides tips on the correct way to bargain. 'I say twenty rupees, you say ten rupees,' she clarifies.

The stoney-faced gappers refuse to comply. And who can blame them? All those poor people, hassling us to buy trinkets we just don't want. Why are they so annoyingly persistent? We're here to have a good time, we have a right to be left in peace, don't we?

After all, we all know that tourism is a force for good, building – according to the industry lobbying arm, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) – 'world peace, and human bridges of cross cultural understanding'. And we love travelling, so it must be OK.

The consensus among the rich countries and people, is that travel is a 'good thing' – but an increasing number of voices are being raised which question this apparent no-brainer.

September 27 was designated World Tourism Day by the UNWTO. Unreported in the UK press, the Indian media carried reports of demonstrations against tourism and the UNWTO slogan, 'Tourism opens doors for women'.

Well, actually no, say NGOs and activists from organisations like the Federation of Indigenous Peoples. They have made representations to Tourism Minister, Ambika Soni, asserting that tourism increases sex tourism and paedophilia, and that it only benefits well-off women.

Poor women and their communities, are increasingly marginalized because of the pressure put on natural and other resources like beaches, open ground and water. NGOs insist that tourism development has negative impacts on most women's lives and makes no allowances for the different social roles of women.

Marginalized communities such as fisherfolk, Dalits and Adivasis (tribals) are, according to the Indian Express, 'harassed and tortured by the authorities and hoteliers who consider them a nuicance...' Last year, Action Aid India worked with a fishing community whose women had been beaten up by police following false allegations by staff from a nearby five-star hotel that the fishermen had exposed themselves to female guests.

The fishermen said they had been trying to meet with hotel managers for over a year to negotiate where to dock their boats and dry their nets as they traditionally did this where the hotel had placed sun-loungers on the beach. No hotel staff were prosecuted.

But of course, that's not a story you ever see in the UK media. And certainly not in the travel pages of your favourite paper.

Crows are cawing in the coconut palms and the ocean stretches to a flat horizon. Traveller's tales of happy memories, colourful photos and sandy feet often ignore the lives of destitution and poverty they encounter.

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