Because we're worth it

Every action has a consequence. But some of them we don’t want to know about.

One such consequence is the massive damage caused by tourism: resource depletion (water, food), pollution (transport), rubbish (‘Coca-Cola’ trails), loss of biodiversity (devastated ecosystems), sewage… and climate change.

The other day I went to a screening of Pamela Nowicka’s short documentary ‘Climate Change? No Thanks!’ which tells the story of tourism’s impact on communities in India. Continually switching between Indian farmers’ and tourists’ points of view, Nowicka challenges us to confront the supposedly innocent notion of ‘us’ holidaying in ‘their’ lands – and the cost of it, which ‘we’ are not paying.

Thousands times over... Photo by Ktoine on Creative Commons licence.

Nowicka says her intention wasn’t to make ‘Westerners’ feel bad about themselves. But an analysis of our often destructive behaviour is long overdue. Having read her No-Nonsense Guide to Tourism, I knew what she had in mind.

The new colonialism

It’s not easy to admit that my paradise might contribute, and often does, to your hell. Perhaps that’s why all sorts of ‘reasons’ are found to justify it. ‘Adopting the new religion of consumerism has taken away from many people the ability to think in any meaningful way about the impact of their lifestyle,’ Nowicka wrote in her book. In the film, she says: ‘We are too busy, too stressed and too comfortable to change our lifestyles.’

Welcome to paradise! Photo by author.

So we insist that if we didn’t fly, somebody else would; if we didn’t embark on an adventurous, romantic or relaxing tour somewhere far away from our own lives, somebody else would, and the show would go on, only without us. And no, we didn’t ask for those monster hotels to be built on fragile ecosystems, or for our pools to be filled with water stolen from local communities.

Isn’t this an issue of ‘The politics of blame and the culture of avoidance’, as one panelist at the film screening said? In our market-driven world, the principle of supply and demand is at work: nobody would kill sharks if there was no-one to eat shark fin soup. Think critical mass: you’re either part of the solution, or the problem.

Those dying polar bears

Flying is an evil activity, offering a helping hand to the heating-up of our planet. Even so, not everyone is to blame: John Stewart from AirportWatch says only five per cent of the world’s population has ever flown. What does that tell us about the myth of ‘global tourism’?

Jump on! If you can afford it. Photo by Hunter-Desportes on Creative Commons licence.

We fly because we can. Cheap airlines have democratized travelling, the argument goes, so it’s no longer only the super-rich who can afford to go places. Who are we to take this privilege away from hard-working people thirsty for a glance at another culture?

And how about the whole travel experience helping us to expand our horizons, meet new people and generally making us a bit more interesting to others and ourselves?

The answer might come from our ‘hosts’. In one episode in the film, a local farmer standing next to his dried mango trees (climate change-biting) says: ‘You want to see India? Then read a book about it or watch it on the internet.’ But please, don’t come here, is his message. This shoots directly at the deepest, darkest corners of our consciousness: Is my holiday more important than your survival?

Away from home... And ourselves? Photo by katclay on Creative Commons licence.

Some suggest buying carbon offset vouchers from the airlines, which then plant some trees, as a possible ‘way out’ of the problem. Or riding a bike and growing one’s own vegetables all year long in order to ‘guiltlessly’ take that awesome trip to Thailand or Tanzania in summer – kind of, offset one’s sin. But carbon offsetting does not stop pollution – it just puts a price tag on it (just like indulgences did in the Middle Ages). So the climate continues changing, somebody is getting rich, and we are happy we’ve paid our way out of sinning.

A messy affair

While transport, and particularly flying, industries are major contributors to climate change, they are not the only problem with tourism. ‘It’s not only about flying. It’s about attitudes, too. And water, jobs, food resources,’ says Nowicka.

In 2011 as in 1975. Photo by liberalmind1012 on Creative Commons licence.

The issue of bad, bad tourism is, of course, very complex. The often-repeated mantra of ‘tourism benefits the poor’ is not really based on facts. Is tourism a silver bullet for countries to get out of poverty and prosper? Well, no. It’s more like the poor subsidizing the holidays of the rich by forcefully providing them with access to their as yet unspoiled lands and slaving for crappy wages so that we can afford to have a break. 

Are there places we shouldn’t visit? It’s not as if local communities have the right to say NO to tourism. Nobody bothers to ask them, anyway. Tourism is big business, and big money has never been very democratic.

But surely locals are happy to be employed by the tourism industry? What would they do if there were no tourists flocking in? The answer is, they would do something else. Assuming that cleaning sheets and keeping swimming pools rubbish-free are the only jobs in the world is a rather ignorant point of view. Fishers, farmers, doctors, artists, teachers are all needed.

A microcosm of the world, India. Photo by foxypar4 on Creative Commons licence.

‘Caring capitalism’

‘Because of decades of propaganda from governments and the tourism industry, coupled with neocolonial attitudes still alive and kicking today, most Western tourists feel that they are ‘helping’ people in tourist destinations by taking their holidays there. They are a) unaware of negative tourism and climate change impacts and b) generally reluctant to take on board the notion that their ‘innocent’ holiday can possibly have harmful effects,’ Pamela Nowicka told me.

But there are also those who grasp the problem. Feelings of guilt and responsibility, coupled with helplessness, kick in. What are their roles in tourism and climate change?

I think that guilt is a useful step forward from denial in any context. If, say, someone is in denial about any problematic behaviour, e.g. smoking, slave-owning, or flying, they are simply not open to the possibility of changing that behaviour. If they become aware of the negative impacts of that behaviour, they are then faced with the opportunity to change. Guilt, I believe, can be a helpful driver in shifting behaviour towards more pro-social choices. This may take time and repeated exposure to information on potential negative impacts, for themselves and others. This is why we campaign for social change.

OK, so what about the alternatives? Is there such thing as ethical tourism?

What is tourism? What is its purpose and who does it? Does ‘paradise’ (in the holiday context) actually exist? Who does it exist for? How has it been created, by whom and for whom... and where? I would be gobsmacked to see a genuine example of ‘ethical tourism’… It’s like the notion of ‘sustainable development’ or ‘caring capitalism’.

Tourism is not a separate category of experience, it’s a key driver of the free-market consuming globalizing economy and an integral ‘carrot’ of consumption developed and fetishized to reward the consuming and producing masses. How can tourism separate itself from a global lifestyle which is unethical, unjust and destructive?

The alternative is to have a lifestyle which is so sustaining that one does not need to feed one’s addiction to consuming experiences and environments on a regular basis. We could be trying to create paradise in our own backyards, finding the ‘happy smiling faces’, the ‘friendly natives’ in our own communities, not destroying them elsewhere. This goes for tourism and for all other destructive consuming behaviours.


Grafitti in Barcelona, Catalunya. Photo by Jen SFO-BCN on Creative Commons licence.

‘I believe the real threat is not coming from [voter] apathy but from our complacent, self-centred, self-satisfied view of the world.’ (and it’s threatening our civilization) Michael Willmot, co-founder of Future Foundation.

And food for thought: a comment on the Guardian’s ‘Green Travel Clinic’: ‘The greenest holiday is one where you go nowhere.’

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