Packaged poverty

Despite western economies being in the doldrums, or perhaps because they are, the sellers of escapism have been flourishing. None more so than in the tourist industry.

Overseas travellers have been spending something likeonebillion dollars every day for the past two years, and such spending is now one of the largest items of world trade. The Australia­based Asia Partnership for Human Development has just published a research paper, Tourism in Asia, focusing on this industry.

It points out that the Asia-Pacific region has taken a large slice of the boom industry, with visitors to the region increasing from five million in 1969 to 20 million in 1979. Singapore alone, with a population of 2.5 million,attracted two million tourists in 1979.

What is unique about the tourist industry, the paper points out, is that both the buyers and the products are people; particularly with visits to the Third World to view the quaint and the exotic.

One of the most obvious human problems of such a boom is the gross disparity between the affluence of the tourist and the poverty of the people in the country they are visiting. Such an embarrassment of rags and riches is deepened because the average Japanese, American or Australian visitor to South East Asia will have saved for theirvacation and be spending even more extravagantly than at home. In societies already divided by caste and class, free-spending and insensitive tourists with a particularly indulgent lifestyle - and holidays are the time for treats - can find their behaviour copied by local elites. All too often the Hilton or Intercontinental Hotel gets adopted as the chic watering hole for local swingers.

Tourism doesn't only influence those with a liking for western lifestyles. The industry also serves up local culture in a slick, deodorized package for easy digestion         by foreign visitors. Traditional arts and crafts are degraded, and their integrity undermined, pointsout Tourism in Asia. And this takes no account of the sleazy underworld of prostitution, coyly described by the tourist brochures as `the local night life'.

When they visit poorer communities, tourists react in a variety of ways. Their self-evident affluence can lead to a new arrogance and a taste for power. Local people might only be seen through the viewfinder of a Nikon or the tinted glass of the airconditioned tour bus. But travel can also be a significant way to overcome ignorance and prejudice, to see at first hand just how hard some societies are struggling with problems of exploitation and underdevelopment.

The challenge, according to the Asia Partnership paper, is not to damn all tourism, but to humanise it. Visitors can become sensitive to the problems of the countries they travel to. And they can learn from the very different people they meet. There is a valuable chance to discover that what they have in common with people from the Third World is more important than what divides them.

New Internationalist issue 093 magazine cover This article is from the November 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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