Visions of poverty,
The City of Oxford is full of tourists in the summer months. Dazed, bored or puzzled, they shuffle dutifully behind well-bred English ladies who instruct them in the more obscure aspects of British history. We (the locals) look on with condescension, amusement or annoyance, depending on our mood. These, after all, are only tourists.
‘Only tourists.’ Not real people, you understand, but a whole new sub-species of the human race that the twentieth century has spawned. It travels in swarms, lives on ice-cream, hamburgers and Coca-Cola and speaks in strange and inappropriate tongues.
And yet we must confess that we are all tourists too. We too tramp round other people’s cities with cameras slung over our shoulders. We too clutch the maps and the postcards and wander vacantly from one monument to another. And we hate each other, professing to avoid the ‘tourist-traps’ or any other sign of tourist infestation and finding the sound of loud groups of our own nationality overseas a cause for embarrassment and averted gaze.
Why the shame ? There is clearly nothing wrong with travel. Quite the opposite. Great pains are taken to acquire the trophies of a vacation: the photos, the traveller’s tales, the tasteful souvenirs and the carefree suntans of the weathered and worldly.
No, the shame seems only to surface while this cherished experience is being gathered. This is when we feel weak and vulnerable and oddly out of place. Texan ladies who are loud and formidable on their home ground become merely loud and ridiculous when ‘doing’ Paris. And the Japanese, who are shaking the foundations of the Western world with their electronic wizardry at home, seem
unsure and slightly comic when travelling overseas. Strange, isn’t it, that people should flock to places where they will stick out so awkwardly; where they are likely to be ridiculed, tricked, cheated or even attacked.
The key to this riddle is to realise that the tourists are actually fleeing from their home countries as opposed to being fatally lured to foreign shores. The real absurdities lie in the places they live rather in than the ones they are going to.
Forty-eight weeks a year as a responsible adult, an obedient employee, a dutiful wife, a punctual timekeeper and a law-abiding citizen are about as much as most people can bear. The compulsiveness, the routine and eventually the tedium all take their toll. No matter how much we might enjoy the discipline, the security and the wealth that this kind of lifestyle can offer, the promise of a brief release is often all that keeps us going.
True, there are people who feel no urge whatsoever to travel. There are many communities, even today, where people can get everything they need from within quite a small radius - from their work, from their home, from the people they meet. But there are many others who believe there is something missing from their lives and that only in some other place at some other time will they ever be satisfied. For them, happiness only becomes possible with the prospect of a time of leisure - a return somehow to the freedom of childhood.
And the special appeal of holidays far away from home is that the normal daily rules can be left far behind. We can be as irresponsible or licentious or slothful as we like with little fear of recrimination.
If this is what holidays are for it is not surprising that Third World destinations - from Tunisia to Sri Lanka - beckon more and more insistently from the travel brochures. Around 17 per cent of all international tourists make their way to the Third World - a proportion that has doubled over the past 10 years.
The poor countries do often have the sun, the sand and the sea. And this is important. For one way to return to lost innocence is through a childlike - even animal-like - wallowing in water and heat.
But the developing countries seem to offer that little bit more They can be exotic - even mysterious - and yet have an appealing simplicity of lifestyle. It is as if~ in their poverty, poor people have trapped the things that we are desperately trying to recover -the spontaneity, the colour, the life. It is difficult for a Westerner not to think of a Pacific Island or an African game reserve without picturing them as some kind of primitive paradise.
We might, however, be able to justify our search for the paradise lost as a step towards international understanding. Could tourism be a way that First and Third Worlds could move together? Could it achieve more than a thousand TV programmes or magazine articles?
The omens are not too promising. Far from reaching a deeper understanding of the Third World the average tourists seem usually to have their worst prejudices confirmed by their jaunts. They will gripe about the plumbing and the inefficiency and the general chaos. And the local people are none too impressed either, responding with their own complaints about these wealthy white barbarians - scantily clad, sacrilegious and bent on destroying the environment and corrupting the young.
A clash of cultures is not too surprising - the difference in lifestyles is often what attracted the tourist in the first place. The tourists’ problem is that there is no escape from their consumer culture. They bring it with them. The holiday destination is automatically an item on the shopping list. And the least demanding way to absorb any new place is through its objects. So the tourist will probably start with the buildings, giving architecture and museums the kind of attention which they would never have received at home. And arts and crafts will also come high on the list; in this case it is the price paid which will be the chief focus of attention.
In fact the tourist who has come for an experience will rarely place much trust in his or her senses. A guide will explain what to think of the local sights and the taking of frenzied photographs will take precedence over direct experience. This is not so much to have a memento (since postcards would usually offer a better picture) but because the holiday will not fully have been bought until the buildings and the scenery have been captured for personal use.
All of this could be harmless enough were the consumption merely of inanimate bricks or trees or textiles. The real damage is done when it is people that are turned into objects - so that they too can be consumed.
The more attractive and colourful of the local inhabitants will be voraciously photographed, even if this means invading their privacy or interrupting their religious ceremonies. And if they are not conveniently doing anything picturesque at the time, then something will have to be done about it. As one ex-President of the Hawaiian Visitors Bureau has confessed: ‘Since real cultural events do not always occur on schedule, we invent pseudo-events for the tour operators - who must have a dance of the vestal virgins precisely at 10 am every Wednesday’.
This is understandable, if ridiculous. But the tourist’s other ways of consuming people can move closer to the tragic. The Third World has no monopoly over prostitution but it does have a higher share of the desperation that causes it. Women in Southeast Asia in particular are now protesting that parts of their cities are being transformed into brothels to absorb the frustrations and the lusts of Western males.
There is a sharp conflict between public morality and our private desires. What tourism does with this - as with other social problems - is shift the battle to a foreign field. The problems are created in one place, be they sexual, social, or psychological. And we try to solve them in another.
Should the poor countries have to accept the disturbing fall-out from rich ones? Most of them are only too keen to do so, anxious for the foreign exchange that we seem so happy to scatter. Some $25 billions is being transferred by tourism each year to the poor countries.
Some governments, of course, are more tolerant of the problems than others. It is no coincidence that the most popular tourist destinations in the Third World have right-wing regimes. Tourists flock to Thailand rather than Vietnam, to Haiti rather than Nicaragua, to Kenya rather than Mozambique. Places that have the facilities and the skills to pander to their own wealthy elites have no trouble in coping with rich foreigners. The Bangkok Sheraton and the Nairobi Hilton are happy to accept cash from any direction.
In socialist countries tourism and travel are more difficult. Governments which have more respect for their own people tend to have different priorities and are less worried if this makes life awkward for the tourist.
Visitors to the usual Third World destinations will almost certainly witness some violent contrasts between poverty and wealth. Those who find their route to a luxury Haitian beach resort is through the slums of Port-au-Prince may well find it distressing. And that distress could be one productive outcome of a tourist trip. But the tourist in Haiti would be well advised to save their anger until they return home. Apart from being a good deal safer it is more productive to ask your own government why it continues to support such cruel and repressive regimes.
But there are signs that even the more right-wing regimes are becoming discontented with tourism. If all the tourist required was sun, sand and hot air, tourism would be an ideal way of solving a balance of payments deficit. But though some tourists are attracted to the idea of the primitive they generally want it to come in a luxury wrapping. So more air-conditioners, cars, elevators and even food may have to be imported - at which point tourism stops looking so profitable.
And there are other costs of attracting the tourists - what the economists call ‘leakages’. Home-based travel agencies and tour companies all take their cut and many tourist hotels may also be owned by foreign corporations who will naturally want to send their profits home. In Fiji, for example, the leakage is more like a haemorrhage - with only 45 per cent of the tourist revenue actually staying in the country.
But for all the costs - social and financial - of maintaining a tourist industry it is clear that most Third World countries are willing to put up with Western tourists. And that puts the onus on us to make it a more productive experience on both sides.
West Germany provides one encouraging example. And that’s just as well because this country provides far and away the greatest number of international tourists - and 700,000 of them visit the Third World each year. Responding to surveys which indicated that around three-quarters of tourists would like to have more information about the places they were planning to visit, church development education groups have produced a series of films to be shown on charter aircraft en route to Third World destinations. To their credit, the airlines -- like Lufthansa - agreed to this and now passengers flying from Frankfurt to Sri Lanka for example are treated to a basic introduction to the country.
The films suggest - gently - how tourists might behave. One includes the story of a 13-year-old boy, Nihal, who has become a ‘beach walker’, using his charm on the tourists in the hope of money and gifts. The well-meaning travellers no doubt think they are doing the boy a favour. But his father is none too impressed. Nihal might be earning twice as much as he does in his tea shop but, as he points out on the film, the boy is missing out on his education. And his father makes an appeal on behalf of his and other villages that tourists should think carefully about the kind of future such boys are likely to have. According to Georg Pfafflin, of the Development Education Centre in Stuttgart, over 80 per cent of the tourists who have been questioned on their return said that the film was a positive influence on their behaviour.
How much should tourists intervene in the places they visit? As little as possible. Travellers should not deceive themselves into thinking they know the answer to other people’s problems.
A safer way for those who wish to take a serious interest might be to join one of those tours which give you a chance to look at social conditions as well as taking a bit of relaxation. Solidarity groups organise these in various countries - as well as voluntary aid organisations.
The Australian voluntary agencies have been among the pioneers in this kind of tour and Diane McDonald, who has taken one of the trips, wrote to us about the effect it had on her. She stayed in ordinary homes in Malaysia. In one village she talked to the fishermen whose catches had been reduced by the effluent from a chemical plant, and who were trying to get the company to stop polluting the water.
‘In spite of the hardships they faced these people still found time to laugh and extend their hospitality to a group of strangers. When I asked one fisherman how we could support them he replied that the best thing we could do would be to tell other Australians about what was going on - and to try, from within Australia, to attack the causes of similar injustices which our own people are facing.’
That’s a kind of commitment which most tourists would be unwilling to take on. They have gone on holiday to escape from reality, not to confront it. So how should they behave?
Maybe the healthiest thing we can do, as we lie on the beach on some distant shore, is to come to terms with what a tourist is - and to accept that we are using someone else’s country for a kind of therapy. We should forget about the money we are providing. They are doing us a favour rather than the other way round.
So if you feel uncomfortable as a tourist, if you feel ridiculous, if you feel a little bit humble, then you’ve probably got it just about right.
This special report appeared in the visions of poverty visions of wealth - tourism in the third world issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.