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From Tourist... To Target!


new internationalist
issue 245 - July 1993

From tourist... to target!

Tourism is poised to become the world’s biggest industry by the year 2000.
As profits grow, tourist brochures look ever more like pleasure propaganda.
Pratap Rughani takes a tour around the stealthy rise of the paradise business.

Taking a tour makes me a tourist – right? ‘No. Tourists go to Benidorm on package deals,’ the agent answered. ‘You’re a traveller.’ The brochures were anxious to reassure me on this point. What happens between making the booking and reaching for the sun cream? The brochures fall over each other feeding on their collective hype to make me an ‘adventurer’, ‘imaginative traveller’, ‘world traveller’, ‘globe-trotter’, ‘expeditionist’, ‘journeyman’ and even ‘individual’. Anything but ‘tourist’. At last the penny drops. OK, so it’s about what we like to tell ourselves that we are rather than what we actually do.

‘Hey, India!’

A chorus of postcard hawkers forced an acknowledgement from me.

The ecotour I’d carefully chosen, called Nile Safari, stressed the cultural exploration of an Egyptian trip. Atef, our Egyptian tour guide, offered to bridge our worlds with Egyptian society. We used Egyptian-owned hotels and services and embarked on the pleasures of seeing what it was that the ancient Egyptians were doing while Europeans were yet to venture beyond their caves.

We marvelled at the civilization of ancient Egypt, but the symphony faltered. ‘If they were so great how come this place is such a mess now?’ was the most frequent reaction after admiring ‘the amount of gold the Pharaohs had’.

The full influence of ancient Egyptian civilization in forming Western culture remains hidden. Historians took ancient Greece as the source of European civilization and played down or denied earlier influences1. Any further research would have traced the roots of Western culture to Africans and Semites. Egyptology has yet to overturn this illusion and the tourist machine now needs to look more honestly at the dynamism of Egyptian culture today. Tourist reactions are a part of this history.

In Egypt in the Spring of 1869 Thomas Cook kick-started tourism (now the world’s second largest industry) with a package trip for wealthy Victorians. ‘Genteel adventurers’ made their procession on 65 horses accompanied by 56 muleteers and staff. The Grand Tour used to be a finishing school for young aristocrats, but Cook’s ventures widened the opportunity of travelling to the newly monied middle classes. That spring they caught Egypt at a unique moment in its evolution. Still technically part of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was being established – as Edward Said has it – ‘as a subsidiary of Europe.’2 Egyptian culture and history were laid out to be surveyed, while the Louvre and the British Museum grew fat with Egyptian treasure. The process of knowing, defining ‘the Orient’, reinvented Egypt as entertaining exotica for the pleasure of the tourists’ colonial gaze. ‘Knowing’ in this sense meant fixing, most perniciously by attaching character traits to racial types.

In Luxor the boy at the falafel stall makes his protest.

Like the colonial officer, each tourist required some exchange with the native to confirm her/his position as ‘ruler of all surveyed’. Many brochures trade on this idea, conjuring up imperial nostalgia, endless excess and luxury. Under such weight many tours fold in on their own greed.

At Giza we emptied onto sands alive with touts and trinket-sellers who pursued and stung like horse flies.

‘The last remaining wonder of the Ancient world,’ Atef said, casting ripe flesh for us culture vultures. As we were hurried through the burial chambers of Cheops’ pyramid the names of seven men accused of a tourist bombing were being read out in a military courtroom in Haekstap. But why bomb and shoot tourists?

A veiled woman shouted hysterically, before collapsing as she heard the words that shaped her brother’s name hang in the indifferent air: Badry Abdel-Rahman. Life imprisonment. The next seven were sentenced to be hanged.

The cultural cement for the ex-pats on holiday was ‘Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo’. Some enjoyed mimicking the world’s favourite marsupial while others studied the crucial paw movements and interpreted their meanings.

Abdel-Hadi, a hawker, looked on quizzically. Framed by the Sphinx, this chief of the stuffed camel market caught me with a single comment on the scene: ‘Colonizing armies have been replaced by armies of tourists’. He smiled, turned on his heels and raced after a group of middle-aged American women. They opened the haggling by ignoring him, but he knew the hesitation in their step. He warmed to the challenge, bowing graciously before them and flourishing ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ headdresses. Our intentions may begin with a genuine search for greater cultural understanding but they often end in a quest for familiar exotica.

‘Hello, New York? England!’

The tour group straggled through columns of papyrus sellers, each side privately insulting the other. Moments of communication with Egyptian people evaporated. Only the hawkers were left – and Sherifa, ‘your Egyptologist’. At the temple of Karnak she gave us a collective name. ‘This way, Sunshine’.

She had, finally, seen us for what we were – a herd. The dynamics of the group had long since dominated everything else. Egyptian life – to the extent that it could seep through the whale bones of our itinerary – was only a casual reminder that we were in another country, not a moving backdrop lit by some speedy projectionist.

By Luxor I was spending my Skippy popularity fast. I’d taken to wandering on my own and being late. At a falafel stall a bright boy, perhaps ten years old, smiled over his ragged T-shirt. ‘I’ am not Tourist. I live here,’ it said. We shared tea and ate the chick-pea snacks.

‘Oxford? Proper London?’

I calculated that pretending I was an Indian student would lessen expectations. It sometimes worked, but this was a place for truth and I was privately delighted to install the idea of an Englishman as brown skin and a pony-tail.

If I tried to get up he became very agitated and repeated a question in Arabic.

A younger boy with sharp eyes appeared from a sea of soapstone Cleopatra busts and translated:

‘Please have this boy. He is orphan and likes you, wants to come with you. To take to London? Take me?’

I was shocked. In a world dividing rich from poor ever more starkly, the rich travel without boundaries and amuse ourselves with the ‘discovery of the past’. But how can we value each other when our lives are unequal and our governments spend the rest of the year sucking the world’s wealth behind fences like Fortress Europe? We arrive as representatives of wealth and opportunity, unwilling to see that Third World poverty is the price of our short-term success and distorts any contact we may have in the South. I remembered a blond couple setting up a tripod by the cremation ghats in Benares, India. ‘Wait ’til I get a shot of the widow with the corpse,’ the man said, priming a 200 millimetre lens.

As our Imaginative Traveller coach swaggered towards Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, I began to wonder: what am I doing here?

Since October the radical Islamic group El-Gamaat el-Islamiya has given its answer. They claim that mass tourism offends Islam, making the industry a legitimate political target. With that they embarked on a shooting and bombing campaign spanning Cook’s design from Cairo to Aswan. So far 30 Western tourists have been injured, five fatally.

Bombs recently hit every stop on our tour, most audaciously outside the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in the heart of Cairo, home of the death mask of New Kingdom Pharaoh Tut-ankh-amon. Wandering among the contents of Pharaohs’ tombs, listening to cut-throat competition in the plastic-pyramid market outside, I felt that the hydra-head of tourism was starting to consume itself.

Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood – an illegal but influential Islamic pressure group – could disentangle this. The Brotherhood have had their hand strengthened by the tourism crisis though they denounced the tourist killings and now insist that there are no links between them and El Gamaat. After some negotiation we arranged to meet in the offices of El Dawaa (‘Spread Islam’) magazine above Cairo’s Tawifga vegetable market.

I couldn’t remember which vegetables to wait by and was late.

Brotherhood Chairman Mahmun Al Hudibi was in brazen mood, emboldened by the advantage that my choice of radish over tomatoes had given him.

‘Islamicization of Egypt will dissolve the tensions of mass tourism. We say to the foreigner, behave like a Muslim and all will be well. Muslim women do not wear nothing or drink alcohol so why should tourists? Foreigners respecting our conventions are welcome,’ he said.

‘So what would you do if people disobey your version of Islam?’ I asked.

His broad face rose in anger as he seized on ‘the hidden agenda in your line of questioning’. He dismissed the interpreter, accused me of being a spy and shouted ‘When we have an Islamic society these things will simply not happen!’

Meandering through the courgettes outside, why, I puzzled, has tourism in the South reached its flash-point here?

In the raw equations of power politics a dead western tourist put El Gamaat on the map. Their plan is to hit the government where it hurts – in its foreign exchange earnings.

Man and monument: a professional poser wears 'anything ethnic' to give colour to holiday snaps at Kom Ombo temple on the banks of the Nile.

El Gamaat have no detailed plan to reform the tourist industry, yet in a few months their campaign has cut the industry’s yearly $2.5 billion takings by at least a third. Tourism is their most powerful pawn in a far bigger battle. The Egyptian Government is clearly rattled. Secret meetings with the Brotherhood are rumoured while tourism minister Faoud Sultan has hired Burson-Marsteller, the world’s biggest PR company, to promote upbeat stories about Egypt. Saatchi & Saatchi are advising on how to restore Egypt’s ‘positive’ image.

The confusion in Egypt captures the chaotic potential of this wild-card industry. The most ardent sun-seekers still catch themselves asking: Do I pay the beggar? And the second? And the third? Hating poverty not poor people - was that the most I could do to preserve a morsel of humanity? Was I hassled by men thinking women from the North are easy?

As ‘tourism anthropologist’ Tom Selwyn told me, tourism is ‘a series of cultural processes, some of which are contradictory’. Tourism of course is not inherently bad. Dissecting it uncovers the anatomy of an archetypal clash of vested interests in the South. The industry (travel agents, ‘consolidators’, tour operators, airlines, hotels and local agents) face off with national governments, conservationists and people on the edge of subsistence. But what are the terms of the relationship and who, ultimately benefits?

The problem for us as tourists is both in and outside of ourselves. Few in the industry want to take you far past shiny pictures to give a sense of what has resulted from interaction between the tourist and the ‘toured’. It’s a couple of weeks for escape, pleasure, relaxation – who would take this as the moment to analyze the mega-systems that divide rich and poor?

But for increasing numbers of people a trip to the South is an object lesson in cultural imperialism. We’re told it’s about cultural exchange when the reality is a one-way street. Tourism now is a kind of cash crop. Large sections of the industry look to turn countries and communities into quick-fix commodities and parcel them out while they’re still ‘unspoiled’. A rapacious search for new destinations with the same ingredients means that when one destination is ‘overdeveloped’ the market is poised to move on, without rebuilding the ecosystems they’ve destroyed or even learning from their mistakes. Today you can book a beach holiday in dozens of countries of the South – and have pretty much the same experience. The package industry, with its experience of what sells, tries to strike a balance between sanitizing and de-culturing the South. We’re left buying a moveable cliché.

In Egypt, a country with arguably the most experienced administrators in the tourist industry, Sayed Moussa, the urbane director of the Egyptian Tourist Authority stressed that ‘countries should define why they want tourism. If you’re only money-conscious, there will be sacrifices.’

Even with the objective of distributing income from tourism, most developing countries have limited room for manoeuvre. Many are now in a beauty contest to compete for tourism investment. They face a well-oiled coalition of multinational interests with practised negotiators who can afford to hold out for their terms, while asking the South to parade in its collective swimsuits.

The problem has been sharply felt in the newly emergent Republics of Central Asia. With the dollar worth hundreds of roubles on the black market, Western tourism is quickly becoming the Holy Grail of hard currency, the only buffer against hyper-inflation. The scrap for dollars in the newly-independent Republics creates strong temptations to provide what Westerners will pay for. Southern countries face the imperative to meet debt repayment targets and buy essential commodities on the ‘free market’. It’s easy to see how these pressures conspire with the interests of many Southern élites to make Third World governments turn a blind eye to the abuses of tourism.

Developers have long profited from the lure of hard currency and fuelled unrealistic expectations. Their talk is of new jobs, inward investment and opportunities to develop the service sector of the economy. The chemistry of their coalition with the developing country will determine if anything much reaches local people, and what it’s worth.

But results are often disappointing. Local jobs are generally unskilled. Many are seasonal and, contrary to the claims made for tourism, have the effect of reducing the diversity of the local economy. Expertise is brought in from outside and a large proportion of money spent in the South ends up being repatriated to the North in long-standing business relationships.

This ‘leakage’ retains elements of neo-colonial control and its effects are widely underestimated. While the Egyptians have just completed an International Monetary Fund deal to open up 65 kilometres of Red Sea shoreline for tourism, with hotel complexes of 150,000 rooms, the Egyptian Tourist Authority could give me no estimates for leakage at all.

If leakage is a problem then it’s in part because Westerners insist on importing a high-burn lifestyle wherever we go. Every country in the South that has opted for tourism is suffering some aspect of its effects. Tourist demands for hot showers have quickened deforestation in Nepal. In Goa, India, local communities are denied access to water pipelines because the tourists’ flush toilets and obligatory swimming pools have better access to the region’s supply. Across Southeast Asia tens of thousands of women, boys and girls are caught in the slavery of prostitution and child prostitution.

The mainstream industry’s response is limp and even risible. In Bangkok the tourism crisis has reached its nadir in the burgeoning of the sex-tourism trade and – in the wake of HIV and AIDS – the consumption of ever younger children to feed the fantasies of rich tourists.

There has been widespread criticism over several years of the industry’s complacency, refusing as it does to get involved in trying to stop the boom in child prostitution fuelled by its customers. Yet the industry’s window-dressers are busy promoting ‘industry good practice’ in Bangkok with projects such as landscaping around the Sukothai hotel. ‘The Sukothai was designed as an oasis of calm amid the hustle and bustle of Bangkok... locally available flowers are used rather than imported species’3 they say. Fine, reply local activists, but not exactly the point when faced with estimates of over half a million Thai children involved in prostitution. Radicalized by seeing their societies denatured by tourism, groups such as the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism have begged the pleasure-seekers to stay home.

Where does that leave us? ‘Environmentally friendly tourism’ is now being promoted as the answer to tourist blight. The situation isn’t helped by the extra work we need to do to separate the genuine operators from fast-buck cynics who will call anything green if they think it will sell. Ecotourism aims to change the relationships of mainstream travel. Today you can join a rainforest research project, or take an ‘ethical tour’ divining water in the Sahel. By coupling environmental education with simple and minimal travel needs, ecotours can help protect local plants and animals and give economic incentives to local people to preserve the environment. One hallmark of this approach is the emphasis on using indigenous guides and products. The key is that it should be ‘low impact’.

For some, escape from city life, glimpses of nature and the chance to be ‘ecologically correct’ are significant bait. But this is only a partial solution available to people who often have a high degree of awareness, motivation and plenty of ready cash. There are dangers too. As rainforest tourism takes off indigenous peoples are once again being marketed as ‘noble savages’ to satisfy the alienated spiritual impulses of godless industrialized societies. We need to see people on their own terms in living societies, not projections of our current needs.


Tourism as a spot of affluence and luxury amid unmitigated poverty cannot be sustainable development. Planning escapes as though the world were a one-way adventure playground puts our needs first, then pits our pleasure against others’ pain.

The Kenyan government has long maintained that environmental beauty harnessed for tourism is the future. But tensions continue between the perceived needs of Western tourists and those of Kenyan people. For example the Kenyan government remained staunchly silent about the HIV pandemic through the mid-1980s, worried that ‘bad publicity’ might deter tourists. While Kenya was starved of safer sex information, tourists ‘letting go on holiday’ helped spread HIV and AIDS-related diseases more widely. In balancing the public health needs of the people of the South with the demands for hard currency, whose interests are being served?

It can be hard to see this. Tourist brochures have become pleasure propaganda, selling escapism in a tone of juvenile orgasm, where ‘the natives smile welcomingly’, everything is commodified, available and tremendous.

‘From the instant sex in Patpong Rd... to the ubiquitous images of immediately available food, the invitation is to make instant choices: to suck, fuck and then quickly move on to the Dominican Republic,’ writes Tom Selwyn.4

A quarter of all people who take their holiday abroad go South. If you’re one of the 120 million estimated to enter the cultural minefield this year, then perhaps it’s worth rethinking why you are going. Mainstream brochures will flatter with a supermarket of illusions selling shabby myths in glossy pages.

So how can we make tourism more worthwhile? Help keep your money in the South by avoiding multinational hotel chains and operators. Travel independently or choose ‘ethical tours’. These should work with local owners and guides. Buy locally, open yourself to a new language and history, politics and society rather than the tawdry ersatz of industry hype. Eat local food. Relish the prospect of understanding cultural difference. If you are enriched by the experience, think through how you may return something of this gift. If your eyes are opened by poverty then turn that compassion into making some effort to help the local people who are trying to do something about it. The reward of genuine understanding or a friendship on a more equal basis is a great prize – for both sides. Tripping in the South can counterbalance the dominant ideologies of mass-media representations, so there’s a lot to play for. The first step is to understand why you’re able to make the trip but the people you meet aren’t: then to ask how and why resources are so stretched in developing countries – and on your return home, resolve to do something about it.

1 "Modern archaeologists and ancient historians of this region are still working with models set up by men who were crudely positivist and racist". Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation, Vol 1, page 9. Rutgers University Press, 1987.
2 Edward Said, Culture & Imperialism, Chatto & Windus 1993.
3 World Travel and Tourism Environment Research Centre. Good Practice Database.
4 Tom Selwyn, ‘Peter Pan in South East Asia: the brochures’ in Hitchcock, King & Parnwell, Tourism in South East Asia, Routledge, 1993.

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