Problems in paradise

Tourism is booming worldwide – but not everyone is happy about it, as *Chris Brazier* reports.

Whooping it up in Tanzania: Italian tourists on a dhow off the coast of Zanzibar.


I stood aghast: was this really the same place? The time I spent in Ubud in 1981 is one of my most cherished travel memories. This village in central Bali had a steady trickle of Western visitors even then, attracted by its reputation as a haven for artists. But it was still a village and my partner and I were the only people staying at a modest guesthouse that we reached down a mud track leading to the luminous beauty of the paddy fields.

I struggled to fit modern reality with memory when I returned in 2006. Where once ducks had marched in line through the rain towards the rice fields, now cars jammed streets lined with hotels, restaurants and shops, all of them aimed at tourists.

This is a story that you could replicate in every corner of the world – the Spanish mega-resorts of Benidorm and Magaluf were once sleepy fishing villages, after all. And the forerunners of mass tourism are always the more intrepid, backpacking travellers who discover the place in its ‘authentic’, ‘unspoiled’ state. Cafés and guesthouses aimed at them spring up, word spreads, and with every passing year the services improve and the visitors become more mainstream. The place eventually becomes a tourist haunt pure and simple, the province of people who will travel only on organized or packaged tours, and (in many cases) ultimately falls into decline. Meanwhile, the intrepid traveller has moved on, Planet Guide in hand, in search of the next ‘undiscovered’ location (Laos, anyone?). Tricia Barnett says she often wonders if she works for the campaigning organization Tourism Concern to absolve her own guilt. Thirty years ago a Thai friend took her to his village in northeast Thailand. She was the first white woman to visit; now half a million tourists a year go trekking in those hills.

The number of people travelling abroad on holiday continues to soar with every passing year.

Europe is still the top destination, chosen by 54 per cent, but the Majority World now receives more than a third of all tourists, compared with a quarter in 1990 and a sixth in 1982. According to the travel and tourism establishment, this spells nothing but good for poor countries who would otherwise find it difficult to earn foreign exchange. The total earned from tourism in 2006 was a whopping $733 billion and 75 countries earned more than a billion dollars during the year. And the flow of tourists is not just one way – South Koreans entered the world’s top 10 in terms of spending on tourism in 2006, while Brazilians spent 33 per cent and Argentineans 24 per cent more on tourism in 2006 than in 2005.1

‘Tourism is a major factor in the war on poverty,’ says Francesco Frangialli, Secretary-General of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). ‘For most developing countries... it is their largest single export and major driver of jobs, investment and economic transformation.’2

Source: UN World Tourism Organization

These facts are undeniable and yet they provide a distorted picture. For a start, most of the income from tourism does not remain in the host country but leaks back to the rich world. This can be because a Western-based transnational company owns the hotel, or because food, drink or other supplies demanded by tourists have to be imported from overseas. The World Bank estimates that 55 per cent of international tourism income in the South leaves the region via foreign-owned airlines, hotels and tour operators, or payments for imported food, drink and supplies.3 In some countries, notably in the Caribbean, the figure for ‘leakage’ can be as high as 75 per cent. Nor is this restricted to the Majority World: one survey showed two-thirds of the income from tourism in the Mediterranean was pocketed by fewer than 10 tour operators from northern Europe.4

Leakage is by no means the only problem. Local communities are also forced off their land by tourist developments. Tricia Barnett recalls a recent visit to a luxury hotel in Oman. ‘You go through the desert and over the mountains and down to this classical bay. At one end there’s the resort – a beautiful Bedouin-style development – and at the other a fishing village that used to stretch over the whole bay; they were asked to move and got paid peanuts. At the top of the road they now want to put a barrier and a guard so that the guests with their passes will be safe. The villagers will also get passes but only for themselves, which effectively cuts them off from their friends, relations and anyone else they want to meet.’

Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, thousands made homeless by the 2004 tsunami have still not returned to their former villages and livelihoods – partly because of tourist development. In 2005, an official of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board was quoted as saying: ‘In a cruel twist of fate, nature has presented Sri Lanka with a unique opportunity, and out of this great tragedy will come a world-class tourism destination.’5 In practice wholesale development has not yet taken place – and solid community opposition seems to have beaten off a plan for luxury hotels at the surfing beach of Arugam Bay. But camps in the capital, Colombo, are still full of tsunami refugees and ‘exclusion zones’ near the coast remain, stopping villagers from rebuilding their homes. Locals, including fisherfolk, have been priced out of land by investors buying holiday homes.

The environmental impact of tourism can also stretch far beyond the climate-changing emissions of jet aircraft. At one extreme is the development of Dubai as a luxury destination. This desert sheikhdom is literally constructing a new world – a kind of playpen for the world’s most affluent citizens built from oil money. Already famous for the distinctive shape of its 321-metre-high Burj Al Arab Hotel (where suites can cost up to $28,000 a night), Dubai has been dumping millions of cubic metres of rock and sand into the sea to create entirely new archipelagos. The sheikhdom’s natural coastline of just 70 kilometres will more than double when the project is finished, each extension of new land filled with luxurious villas and resorts for the rich. The Palm Jebel Ali archipelago will spell out in the sea a poem in Arabic by Dubai’s ruler. Another development, ‘The World’, will feature 300 artificial islands laid out as a map of the world when seen from the sky. Dubai also boasts the largest shopping mall outside the US, a 25-storey ski slope made with artificial snow, and is building the world’s largest theme park (it will be twice the size of Florida’s Disney World). To call developments like these ‘unsustainable’ is almost to make a mockery of the word.

But even standard tourism developments rarely take account of their ecological impact. Take Cancún on the Yucatan peninsula, a region the Mexican Government now calls the Mayan Riviera. The money to pay for this massive resort complex was borrowed from the Inter-American Development Bank by Mexico in 1971, the first such loan to fund tourism development.

‘Land was incredibly cheap and it had all the right conditions to lure tourists – beautiful beaches, blue seas, Mayan ruins,’ Araceli Dominguez, the owner of a small, eco-friendly hotel and a high-profile campaigner, told writer Leo Hickman. ‘The plan was to build 30,000 rooms in 30 years on the island of Cancún. But then they started to dredge the lagoons and destroy the vegetation… They are now trying to build hotels in protected areas as there isn’t enough prime land left any more… The politicians just don’t see that ecotourism could bring in more money in the long run than the chain hotels.’

Tourism loans from international financial institutions like the World Bank are supposed to meet environmental as well as economic and social criteria. But in practice this doesn’t mean much. And the results, given a World Bank portfolio of tourism-related lending of $3 billion across 114 projects worldwide,6 can be disastrous. A report in Jamaica’s Gleaner newspaper in 2006 laid into the country’s tourism expansion programme: ‘The Government must have known there would be implications for such fast-paced development. And the sores have already begun to fester. Current Cancún-style hotel developments on pristine protected land and over-development of our resort towns are putting endemic wildlife and flora at risk and putting pressure on community infrastructure… Too often, foreign investors have breached environmental guidelines without consequence.’

Tourism offers employment – but often of a particularly exploitative and low-paid kind. Again, Cancún provides a far from atypical example. ‘Some 90 per cent of hotel workers there get only the minimum wage. Average salaries are rarely above $4 a day, while an apartment can cost $150 a month. Hotels often hire staff for 28 days then let the contract expire and recruit the worker again. Staff frequently work 12-14 hour days and commute for an hour to their lodgings.’7 The ultimate irony is that these workers who make tourism possible themselves have only six days’ holiday a year and no access to the spectacular beaches.

The long list of problems associated with tourism could consume pages more – and we have not even touched on the sad saga of sex tourism. It would be easy to conclude from this that tourism is a disaster area, that developing countries should not touch it with a bargepole. And yet countries the world over keep clamouring for more. Sometimes it’s local élites chasing the tourist dollar because they know they will find a way of benefiting, even if the poor do not. In other cases it may simply be desperation – the genuine lack of any alternative.

The beast just keeps on growing and there is barely a government that is not laying down a welcome mat

When I interviewed Peter M Burns, author of An Introduction to Tourism & Anthropology, he recalled working on a tourism development plan in Eritrea, just after the end of its 30-year war. ‘We were in the Minister of Tourism’s office and we were telling her all the usual things that tourist consultants do, giving her the party line about the need for slow and careful development – all of the things that you and I would instantly agree about. There was a pregnant pause and she said: “Well, that’s just fine but my people have been at war for 30 years: they need work right now, not 10 years down the line. Now, how are you going to help me to give them that?” And we were flummoxed. Because she’d demolished us in one sentence.’

And why is mass tourism the main compromise Cuba has chosen to make with the capitalist world during its decades of principled isolation? Implacably hostile to conventional Western models of almost anything, the Castro Government has promoted tourism in a major way – and not without problems. There is now a virtual two-tier system in Cuban society (those who have access to tourist dollars and those who don’t). Is tourism just the least damaging devil available?

The consistent demand for tourism from countries of every political hue is something that even those most suspicious of tourism need to take into account. Bali, where we started this brief tour, is worth considering in this respect. When I visited in 2006, most of the restaurants and hotels were empty. The bomb blasts in Kuta in 2002 and 2005 had drastically reduced tourist numbers, with many Western governments warning their nationals against travelling to Indonesia. Australians in particular switched to Fiji as their ‘island paradise’ of choice. The result was taxi drivers and street sellers desperately competing for custom. It seemed a classic case of tourist-led development turning sour.

Yet everyone I talked to wanted the tourists to return. For most people, work in the tourist industry sits alongside traditional activities such as subsistence farming. Their home is still the village and growing food the centre of family life. But the extra income from the tourism provides for the luxuries that subsistence farming rarely allows. The same might be said of the island as a whole. Tourist dollars certainly leak away via grotesque global intrusions like Hard Rock Café and McDonald’s, but foreign cash has also contributed to widespread electrification and free schooling that have vastly improved the quality of life over the past 25 years. According to Tourism Concern, employment conditions in Bali’s big hotels are the best they have found anywhere in the world.

The Balinese soul, moreover, still seems amazingly resilient in the face of global monoculture – rooted in the peculiar mélange of animism and Hinduism that has sustained the island’s people for centuries. The Balinese seem to have a knack for taking what they want from tourism while continuing on their own sweet way. It is a knack that all too few other cultures threatened by mass tourism seem to possess.

So what do we conclude from all this? Anybody can make a pretty strong prima facie case against mass tourism: finding horror stories and exploitation is easy enough. But the beast just keeps on growing and there is barely a government on the planet that is not laying down a welcome mat. It is clear that these governments need to think more carefully about the kinds of tourist developments they approve – there is not much sense in trusting to the environmental and ethical good sense of the travel and tourism industry.

But is there also something that can be done from the demand side? Are there more positive forms of tourism that would both benefit local communities and allow us to holiday with a clearer conscience? The next article tries to answer these questions.

  1. All figures from the UNWTO.
  2. Speech to the Climate Meeting in Bali in November 2007.
  3. Worldwide Fund for Nature, cited in People and Planet,
  4. Tourism Concern, Post-tsunami reconstruction and tourism: another disaster?, October 2005.
  5. As of 1986. Cited in Leo Hickman, The Final Call, Eden Project Books 2007.
  6. Tourism Concern, Sun, Sea, Sand and Sweatshops, 2005.
  7. Tourism Concern/Leeds DEC, cited in Pamela Novicka, No-Nonsense Guide to Tourism, NI 2007.