Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Tourism in Developing Countries

Personally, I'm not hugely keen on the "tourist Meccas", such as Thailand, Bali, and so on: I've been to Thailand, and while I enjoyed myself, and my trip definitely met my requirement of "being warmer than the 1 degree average temperature with no heating that I had to deal with in China", I found the trip somewhat lacking in general, due to the large number of tourists everywhere. Now, I'm certainly not begrudging the Thai people their tourist industry, and Thailand does certainly have natural beauty and a culture that is worth exploring as a tourist, however when a country is as devoted to tourism as Thailand is, I see two problems.

First of all, when such a large amount of your cultural traditions become intertwined with the tourism industry, it's very easy for the traditions to (at least to an outside observer) appear to be mainly for show. At least in Thailand it's obvious that the people there still embrace much of their traditional culture in their daily lives - I loved seeing people pray at Buddhist shrines, and seeing Elephants walking down the street doing the shopping. Too much commercialisation of a culture, however, serves only to turn those commercialised aspects into a caricature of their former selves. The culture ends up being known and recognised not for its philosophy and literature, but rather for consumer-friendly dances and songs. Now, I was born and raised in a dominant culture, so I can only imagine how those from less dominant cultures must feel, however it seems to me that it would be in many ways demoralising to those from developing, tourist-industry oriented countries to see their remaining culture being seen as a sideshow to those from richer nations who come to visit at their leisure. It's a question that I really should ask some of the locals next time I go to a tourist resort region.

Secondly, in many of the tourism-dependent countries, many of the foreign tourists themselves do not seem to treat the country with much respect. Bali, Thailand, the Philippines, etc... although these countries are interesting countries in their own right, many foreigners view them merely as places to go to the beach, get drunk and have sex. The environment in a lot of ways brings out the worst of the foreigners who go to visit them. Every time the local police dare to enforce the local laws against a foreigner, there is a media frenzy - just look at the recent case in Bali, where an Australian teenager was convicted of possessing marijuana. In reaction to the Indonesians enforcing local law, many Australians have made calls to boycott Bali. Now, I am personally in favour of marijuana decriminalisation, however the harsh drug laws in South East Asia are not exactly a secret. Australians, who should still be able to remember the Schappelle Corby and Bali Nine cases, have absolutely no excuse for ignorance. Whether or not you agree with the laws of a country, the most basic form of respect you can show the people who live there is to obey the law. Australians acting all hurt and betrayed when one of their own gets caught breaking the law only serve to demonstrate how little they think of the locals.

Unfortunately, when a region's economy is devoted largely to tourism, the locals often don't have much choice except to put up with the poorly-behaved foreigners, which only serves to make the foreigners behaviour worse. Unlike primary and secondary industries, which can be conducted with little contact between the local producers and foreign consumers, tourism cannot work without the consumers travelling to the location, and the locals must make sure that their destination is one that the tourists will consider to be "worth" the cost of their air ticket. If tourists consider feeling above the law to be crucial to their enjoyment of their holiday, then that in itself is a kind of blackmail preventing locals from feeling like the masters of their own home.

Keep in mind here, that I am not talking about all foreign tourists, or even a majority. Most tourists do visit developing countries because they are beautiful, exotic, interesting and affordable, and are perfectly well behaved while doing so. There is merely a large enough portion of tourists who do behave badly that it is noticeable - not just to the locals, who see more tourists than I do, but even to other travellers. It is certainly something that developing nations do look at when they consider whether or not to open their borders up to more tourists. Certainly, the tourist money is nice, but it comes with a cost that should not be made light of.

That said, I think that as someone who was born in a developed country, travelling to developing nations has really helped to give some me perspective on the amount of privilege I have benefited from, simply by being born in the right country. Certainly, it's easy enough to be aware that many modern conveniences - internet, education, electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, etc. - are not universally available around the world, however travelling to these places and visiting the people for whom the lack of convenience is not just a hypothetical, but a way of life brings your awareness to a new level. On an emotional level, it is very difficult for any documentary to properly convey what it means to live in such a life. Once you get to know people, they stop being "those poor people in location [x]" and become friends, whose difficulties and triumphs you can share and sympathise with.

Of course, not all tourism to developing countries is to places on the "tourist trail". Next week, my boyfriend and I will be going to Sri Lanka, and when we do, we will be travelling to Jaffna, most famous for being in the region where the Sri Lankan government recently ended its civil war with the Tamil Tigers. By all accounts, the region is safe enough - even when hostilities were active, the Tamil Tigers never deliberately targeted tourists. Now with the war over, there is even less worry that we will become collateral damage. For us, travelling to Jaffna now, in the early stages of reconstruction is an opportunity not to be missed. The Jaffna of today will not be the Jaffna of a few years from now, and if we wish to see for ourselves the effects that the war has had on the city, we must go now, or never. Wanting to see the civil war experience is not thrill-seeking on our part. If we really wanted to get the 100% pure civil war experience, there are plenty of places such as Libya where the shooting is still going on. What we want is to see with our own eyes what impact the war has had on the society and the people in it.

Visiting places that see few tourists also has a few advantages: with fewer tourists, it's easier to get straight into talking to locals, and harder to fall into the trap of hanging out at the tourist bars. With less commercialisation of the local culture, you can find that while it's harder to find cultural shows, those that you do see are far less likely to be staged events put on for foreigners. You can also feel as though you are making a bigger relative contribution to the local economy. Ten extra tourists to a resort that has 1000 guests makes far less of an impact proportionally than a single extra tourist to a resort that only has 10. Travelling to Jaffna so soon after the civil war also makes me feel as though I am doing one other thing for the locals: by visiting their city, when I could just as easily be travelling somewhere "safer", I am giving the locals a vote of confidence in the stability of their region, which I hope will give them more confidence for the future. Now, I'm in no way trying to play up my visiting such an area as a huge momentous occasion for the locals - I am well aware that I'm just a single tourist, whose presence isn't a big deal in the scheme of things, however it is within my power to do, unlike many other avenues towards helping Jaffna to rebuild. I've seen with my own eyes how the presence of a foreigner in the less developed regions of China makes the locals feel as though the opening up of their country and the development of their economy is reaching significantly into their village. I just hope that the locals in the less developed parts of other countries feel the same way.


  1. Am I allowed to comment here?
    I have to laugh at the tourists who come back from Thailand, Bali etc bragging about the bartering success they had. Honestly, if you're haggling with a local who's only income is from the small stall they run, does it really matter if you pay 20c more? If you've haggled down to $4 for a scarf, and the stall owner refuses to go down to $3.50 as they would be selling it at a loss, then just pay $4. It's a pretty good deal either way. Walking off and laughing at the experience seems a little unethical and condescending to me.
    Another peeve of mine is people who belittle the local currency. Laughing about how you 'tipped someone a dollar, that could feed his family for a week' is pretty stupid because A) it can't feed them for a week and B) it makes you look pretty stingy. I understand that cheap food and haggling and all that is part of the tourist experience, and by all means go for it, but to a point. As soon as you start haggling over a few cents then you've got to take a good look at yourself. As for tipping, tip what the service is worth to you. If they're polite and helpful then surely that's worth more than a dollar.
    I guess it all comes down to respect. Treat others how you would like to be treated, and don't be a dick. You'll probably get a lot more out of your holiday that way.

  2. Very true. I haggle a bit, because otherwise you can really get ripped off, but once you're only saving a dollar or so, I really can't be bothered. It's really not worth the extra antagonism that comes from arguing with the shopkeeper even more. I do get the feeling, however, that many of the westerners who come back bragging about how well they haggled actually leave behind them a trail of shopkeepers who are laughing about how much the westerner paid.

    One thing to note about tipping, though, is that different countries have different attitudes towards tipping. While tipping is mandatory in some countries, in many places it's not expected or, in the case of China, considered rude. I never tip here, because I know that anyone who asks for a tip in China is just trying to rip off the foreigners. I agree with you in general, though. Even if a dollar is a reasonable tip for whatever country you're in, you're just a jerk if you then go back and laugh about how little their currency is worth and how poor they are.

  3. Elephants shopping! Wow!