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The Ecologist on The Native Tourist, edited by Krishna Ghimire

22 May 2002

  • Source
  • Title: The Ecologist
  • Author(S): Jeremy Seabrook
  • Date: 1 Oct 2001
  • Publication: The Ecologist

The Ecologist, Vol.31, No. 8, October 2001

“The Native Tourist”, Edited by Krishna Ghimire, UNRISD/Earthscan,

By Jeremy Seabrook

The first time I visited Nainital in the Himalayan foothills, I was surprised by the numbers who had travelled all the way from West Bengal to walk round the glassy polluted lake-water and to stay in the mouldering chambers of ancient hill-station hotels surrounded by the flowers of an English summer. I saw only a degraded landscape; they saw a refuge from the oppression of Kolkata in August.

While the pressure of international tourism – especially sex tourism – has become a matter of concern to local communities transformed by it, the more dramatic impact of domestic tourism within countries has received less attention. This book is the first to address the issue.

Tourism is now the biggest single industry in the world: in 2001 there will be almost 700 million international arrivals, generating some 500 billion dollars. But this is only a fraction of the total number of annual movements of people. This book shows how traditional purposeful journeyings – pilgrimages, festivals and fairs and celebrations – are mutating into the distractions of the leisure industry.

The imposition on almost every country in the world of the market economy has a common cultural outcome. Governments, obsessed with maximising foreign exchange, and marketing to rich foreigners their scenery, heritage and culture, have not hesitated to evict existing communities from coastal areas, forests and national parks, for the sake of five-star hotels. In the haste to earn dollars they have overlooked a second consequence of globalisation – the travel demands of a rapidly expanding middle class, and even of workers who now have paid holidays. These developments have added to growing internal mobility in countries as diverse as Brazil, India and Nigeria. Almost everywhere, planning is non-existent or influenced by nepotism and corruption. Environmental assessments have rarely been made. The land of indigenous peoples, subsistence farmers and fishing people has been expropriated, and they have become custodians of trinket-stalls or security guards for second homes locked up for much of the year. Sometimes they become actors in embalmed cultural rituals, or worse, artificially generated festivals to amuse urban tourists visiting remote or ethnic areas in their own country. Local people are often considered too ill-educated even to work in the servile occupations provided by hotels, and have accordingly gone to squat in city slums.

The rise of an economically powerful middle class has also generated a considerable outbound tourism – a drain on foreign exchange, which may cancel the gains made by free-spending incomers. Recognising this, the Thai government sought to redirect its people to areas within their own country; with the result that the carrying capacity of both infrastructure and environment is being overwhelmed. In a tribute to the triumph of appearances over reality, the response to this was an expensive public relations exercise – the Amazing Thailand campaign of 1998-99, intended to attract 17 million foreign visitors to the country.

Domestic tourism may be numerically and economically more significant than international tourism, but the phenomenon remains an exotic import; for which the governments of India, Mexico or Brazil, and above all, local people, must bear the costs. Tourism is the perfect paradigm of the globalising imperative. It prioritises the most attractive areas of a country, placing great pressure on particular regions; and when the advantages of these are used up, the tourists move on. This has happened to the island of Penang in Malaysia, where tourists are abandoning the spoiled beaches and transferring to the (already degraded) island of Langkawi and elsewhere.

Governments often set up bodies to control domestic tourism; but the upsurge in domestic tourism has been in response to a free market economy, which has deregulation at its core. The story everywhere is of chaotic development, lack of facilities, evictions and the ruin of traditional livelihoods.
This book discusses India, China, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Nigeria, but it treats what is overwhelmingly a moral issue as though it were yet another branch of academic discipline. Tourism is presented as an industry generating ‘tourism products’. It argues for greater research, although it is hard to see what research is going to do to stem the frenzied mobility brought to ‘developing’ countries by a future already inscribed in the iconography of the Western way of wealth. Tourism, domestic and international, is a weight which the world can scarcely bear, not only in the ruin of the places that people go to see, but equally, in the skewed distribution of rewards to the winners and losers in the economic activity it generates.

The authors try hard to find examples of good small-scale social and ecological tourism, often organised in co-operatives by local people themselves; but these, by their very nature, can never be the site of mass destinations. The question remains: how shall we reclaim purposeful and significant journeys to the places where others live from the brutal invasiveness of industrialised travel?