home Archives Prologue: Rethinking Tourism (1997)

Prologue: Rethinking Tourism (1997)

Photo: Rethinking Tourism (Some rights reserved)

by Deborah McLaren

My reasons for supporting change in the tourism industry came about through my own personal experience. I began to think about taking a vacation to Jamaica several years ago.

I had heard about the island all of my life and looked forward to going there. As a child, I watched home movies of my missionary grandfather working in Jamaica. I particularly remember a film where about twenty or so people were dancing outside under some trees. What I always remember most from those films is the spirit and joyousness the people projected.

My interest in Jamaica and Jamaican culture continued to take various turns over the years. During the early 1970s when I was living in a small town in northeastern Oklahoma, some of my friends started a band and began singing the revolutionary reggae songs of Bob Marley. At that time, I was growing up in an economically depressed rural area and grappling with social and cultural issues of my own. I could identify with the meaning and message of struggle.

Over a decade later, with more experience behind me and enough money to make the trip, I went to Jamaica to look, idealistically, for a chance to better understand the meaning of the revolutionary spirit. What I found was very different from what I had imagined. I had not realized the depth of the realities of struggle, racism, and oppression — the sheer poverty that many Jamaicans live with every day, the historical oppression and hardships the culture had experienced. I had simply glossed over a lot of it. I bought into the dream that I could go to Jamaica as a package-deal tourist and have a profound experience with local people. In fact, I did have a deeply profound experience, but it was not the type for which I was searching.

The plane landed at Montego Bay and I was immediately besieged by hawkers and hustlers, self-styled entrepreneurs in an economic situation born directly out of the business of tourism. I didn’t even have time to look around as I downed my welcome-to-Jamaica-shot-of-rum because I was so preoccupied with the hustlers: “Like a beer for the ride, mon?” “Need some ganga, girl?” “You need a man like John to show you around.”

I stayed in a hotel arranged as part of a package deal with an airline. The resort was advertised as set in a “historical plantation in Old Jamaica,” and was run by mostly British and American expatriates; its fences and golf course still depicted the continuing features of a colonialist plantation, strong symbols of a time that never seemed to pass for some. It was a beautiful beach resort, surrounded by imported comforts from home, while local people were banned from the beach and lived in a makeshift service village across the road. A sign near the fence at the end of the hotel beach said it all: “NO LOCALS ALLOWED.” The tee-shirts and bikinis in the souvenir shop were imported from the U.S. The restaurant staff explained the food was also shipped in from Florida.

The Hustle
I didn’t have much of an opportunity to meet many local people on the “Old Plantation.” Most of the locals were too busy working in their service jobs. One morning, determined to see a more realistic side of the island, I crossed the main road and boarded the local bus into Montego Bay. The guards at the gates of the hotel eyed me suspiciously. Some older women waiting for the bus cast an amused glance. A dilapidated old school bus pulled up and I boarded, along with the older women and a young man holding a live chicken. A hand-painted sign over the driver’s seat reflected a contemporary social issue for Jamaicans, “let us stay sober on our journey.” My whole experience that day was one of hustlers, drug dealers, and more hustlers. I was unable walk around freely without an offer for a “guide,” to buy some “smoke,” or to inspect the local wood carving shops. It was off-season and the tourism-dependent economy was in its downswing, and people were desperate. Shopkeepers even sent people out into the streets to round up tourists to bring back to their shops.

One evening I went to Montego Bay to hear some reggae music. After a considerable search, I finally found a small club for locals. As we listened to the music, a bus load of tourists stopped by. The tourists rushed in and immediately began to complain to the deejay about the music. Soon, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Whitney Houston began to croon over the speakers while the tourists danced. After an hour or so the bus load of tourists left and the American pop tunes were put to rest for the next round of tourists. The reggae and ska came back on. “The tourists,” explained the deejay, “they like American music.” The revolutionary songs of Bob Marley had no voice in a carefree holiday market that depends upon providing pleasure for wealthy foreigners.

During the rest of my stay in Jamaica I tried to meet some local people without being inundated by a large population of tourism entrepreneurs. I was taken to other all-inclusive resorts around the island and to “beautiful local destinations” like Dunns River Falls, where I climbed the waterfalls with several bus loads of tourists and didn’t see one local Jamaican enjoying the area. What I did noticed were the social discrepancies that distanced tourists from the local population. I noticed the way the local people reacted to me as a wealthy tourist with money to burn. I noticed the creation of a fantasy tourism culture that by no means represented the real culture of Jamaica. I noticed the almost entirely British and American management at the hotels. I noticed the dying reefs just off the beaches, polluted from unregulated waste from the resorts; the high price of black coral, disappearing quickly because of the excessive demand by tourists; the stench from piles of accumulated garbage behind the beautiful artificial resorts; pristine lands being converted into more tourist accommodations; and the fences that blocked the local people from the beach.

On my last day in Jamaica, I walked down the road to a horse stable where I met Joseph, a guide. While we rode around the hillside through some villages, which were conspicuously different from the hotel paradises I had been a part of, just outside of Montego Bay, Joseph related some of his story. He had grown up in Jamaica and spent four years traveling, as a worker on cruise and fishing boats, throughout the Caribbean and to ports in Europe. Joseph was interested in people. In fact, he said it was this interest that motivated him to work on the boats and was why he was currently employed as a guide at the stables. He wanted to see the world, especially the United States.

In the United States., Joseph said, “people have more opportunities, a better way of life. There people do not have to live in poverty. In the U.S., people have good jobs and a good way of life that is better than here in Jamaica.” A devastating blow occurred, he said, when he was laid off his job on a cruise ship just before he was scheduled to go on a trip to the United States. The trip was something he had anticipated for years and his disappointment was still visible. His interest in the U.S. had nonetheless continued to grow since then. As we rode our horses through a shantytown, Joseph made a remark about his missed opportunity that struck me, “Oh well,” he said, “I will prepare myself so that I will understand more when I go there.”

As I recall my whole “tourist trip” to the island, my time with Joseph is one of the best memories: it was a human connection. Unfortunately, our unequal tourist-guide relationship prevented a real friendship from developing. I believe we both had stereotyped images of each other. I had gone to his country ignorant of his very real situation, looking for a highly idealized culture. I also believe that the very nature of tourism created idealized images of our respective cultures: my image of was one happy revolutionaries and his image was one of wealthy vacationers with no responsibilities at home. The tourism industry enforced and encouraged the distance between tourists and locals. It reinforced a negative self-image for Joseph. No mechanisms were offered, nor had I initiated any, for fostering friendship or gaining more insight. I wanted to tell Joseph that the U.S. wasn’t as ideal as he thought it might be, but who was I to talk? Since then I have thought about Joseph’s wise words many times. I decided to prepare myself for the realities of another culture and country and to find ways to represent myself more realistically.

Although I believe I continue to learn from my experience, I went to Jamaica completely ignorant of the cultural, economic, political, environmental and social realities. The manufactured tourism that the industry sold me was very different from the social messages I saw on the bus and the warnings posted to the hotel fence. The shantytowns I rode through on my horse, where small children peered out of windowless homes with no electricity, was very different from the smiling Jamaicans I had seen on tourist brochures. I found myself an uneasy voyeur in a country with which I had no real connection.

Since my Jamaican trip I have visited many other countries and traveled extensively throughout the United States and other countries. I’ve noticed how tourist information does not depict the economic, social and environmental realities in most destination communities. Nor does it depict the negative impacts created by the tourism industry itself. I’ve also met people who are working for changes in tourism in their communities.

Over the years I have continued to explore my reasons for going to Jamaica. I was not able to contact much real Jamaican culture because of the culture that tourism had imposed. Why did it seem as though tourism controlled Jamaica, and Jamaica had no control over tourism? I am disturbed by my own projections of a culture and people that only exist as a commodity cooked up and dished out by the travel industry and the media. How did this happen? Did the colonial plantation-cum-resort I stayed at represent something more controversial, something that is still being perpetrated? It is an uncomfortable but essential exercise to explore my own motivations. Although uncomfortable, in retrospect, I am thankful for the seed planted in Jamaica that started to grow into a larger sense of what tourism is about and how broad and sometimes devastating its effects can be.

Changing the industry
My own participation as a tourist propelled me into a process of critical analysis and a conscious effort to support change within the industry. From this perspective, my goal is to demonstrate how traditional tourism development, especially in countries in the global South, has been unplanned, basically because it follows a western model that is highly consumption-oriented, often at the expense of the environment and culture. Tourism’s overwhelming growth has been destructive to both ecology and people in host destinations. This book will also discuss the roots of tourism in colonialism and the continuation of racism and commodification of cultures that tourism perpetrates.

There is a desperate need for information and tools to create change. My experience to Jamaica set into motion a journey of learning and activism. I’ve learned to look past immediate tourism issues for root causes — issues such as world economics, the media and technologies, development models, corporate control, the continuation of colonization, racism, and other causes of injustice. My exploration of tourism issues has been difficult, alarming, and wonderful. Learning about the negative issues has resulted in an effort to look for models and actions to change, sometimes to challenge, and sometimes to completely denounce it. It is important to undertake a critical analysis to appreciate why there is a pressing need for change.

The book focuses on the global tourism industry, and considers emerging consciousness about environment an important and booming factor in the growth of ecotravel. Tourism inherently is about our Earth. Vacations spent skiing, at the lake, camping, at beach resorts, and in National Parks reflect the need for human beings to spend time in nature. It’s obvious that the global tourism industry has an enormous impact on the environment, and in most cases, sells nature as part of the tourist product.

We cannot simply buy into the “eco” jargon and have it represent every tourism activity undertaken in nature. What is really needed is an overview of tourism, which acknowledges that “green” travel, or ecotravel, is a mere part of the larger impacts of the industry and that there is an urgent to need look at the broad issues related to tourism’s impacts upon the Earth. However, the basic premise of the book considers our planet, nature, and people to be intimately linked and the “green” gloss is an emphasis on consuming natural areas that maybe better off without increasing numbers of tourists.

There is increasing resistance to tourism. Some of it has simply been to “greenwash” tourism and promote it as a sustainable development strategy or to promote it as a “cultural heritage” site which monumentalizes culture and negates the current culture taking place. Yet, over the past thirty years, local people have joined with ecumenical groups, women, Indigenous peoples, grassroots groups, environmentalists, and even tourists, to respond to its negative impacts and create alternatives. These groups are holding their own conferences to challenge and denounce the negative impacts of global tourism and seek alternatives.

The international “responsible tourism” movement, born in the 1970s in response to negative impacts of tourism are campaigning and linking with a wide spectrum of community groups and the public and private sectors. Growing numbers of organizations that are outside of predominantly travel industry are also re-thinking their role in tourism and creating strategies for change. Farmers, women, Indigenous Peoples, human rights, activists, civil society, are organizing together to share common concerns. Many of these global movements involve travel and transit, financial transactions, and a reliance upon tourism industry that are all ultimately targets of change. These individuals and movements must recognize the role they play, the power they have to demand changes, and design clever strategies to use tourism as a catalyst for change. Some of these groups are organizing solidarity tours to pressure oppressive governments and supports each other at the grassroots, some are voluntarily linking with each other on social justice issues. There is also growth in nature travel and ecotourism, an area that immediately involves local people and can be a catalyst.

Currently, thousands of communities around the world are attempting some form of tourism development. While some communities are creating strategies for resistance to tourism, many people in communities where abrupt development transformations are taking place have little information about the forces transforming their lives. What is apparent, though, is that most of the communities are going through almost entirely the same process — fairly defined cycles of expectations and disappointments. Yet, tourism continues to grow haphazardly, often to the detriment of local people, communities and the environment, with little long-term, integrated planning. We have been following development paths that promote unlimited economic growth. This westernized model of growth have been applied, often believing, sometimes unwillingly, and increasingly resistant, to other countries.

The multinational aid and financial institutions have followed this path for more than fifty years, yet poverty has increased, arable lands are shrinking and threatened, the socioeconomic situation of most of the world is worse than ever. Our world leaders are now organizing international meetings to discuss the state of the world, to determine what to do about preserving our global commons, the air we breath and the water we drink, natural elements that cross borders — and of which the safety and health of these global commons is something we all depend upon to survive on this planet. While in some cases there is a growing interest in other cultures, there are also growing backlashes about ethnic groups. At the same time, our ability to learn about these issues and to work for change, across borders, within our own communities, has never been more promising. It is apparent that on an finite planet our precious natural resources must be protected. We are at the same time looking at more energy consumptive high technologies, while also examining more localized, less consumptive strategies. Despite our access to global information, these issues are complex, are not easily understood, and no one clearly has the answers.

The effects of travel and tourism development have traditionally been studied in bits and pieces, without linking these issues together in an overall examination of the real impacts. For instance, environmentalists have typically scrutinized the negative effects of tourism development upon natural resources and have focused primarily on conservation issues. Economists have concentrated upon business, employment, trade and financial issues. Anthropologists have documented changing tribal cultures, some on the brink of vanishing. Academics have traditionally studied the hotel and restaurant industries, although that has changed to include many forms of alternative travel as well as the impacts of tourism.

In the United States, we have tended to study the global South as a separate entity, although recently we have come to learn that its survival is directly tied to survival of the global North. In a global industry that carries over 415 million tourists annually to destinations around the world, and with an infrastructure valued at almost $3 trillion, it is imperative that we begin to explore these complex and overlapping issues of tourism development and its effects upon the earth and society through a more integrated framework. Increasingly tourists are becoming concerned about the impacts of their travel, and the impact and control of the giant tourism industry, and are looking for information and tools to assist them in becoming more responsible travelers and affecting change within the industry. A vacation represents a positive experience and alternative information has simply not been available until very recently, and even those alternatives need further exploration.

This book excludes large sectors of the travel industry — such as business travel and conferences and travel to most urban and developed areas. It focuses more on tourism activities and decisions that affect predominantly areas where planned “development” has had a short history. My concern is that global tourism is a real and pressing threat to the world’s biological and cultural diversity — the last remaining vestiges of “paradise.” In rural areas, on island ecosystems, and in pristine rain forests, tourism is a huge and growing part of the current development problem. It is a field that begs for study and change — our very lives depend on it. There are many tourism subjects that are not addressed adequately in this book, such as specific corporations involved in tourism and their affiliations, technologies, agriculture, organized crime, and state policies. There is a need to research these fields and I encourage anyone who reads this to do so.

This book attempts to present these questions and offers a challenge to conventional tourism. Analysis of the tourism industry demands the exploration of issues in our growing global community. This analysis can assist in understanding the role that the tourism industry plays in globalization and “development.” It can challenge us to create and support new ways to live together, as members of the human community and as members of the community of nature, and to cultivate ideas for change. The next few chapters deal with the negative impacts of tourism. However, there are ways to effectively change these negative impacts and be involved. Suggestions for change are listed in chapter Six. However, it is necessary to understand why there is a need to change.

The issue of tourism growth, how much, how fast, what kind, are crucial questions that surround the future of communities, local lifestyles and cultures, and the natural environment. This book suggests that there are a variety of instabilities and inequities associated with tourism growth. The ecological problems of growth pose a fundamental challenge. If the social costs of infinite growth (human consequences of ecological pollution, centralized concentration of power, inequitable income distribution) are as high as they appear to be, our current social systems cannot support them indefinitely.

Is there any reason to work to change tourism, or should we stop altogether? Resourceful ideas for reconstructing conventional tourism are emerging from concerned individuals and organizations, as well as from within communities — the people who are most effected. Concepts for alternative tourism projects, as well as alternatives to tourism, reflect the growing awareness for the importance of cultural preservation and ecological protection, as well as decentralized political and economic issues. These factors are critical, especially as we enter into an era of exploitive free-trade and economic globalization. In the struggle to return tourism to the hands of the local community, to empower people, as tourists, we must increasingly scrutinize our motives for traveling, whether we have the “right” as consumers to buy other cultures and environments, and to support the development of a responsible tourism. We must analyze “green” strategies such as ecotourism and sustainable tourism to determine whether we are simply being “greenwashed.” In an age where the media dominates and shapes our views of the world, it is imperative to utilize tourism as a means to effectively communicate with one another. In fact, there is no better way to understand the global crisis that we face together than through people-to-people communications.

To learn about the world through first-hand, one-on-one meetings with people from around the world is a valuable human experience. If travelers’ experiences were consistently negative, they would not pursue their journeys enthusiastically and share their experiences with others. We discover universal themes of human culture. We become more aware that no matter where we live we are all confronting similar situations as we ultimately become a global community. Even nature travel, in many ways, is a reconnection between post-industrialized society and Mother Earth.

Human contact is important as we work to create a just world. We must critically explore our motivations and make conscious decisions as we take an active part in constructive change. Tourism still remains a passive, amusing luxury for thousands of travelers. This must change in order for tourism to become a sustainable approach to seeing new places and meeting new people. The roots of tourism must be understood in a global context or we may further dangerously support the capitalization of the planet and a homogenization of our unique and vital cultures.

Starting Point
What is presented here is a starting point for rethinking a phenomenal industry, one that is the largest in the world. The next few chapters attempt to untangle the web of the giant global tourism industry by describing the many factors involved, the powers that control it, and the links between these crippling issues. It also provides information about unique ideas and tools for creating change. This book is an invitation to undertake tourism-related studies and actions on issues such as agriculture, technologies, exploitation of women and children, and the role of transnational corporations are examples of areas that beg for further investigation. Yet, I approach this project with a fascination to understand as much as possible about the people and organizations that are involved in investigating and changing the global tourism industry.

I look forward to future works that will engage these issues from other points of view and with different emphases. Indeed, much of this book is a continual education in the missteps and errors of global tourism, which have often fallen far short of its goals of “paradise.” At the same time, it is also an undertaking that has increased my imagination and dedication to so many people around the world who are working for change. I have learned that it makes predictions difficult. Yet, the purpose of writing is to encourage further investigation and action on the part of you, the reader.

Where will tourists be traveling in the next century? Will there be any places left to go? Or will our search for unspoiled environments and cultures be in vain since they may be completely replaced by manufactured cultures on reconstructed islands of paradise? It is a frightening thought to consider manufactured, replicated tourist centers with the same restaurants, shops, ethnic dances, and short-excursion adventures into man-made “Jurassic Parks?” Yet, if the mega mall, theme park and cruise ship is any indication of our future, “super tourists” who can afford it may pay to visit the last pristine places on Earth: to view the history of the Indigenous Peoples and organic agriculture, admire what use to be rainforests, and watch cultural entertainment at “virtual” reality centers. Perhaps they will be visiting private, enclosed “biospheres” or even the moon. Of course, there will be plenty of souvenirs! Click! Flash!

About the author
Deborah McLaren is the author of Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel: The Paving of Paradise and How You Can Stop It



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.