home Archives Globalization, Tourism, and Indigenous Peoples: What You Should Know About the World’s Largest Industry (1999)

Globalization, Tourism, and Indigenous Peoples: What You Should Know About the World’s Largest Industry (1999)

Photo: Acoma Sky City

From the archives

by Lee Pera and Deborah McLaren

This essay was published in November 1999.

Tourism is arguably the world’s largest industry – and continues tremendous annual growth rates. The industry’s gains grew to $439 billion dollars last year. As the world’s natural areas are also destroyed at an alarming rate, the tourism industry is encroaching on remote and biologically diverse areas, home to Indigenous Peoples and threatens our environment and way of life. According to the World Tourism Organization, in 1998 there were 635 million tourist arrivals around the world. For the recipients (host countries) of international tourism, the tourism industry creates dependency upon a fickle and fluctuating global economy beyond their local control. Local economic activities and resources are used less for the benefit and development of communities and increasingly for export and the enjoyment of others (i.e., tourists, consumers in other areas of the world). With so few international policies and guidelines restricting it, tourism has been given free reign to develop throughout the world. In fact, it has led the globalization process in the areas of transportation, communications, and financial systems.

It has been promoted as a panacea for “sustainable” development. However, tourism’s supposed benefits (generation of employment, development of infrastructure, etc.) have not “trickled down” or benefited Indigenous Peoples. The destructiveness of the tourism industry (environmental pollution and enormous waste management problems, displacement from lands, human rights abuses, unfair labor and wages, commodification of cultures, etc.) has brought great harm to many Indigenous Peoples and communities around the world. Recently we have witnesses many government bodies, international environmental treaties, and other policies as they are made about “sustainable tourism,” yet Indigenous Peoples have not been invited to participate adequately in these policies which will have negative consequences for the rest of time.

“Global tourism threatens indigenous knowledge and intellectual property rights, our technologies, religions, sacred sites, social structures and relationships, wildlife, ecosystems, economies and basic rights to informed understanding; reducing indigenous peoples to simply another consumer product that is quickly becoming exhaustible.”
-Deborah McLaren

Tourism & Global Trade

The tourism industry is often overlooked in trade issues although for 83% of countries in the world it is one of their five top export categories, it accounts for roughly 35% of the exports of services in the world and over 8% of the total world exports of goods (World Tourism Organization), it is classified as an export strategy for debt-ridden countries by the IMF, (Chavez) and many of its components such as air transport, agricultural goods, and communications are important trade issues. Tourism is distinct in that it moves people to the “product” rather than transporting a product to people, and it is dependent and intricately tied to other areas of local economies such as agriculture, land, and labor. It is not possible to analyze tourism’s effects on local communities and its role in globalization without also looking at these other areas. Since liberalization in the tourism sector is dependent on liberalization in other sectors, it is important to realize the effects of policies in many arenas within the WTO: agriculture, intellectual property rights, services, investment, etc. and the ways they may strengthen the global tourism industry’s control over local communities and further erode communities’ abilities to be active agents in the decision-making regarding their own environments and futures.

Trade Liberalization vs. Indigenous Culture: Conflicts Over Ethics, Selling of Traditions, Lands, Culture, Intellectual Property Rights

The ethics of the World Trade Organization – that economic growth and globalization are the utmost priorities – effects every aspect of life: from trees to Indigenous knowledge to labor and sells our traditions and lands.

Commodification is rampant in the tourism industry. Peoples and cultures are put on display on postcards, promotional literature, and in their own homes when tourists arrive. The concept of “the right to a vacation” in industrialized countries (anyone with the money to travel can purchase a week or two of another culture or part of nature) creates numerous and serious repercussions for host destinations and their environments. Tourism is deeply rooted in a history of colonization and unequal relations between people and regions. Therefore, the effects of tourism cannot only be measured in terms of employment generation, degree of pollution, infrastructure development, and loss of biodiversity. In addition, there are many societal and psychological effects which are often immeasurable but have grave impacts and must be a part of the critical analysis of tourism and its effects on Indigenous communities.

Tourism introduces a consumer culture into communities whose societies and values may not be based on the economic power of the individual. Tourists’ quest for “authenticity” often leads to a prostitution of the local culture for the demand and enjoyment of the tourists. The dissemination of Western products and lifestyle has been one result of tourism and is actively promoted by the WTO. In fact, within the commercial realm, culture is reduced to just another product to be traded: “Mass produced products of American popular culture are one of the country’s biggest exports,” according to Debi Barker and Jerry Mander. If the entertainment and media/communi-cations industries prevail, more fabricated culture, i.e., Hollywood and Disneylands, will be forced on other countries and cultures while their rights to protect their own cultures will erode. The inclusion of cultural products in the elimination of barriers to trade and the increase in tourism will facilitate the growth of a tourist monoculture around the world. Nations, regions, and people must have rights to preserve their cultures from erosion by the dominant consumer culture.

Another threat that the expanding global tourism industry brings to Indigenous communities is biopiracy. Bioprospecting and biopiracy often happen under the guise of ecotourism. There are concerns about numerous “ecotourism” trips where scientists, tourists, students and researchers enter into forests to collect information about local plants and ecosystems, stealing biodiversity and, in some cases, attempting to patent life and the stealing of knowledge developed over centuries. Yet, Indigenous worldviews are not taken into consideration nor consulted as “scientific knowledge” when policies and decision-making regarding bioprospecting are made.

Indigenous Peoples around the world, working together to help direct and develop UN policies on tourism, recently proposed to the Commission on Sustainable Development the following statement on ethical principals:

Tourism has often had negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples and other local communities and ecosystems of which they are a part. These communities are a diverse mixture of environments, cultures, religions, spiritualities as well as genders and ethnicities. Unsustainable tourism damages the environment and violates Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ human rights and rights of access and ownership to land and natural resources essential to food security, self-sufficiency and cultural identity. It also commercializes and markets Peoples and their cultural heritage, and sacred sites integral to traditional cultural and knowledge systems. Therefore, Indigenous Peoples and other local communities should enjoy the full measure of human rights, collective rights, and fundamental freedoms without hindrance and discrimination. This includes the right to reject as well as accept tourism. Furthermore, they should be prime decision-makers with regard to tourism that will impact their cultures and environments.

Tourism Myths and Realities
The tendency of large-scale tourism to dominate a whole regional economic base can be observed in many areas throughout the world. Tourism threatens and often destroys locals’ traditional means of livelihood, or local self-reliance, and can ruin local industries with its build-up of transportation, communications, and economic infrastructure. Liberalization in economic sectors such as agriculture, or expansion of other industries such as logging or mining, also create conditions ripe for tourism development since they help to erode a community’s self-sufficiency and create dependency upon a market over which locals have no control. For instance, the concentration in agribusinesses and free trade agreements such as NAFTA have left local communities with little food security and searching for a way to survive. It is no coincidence that those who have lost their lands or have no market for their crops are forced into service-sector employment in the tourism industry and are increasingly dependent on the whims of the global market and the corporations which run it.

Tourism is the world’s largest employer according to estimates of the World Travel and Tourism Council. It is often touted as a creator of employment and a mechanism of development for the communities where it imposes itself. Often, however, the jobs that tourism creates are not adequate living-wage, secure jobs with benefits, jobs where people can develop skills, and they usually do not comply with labor standards. WTO rulings regarding labor standards as “barriers to free trade” are threats for workers in the tourism industry who already have little job security and labor rights and who have few, if any, other options for employment.

Another serious threat to sustainable tourism projects is the WTO’s prioritization of global commerce over everything: self-reliance of communities, environment, human rights, health and safety. New issues such as investment, government procurement, and competition policy will severely limit the opportunities for communities to create sustainable, tourism alternatives. The WTO’s goal for a “harmonization” of standards around the world will facilitate the growth of a consumer culture in addition to the erosion of self-reliance of communities and regions. According to Wallach and Sforza in their book Whose Trade Organization? “Differences in standards, even if they express differences in cultures and values, are deemed inherently undesirable because they fragment the global market.” There will be no way to enforce standards for the tourism industry such as prior-informed consent, support for local initiatives, or environmental regulations, within these uniform global standards designed by corporations.

Rules on investment and competition policy will make it virtually impossible to ensure Indigenous and local control over tourism projects. Foreign direct investment will limit countries’ abilities to put conditions on the type of investment they receive, will give more rights to foreign investors and will only increase the leakage of profits out of the host country. For the tourism industry, where up to 90% of profits leave the host country, this would be a disaster. Communities will have no rights to regulate which companies set up businesses on their lands. Competition policy would make it virtually impossible for communities and small businesses to develop their own tourism alternatives in a protected environment. Community-run tourism projects which seek to be a part of community development, but not the sole economic activity of the region, need special protection from industry giants if they are to succeed.

Other agreements which have come under the power of the WTO, such as the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures and the General Agreement on Trade in Services, have been scrutinized in the past by critical analysts of tourism for the damage they do to responsible tourism initiatives. Regulations such as those found in the TRIMS agreement which restrict a country’s rights to require companies to purchase local materials, the “most favored nations” provisions which make it illegal for countries to reward companies who hire locals or have good environmental practices, and the liberalization of trade in services of GATS which would allow foreign companies to merge or take over local companies all present threats to Indigenous-owned and operated sustainable tourism initiatives.

Local / Traditional Knowledge & Decision-Making Power Must be Safeguarded
“A mistake made by the community is a thousand times better than a solution imposed by an expert.”
– Mexican proverb

In order for Indigenous Peoples to be active agents in the tourism industry, to have control over tourism initiatives, to become successful partners with governments or industry, and to take part in the decision-making process and policy-making regarding tourism, the WTO and industry must regulate their activities in accordance with Treaties and Constructive Agreements between Indigenous Peoples and states, as well as with existing and emerging instruments, such as:

UN Declaration of Human Rights

UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

ILO Convention 169

UN Convention on Biological Diversity

Current Draft of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Prior-informed consent must be accepted as standard protocol for any sort of tourism development. According to Roy Taylor of the North American Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Project, prior-informed consent includes decisions based on knowledge about both the pros and cons of development: “when corporations, the military and governments make decisions they make sure they learn everything there is to know-the pros and cons-of planned development before making a decision. What we are saying is that we need to also have that information. We are tired of hearing about the ‘enterprise concept’ which usually promotes only the benefits of ‘development’ and we need to know the potential downside too. That is the hallmark of informed consent.”

Other policies and protocols to protect Indigenous culture, lands and knowledge include

the right to say no to tourism development

access to all information (negative and positive)

access and participation in policy-making

support for models and case studies developed by Indigenous Peoples

support for economic diversity within communities

support for development of Indigenous community programs

International agreements such as Agenda 21 to protect fundamental human rights for Indigenous Peoples must be adhered to in any policy-making decisions. According to the chapter 26,

“Recognition that the lands of indigenous people and their communities should be protected from activities that are environmentally unsound or that the indigenous people concerned consider to be socially and culturally inappropriate; Recognition of their values, traditional knowledge and resource management practices with a view to promoting environmentally sound and sustainable development”

The structure of the WTO itself proves it impossible to be able to ensure the implementation and protection of these measures for Indigenous control over tourism projects in our communities. The fact that municipal and regional governments are subject to agreements within the WTO which are signed by national governments (in a coercive, non-democratic environment) eliminates communities’ rights to participation in policy-making which directly effect them. In fact, under these agreements, communities have no right to dispute these regulations. The WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body will never ensure rights which will strengthen the self-reliance of communities while it is made up of pro-industry and trade representatives who rule in favor of the corporations they serve to protect and against any laws made by the citizens of a country to protect their environment, health, and economy. The WTO’s push for everyone to enter the waged workforce and become consumers in a global market places no value on self-sufficiency, community-building, or economic diversity, particularly for people who prefer to continue to live outside of the global capital system.

As the WTO has proven so far, its very undemocratic and non-transparent nature will prevent it from ever being able to serve the interests of Indigenous Peoples around the world.

Agenda 21 and Indigenous Peoples
“Indigenous people and their communities represent a significant percentage of the global population. They have developed over many generations a holistic traditional scientific knowledge of their lands, natural resources and environment. Indigenous people and their communities shall enjoy the full measure of human rights and fundamental freedoms without hindrance or discrimination … In view of the interrelationship between the natural environment and its sustainable development and the cultural, social, economic and physical well-being of indigenous people, national and international efforts to implement environmentally sound and sustainable development should recognize, accommodate, promote and strengthen the role of Indigenous people and their communities.”

“Support for alternative environmentally sound means of production to ensure a range of choices on how to improve their quality of life so that they effectively participate in sustainable development; Enhancement of capacity-building for indigenous communities, based on the adaptation and exchange of traditional experience, knowledge and resource-management practices, to ensure their sustainable development; Establishment, where appropriate, of arrangements to strengthen the active participation of indigenous people and their communities in the national formulation of policies, laws and programmes …”


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