Does Tourism Help or Harm? A Look at Economics, Ecology, and Neocolonialism

This has been a long time coming.

Four years ago, I began writing this article. Each time I asked myself.

Who am I going to talk to about this?

It is too controversial. It is odd coming from someone who is part of the global privileged. How will this come off? Is it just inviting scrutiny?

We are here.

As I travel to over 60 countries, I notice things that put my past self to shame, that make me realize I didn't see my privilege for most of my life. I wonder if tourism is good for people.

With 1.5 billion recorded global arrivals in the year, we have to talk about the impact it has on our world. In 2020, we learned that what happens in one corner of the world will eventually affect everyone.
This post is the result of years of research, as I stopped writing it and started again.

Does tourism help or hurt?

The good of tourism.

I have found many examples of good tourism. When diving tourism outearns practices like fishing in Komodo, it preserves the reef systems. When climate change hits arid places like Ethiopia, tourism provides a way of earning and living that doesn't degrade the environment further, at least not directly. When done right, tourism creates an economy that doesn't depend on exploiting natural resources and manufacturing.

Job creation and poverty reduction.

In many places, tourism has overtaken international aid in terms of wealth transfer from the rich to the poor. It is more empowering than aid and handouts.

In 2012 tourism was the number one or number two export earnings for 20 of the 48 least developed countries.

UNESCO defines sustainable tourism as respecting both local people and the traveler, cultural heritage and the environment.

The necessary funds for improving infrastructure, education, and health can be created by directly taxing tourism.
Tourists buy a wide variety of goods and services from locally owned micro enterprises.
The vulnerability of the poor is reduced by employment diversification on a local level.
The tourism industry has a high proportion of people under 25. Youth gain access to higher earnings and better opportunities through sustainable tourism.
Tourism provides jobs to people with little to no formal training.

Wildlife preservation.

I sat in a small room on the island of Flores, Indonesia, while a dive master shared that Komodo Island had been named a manta sanctuary. The first shark and ray sanctuary in the Coral Triangle was established by the government of Raja Ampat, a popular diving area in Indonesia.

The illegal wildlife trade is worth at least $23 billion a year. Many of the illegal animal parts are used in medical products abroad.
A group of people, including local dive operators, were able to prove that a live manta ray is worth more than a dead one.
Locals who would otherwise have less earning opportunities can find good jobs in wildlife tourism.

The World Travel and Tourism Council says that wildlife tourism is equivalent to the entire GDP of South Africa or Hong Kong. The fact that around the world, 21.8 million jobs, or 6.8% of total jobs sustained by global travel and tourism in 2018, can be attributed to wildlife is of equal significance.

Tourism accounts for over a tenth of the GDP in the country and employs 2.3 million people. The country has one-third of its total area covered by protected areas. Almost half of international tourists to Tanzania enjoy a wildlife activity, and 26% enjoy a beach holiday.

We could fill the pages of book after book with examples like this, where tourism has helped preserve land, animals, and areas of historical significance for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

The rise of tourism.

At an eco-resort in the Philippines, they used solar, rain, and composting toilets.

Wildlife-related tourism is only one way to protect the environment and provide jobs. The sector is growing at an estimated 5% a year, and is driven mostly by young travelers.

Ecotourism is more than just washing fewer towels. It is about giving experiences that complement the local community and ecology, providing opportunities that do not take money out of the community, and empowering the local community to co-create tourism in ways that benefit them, not foreign.

According to a women-run consulting company, tourists who are socially responsible are more likely to stay in a destination longer.

This type of travel experience is available all over the world, but with a little extra research, you can find it.

Ecotourism is a way of providing travel experiences that have a minimal impact on the environment while empowering local people who may otherwise have to exploit natural resources to survive.

We always have to ask ourselves, what else would these economies run on? Industrial manufacturing and chemical production are the two largest economic activities in the world. Tourism is a better alternative.

The advancement of women.

In the developing world, tourism is one of the most important opportunities for female empowerment.

The majority of the world's tourism workforce is made up of women.

They are often in the lowest-paid and lowest-status jobs in tourism, and perform a large amount of uncompensated work in family tourism businesses.

The birth rate goes down when women have choices. Society benefits when women have more opportunities.

The Education for All Global Monitoring Report shows that working women with high levels of literacy skills earned 95 percent more than women with weak or no literacy skills. Women who have been educated are able to take a greater economic role in their families and communities, and they tend to invest most of their earnings into their communities.

Tourism can give women the chance to step into leadership roles they deserve, like Natajia Miller, who runs a hotel and tour company in the Bahamas.

When we combine education, job opportunities in tourism, and making women the priority, we have a greater chance of positively impacting the communities we travel in.

We often have the good mixed in with the bad.

The ugly of tourism.

Every example of the good the tourism does, we can often find a more crushing example of where it has done irreparable harm. We have to confront the bad parts of tourism as well, the ugly parts that hurt locals, degrade the environment, and perpetuate colonial norms, beginning with the crushing reality that most of the time, the money leaves.

There is economic leakage.

A few years ago I joined a liveaboard diving ship in Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia. This is one of the best places to dive in the world, and I still remember it as one of my most amazing trips to date.

The staff on the boat were not from Raja Ampat, but from other parts of Indonesia. I heard the driver refer to the locals as "curly heads", and later found out that there is a genocide happening in West Papua. I don't know how I came to visit. This is not international news?

Most of the money spent by the foreigners on the ship was spent in Indonesia and not in the area. It hurts me to know, but it did not benefit the locals at all.

My experience was not unique. A report from the UNWTO stated that only $5 of every $100 spent in a developing country stays in that country.

The world we live in is becoming more and more global. It is easy to become a Marriott member and always stay in Marriott-owned hotels, or to favor the Hilton because it is familiar, or to stay in an Airbnb that is rented out by a foreigner, effectively driving up rent prices for locals.

The problem? Most of the money leaves the country, doing very little to empower locals while taxing their ecology, using their limited water resources, and generating trash in places that are often ill-equipped to handle it.

The horrors are all-inclusive.

It sounds like all inclusive vacations. All of your food, drinks, entertainment, and accommodations are included for one price. You don't have to think about anything because your hand is held from landing to takeoff. I was hired to promote a Spanish-owned one in Mexico's Riviera Maya and stayed in one in Cabo San Lucas this past October.

Mexican food was never on the menu. It made me wonder how much had to be shipped in. The property in Cabo also offered a Mexican night with stalls selling Mexican souvenirs instead of encouraging guests to visit a local market to get the real experience for less and with more direct wealth transfer to locals.

This is typical. Most all-inclusive guests stay at the resort.

A survey of 500,000 tourists by Tourism Concern found that less than 20% of respondents who had been on an all inclusive regularly left the resort to visit other bars, restaurants or excursions.

What about jobs for locals? Wages were often lower and working conditions were worse in all inclusives where the study was conducted.

The big-is- better mentality at large, all-inclusive resorts is the other issue. Since everything is free, people waste more food at all-inclusive resorts than they would at a restaurant or home.

Where does this food come from? If you stay at a resort in Jamaica or the Bahamas, you will eat food from Florida. It is worth looking at what is in the gift shop because it is usually brands from home that tourists prefer.

The power of all inclusive hotels makes it hard to mitigate issues. All inclusive hotels have so much power that when the government tried to ban them, tour operators threatened to leave the country.

Locals are priced out of their homes.

Most of the best real estate is taken up by vacation homes and beachfront hotels, if you look at any beach destination.

Property taxes make it difficult for locals to hold onto beachfront real estate because they are based on the value of the land, which increases with the increase in tourism and foreign investment.

This can be seen all over the world, where locals can no longer afford to live in their hometown.

The places many tourists call home are also impacted by the "Airbnb Effect", from Barcelona to New York to New Zealand.

This is a bitter pill to swallow, because many of us turned to Airbnb for a more local experience than a hotel can offer, hoping that we were supporting locals this way. Maybe we were in the beginning.

Many locals in the places we love to travel do not want tourism because it has made life harder and degraded the environment.

Environmental degradation.

After 6 months of being closed, the Philippines' famed tourist destination of Boracay reopened to tourism in the year 2019.

The year before, 1.7 million people had visited the island. Sewage was pumped directly back out to the sea, the mangroves were drained and the coral reefs were decimated because of unregulated tourism. Locals were undermined by outsiders and watched as their island became a nightmare.

As tourism numbers swell worldwide, natural areas are getting the kind of visitor influx that pushes them to the brink.

In the US National Park system, the most visited national park in 2020 was the Great Smoky Mountains, which received over 12 million visitors, up from just over 10 million in 1986 and 6 million in 1960. Land degradation, air and noise pollution, and trampling are some of the consequences of increased tourism.

In Thailand, the deputy dean of the Faculty of Fisheries at Kasetsart University blames beachfront hotels and anchoring for the destruction of coral reefs.

We could fill the pages of books with examples of positive land and habitat preservation.

Climate change is a result of tourism.

Climate change has made the usual ways of life more difficult in areas where tourism provides earning opportunities.
Tourism-related activities are estimated to contribute to global emissions. CO2 emissions from tourism are expected to increase by 25% by 2030. To reduce emissions in accordance with the Paris Accord, global emissions need to decrease by at least 7% per year throughout the next decade, which is not on track for.

Travel makes up a small amount of global emissions, and even if everyone stopped traveling, it wouldn't be enough. It would hurt vulnerable people and places that rely on tourism, as we have seen in 2020.

People who travel see the degradation of the planet. When I traveled the world, I was told by every single person I talked to that they once had abundance, from the sushi fish of Japan, to the animals of Southeast Asia, to the reliable seasons of Patagonia. Things are changing and it is not for the better, that's what the story is everywhere I go.

Traveling helps educate people about the world and its cultures and helps us care more about what happens to it because we have seen it before. Is it enough? Is it too late?

The colonial norms were perpetuated.

Traveling along the banana pancake trail in Southeast Asia in my 20s was a defining part of my life. I met people from all over the world, but now that I think about it, I met them from all over the white world. I met them from countries like my own where young people can save up and travel long-term because they are so cheap.

I stayed in a lot of locally owned hostels, but I didn't get to hang out with Thai or Cambodian people, and I mostly eat food from street vendors. It happened from time to time, but for the most part, it was in a service oriented situation where we both played a role.

I hardly noticed this. I didn't think about where people lived. I didn't wonder if they were different than the accommodations I was in, which was the most basic I have ever stayed in. Most of theirs is more basic than that.

I didn't think about my presence.

I traveled to southern Africa for the first time in 2015. It clicked when black locals slept in corrugated metal shacks and the camps were running thousands of dollars per night. How could there be so much wealth and so little of it? When the black clerk helping us push a cart out of the grocery store in Namibia got the full pat down while the guard barely looked at me, it started to click. It clicked when a backpackers in Zambia offered an afternoon volunteering with local kids. What were they doing? Is it possible to get kids out for tourist photos?
Tourism and Neo-Colonialism are related.

This is the point in the article where I stopped writing. I have questioned who I am to talk about, and have been certain that I would say or do something wrong, if I did something in the past that was not good.

We have to look at the ways that privilege and tourism go hand-in-hand, and how we may have perpetuated it, and benefited from it.

There is still colonialism.

I woke up in a taxi in Uganda. The driver and I had a chat after a long drive from the airport. He wanted to know how to marry a white woman. He told me that it was his way to come up in the world.

Why wouldn't he think this was his misconception? He has seen a lot of white people with money. Backpackers on a shoe-string budget are able to afford a plane ticket and time that is not spent in a relentless pursuit of earning a living. Most of the hotels and big businesses are still owned and run by former colonizers. Learning English is required for working in these establishments. It would be easy to feel like the only way to ascend is to be a part of the western world.
The myth that Africa needs saving and little white girls and boys can come in and fix it is perpetuated by stories about the white messiah who comes in to help. Colonization is still going on.

The words of Reni Eddo-Lodge in Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race stand out. The default color is white. Humans arecoded as white because we are born into a script that tells us what to expect from strangers because of their skin color, accents and social status. Blackness is considered the other and therefore to be suspected. In comparison to a local person of color, I see this play out in the way that I am treated.

Africa is rich in both minerals and flora, but it is often portrayed as poor and dangerous.
Western tourists are seen as having money and power because of the power structures that were built over centuries.
The sexualization of women.

If you travel a lot in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand, you will start to see a group of people called the'sexpat'. Is it repulsive? Are they just lonely old men? I don't know or care, but I'm disturbed that this is a thing.

The images of grass skirts and coconut shells on smiling Hawaiian women made visitors to the islands want to visit. The implication was that I was here for the taking.

Women of color are seen to exist to serve the will of the settlers, from the Black Mammy to the Singapore Girl.

She says that a tourist destination is where men of one class can enjoy the privileges of men of another class. Someone else will cook their meals, clean their toilets, and make their beds.

The tourist wants to be free to indulge his appetite at will, to play all day, and have someone else clean up the mess. The host communities play the role of the Mother to the tourist. There is nothing feminist about taking selfies with women who are struggling to hold onto their dignity in the face of exploitative tourist practices.

Over the last couple hundred years, travel has been a means of exploiting the rest, and we don't have to look very far to see that.

What can be done?

A woman founded, owned and operated a resort.

I am not on any soapbox sharing this. I make mistakes.

Awareness is only a part of the battle.

We vote with our dollars when we travel. I think our duty as travelers is to support the people who are empowering their own communities.
Traveling independently or choosing tour operators who care about empowering locals are important steps. It is not to say that foreign owned companies can't have a good impact, but the more pressure we put on them to be socially responsible, the more that they will have to comply.

When I travel, I look for options that are locally-owned and run by women. Even if I stay in a foreign-owned resort, I try to balance it out with local options.
It is up to us how we want the future of travel to be. Travel can pull people out of poverty and empower women to be entrepreneurs. Traveling has the power to take advantage of people and their homes.

We have to be aware. We have to think about who benefits from the money we spend and who doesn't. It can take a lot of research to travel well.

The thing about a globalized world that allows so many of us to travel is that we are all connected. The same planet, oceans, and air are shared by us. We all want to feel like we have a home, we all want to be respected, we all want to have access to clean water and food, and we all want to have enough for ourselves and our families. The circle cannot be complete when one part of the chain is broken.

As someone who encourages others to travel and whose life and livelihood have depended on travel for the better part of the last decade, I couldn't pretend that these uncomfortable truths don't exist anymore. Thanks for reading. I would love to know your thoughts as well.

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