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Sustainable Development and the Case against Tourism

Angela Tam


Introduction 2
Chapter 1: What is tourism and who are tourists? 3
Chapter 2: The environmental impact of tourism 5
Chapter 3: The social and cultural impact of tourism 12
Chapter 4: The real economic impact of tourism 16
Chapter 5: Why do we travel? 21


Every day millions of people in the developed world dream of a holiday abroad. They
check out the specials pasted on the travel agents' windows, surf the internet looking for
deals and picture themselves in the idyllic settings painted on TV and in magazines.
Those who can afford it regularly book themselves into top resorts or hotels and swim in
the lap of luxury once they arrive. The less well-off save up for the opportunity to be
herded onto planes and coaches to see sights in exotic places. And low-cost carriers have
made overseas travel possible for more people more often than ever before.

Tourism is a booming industry and governments can't develop the sector fast enough. In
developed and developing countries alike, tourism has created jobs for locals while
providing entertainment for visitors, isn't it wonderful?

Is it?

This document is written to explain why tourism, far from being a benign industry,
accounts for much of the environmental, social and economic problems encountered in
the world today. These are the components of sustainable development, a concept with
its beginnings in the 1980s, when the United Nations-appointed World Commission on
Environment and Development published Our Common Future, a report which has
supplied us with the definition of sustainable development most widely accepted today,
which is: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the
ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The negative impact of tourism is becoming more widely known, which is why
increasingly the tourism industry is talking about eco-tourism. Don't be fooled though.
The idea that tourism can be eco-friendly will be addressed here too.

I have tried to summarise the key problems in a relatively short document. Those who
wish to find out more about the impact of tourism in specific areas may refer to the
sources cited in the footnotes, some of which are lengthy academic studies that explain
the issue in much greater detail.

Chapter 1: What is tourism and who are tourists?
First of all, some definitions. Tourism is defined in the Concise Oxford English
Dictionary as “the commercial organisation and operation of holidays and visits to places
of interest”. A tourist is defined in the same dictionary as “a person who travels for
pleasure”. The World Tourism Organisation defines a tourist as someone who travels at
least eighty kilometres (fifty miles) from home for the purpose of recreation.

Because one cannot travel for whatever purpose whatsoever unless one has the means
and time to do so, a tourist is generally someone who has the disposable income and the
free time to engage in travelling. In days of yore this put the concept of tourism beyond
the reach of the average man-on-the-street (or, going back to more agrarian days, the
man-on-the-farm). Only emperors and aristocrats could afford to play tourists in ancient
times; it would be a stately affair involving a glorious retinue of humans and animals that
would draw admiring or resentful (depending on the state of governance at the time)
crowds everywhere they went.

In the 19th century new transport technology made travelling easier for more people.
More European ladies and gentlemen could finish their education or simply “see the
world”, going on a grand tour of exotic places, taking steamships and trains. In drab and
rainy Britain, it became fashionable to visit spas in Europe for health reasons. Britain
was also yielding what came to be defined as “the middle class”, a group of people who
had earned their money and leisure courtesy of the Industrial Revolution – manufacturers
and traders dealing with the new factory-made goods – who could afford, and wanted to
treat themselves, to a holiday somewhere out of town. The paid statutory holiday,
introduced in the UK by the Bank Holiday Act of 18711, extended the privilege to
workers who, while not able to afford a trip abroad, could at least take the train to a
(usually seaside) resort nearby. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the operator of the
first package tours in the world – Thomas Cook – was a Briton. Eventually the need to
accommodate these leisure travellers led to the development of hotels and the tourist
industry was born when more varied and deliberate ways of taking advantage of the
money-spinning potential of such people came into being, in the form of souvenir shops,
“tourist spots”, travel guides, etc.

“The commercial organisation and operation of holidays” refers to this phenomenon.

However, while many tourists fit the World Tourism Organisation's definition of a
“tourist”, someone from the southern city of Guangzhou who cross over to Hong Kong
for a spot of shopping and sightseeing may tell you that you don't always have to travel
more than eighty kilometres to qualify as a tourist. I will define “tourist” as someone
who travels for the specific purpose of recreation or the experience of things that have a
novelty value for him/her, as a form of entertainment (as against those who may do so
with the express purpose of acquiring knowledge or a better understanding of a different
culture). He/she is not an explorer or gypsy scholar, nor a person who is travelling
because of work or family, but a consumer abroad, armed with travellers' cheques or

wads of the local currency (or, in many cases, US dollars) to be dispensed with in the
pursuit of diversion.

Tourism is now widely recognised as an industry. Now the use of the word “industry” to
describe tourism is also interesting. Descended from the Latin “industria” and the French
“industrie”, “industry” originally meant hard work for a purpose and implied the use of
certain skills that were harnessed for the production of goods or services, which in many
cases gave those in possession of those skills an identity. Since the Industrial Revolution
the word “industry” also became associated with the mass manufacture of goods: think
large factories with belching chimneys and worker ants stationed at assembly lines á la
Charlie Chaplin in his 1936 classic “Modern Times”. Now the word has come to be used
to refer to “a particular branch of economic or commercial activity” (Oxford Concise).

Such “a branch of economic or commercial activity” may evolve organically but

eventually organise itself into, well, an industry, with all the clout and recognition that
brings. By this stage this “branch of economic or commercial activity” will have given
rise to its own lobby group, in the form of an industry association, to influence
government decision-making and present its case to authorities high and low.

The tourist industry is a little bit different from most other industries, though, in that
many of its constituents are also members of other industries. Hotels, for example, also
belong to the “hospitality industry”. And its products are not necessarily produced by
the industry itself. Museums and monuments, for example, are built by civic authorities
or private benefactors, not the tourist industry, and nature reserves are not built by
anybody at all, just defined and demarcated by the authorities. These places are merely
appropriated by the tourist industry for the benefit of its own constituents. However,
there are also tourist attractions that are consciously created from scratch with that
specific purpose in mind, theme parks being a prominent example.

The tourist industry is made up of diverse groups united by the common goal of
generating profits by encouraging people to become tourists: airlines, hotels and resorts,
tour operators, travel agents, restaurants, souvenir shops, guidebook publishers, coach
and car hire companies, etc. They may be divided into two categories: those groups
responsible for bringing tourists to the tourist destination – the airlines, tour operators
and travel agents – and those that provide products and services to tourists at the
destination – the hotels, theme park operators, restaurants and shops.

It is clear that tourism makes a lot of money for many people. Because it can be a
relatively quick and low cost way of generating revenue – you don't have to invest in any
long-term infrastructure; all you have to do is dress up what's already there and market
them as tourist attractions – tourism has been embraced by many developing countries
eager for foreign exchange and economic growth.

Chapter 2: The environmental impact of tourism
Tourism has an enormous impact on the environment, either because the provision of
tourist facilities involves the clearance of land that contributes biodiversity, clean air and
food; or because its activities generate pollution, upset the local ecology and lead to a
depletion of natural resources. Or both.

Air travel

Every aircraft consumes an enormous amount of fuel while causing a significant amount
of air pollution. Admittedly, the aviation industry has made great strides on both scores
in recent years. Over the last 30 years, it is estimated that fuel economy per passenger
mile has improved by 61%2. The airlines have an incentive to force the aircraft
manufacturers to improve fuel economy: fuel is a major cost item and oil prices have
been rising. However, this improvement has been more than cancelled out by the
explosive growth in air travel, spurred on by the tax-free status of aviation fuel.
According to a report published by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the world’s
airlines burn 205 million tonnes of aviation fuel (kerosene) a year and produce over half
a billion tonnes of greenhouse gases3. Although it is responsible for only 1-2% of
anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, because of the altitude at which they occur, the
emissions are about three times more damaging in terms of climate change compared to
the same amount of emissions at ground level4.

Today, cheap air travel offered by no-frills airlines means even more people are flying off
to “exotic” places for holidays, further worsening the problem. The irony is that, while
western governments are calling for action on climate change, they are actively
supporting development of the aviation industry, by not taxing aviation fuel, and by
building or expanding airports.

Governments invest in new airports or the expansion of existing airports because they are
the nodes through which most tourists are delivered to their jurisdictions by airlines. A
bigger airport can handle more tourists and the airport itself can generate more income
through duty-free franchises. As the first thing a tourist will see, an airport also has
symbolic significance; it is used to show an image the government wants to project,
whether that be friendliness, efficiency, fun, luxurious holidays, great shopping or some
other intangible qualities. Because an airport gives tourists this all-important first
impression of a place, a sophisticated city or province would spend a fortune to hire the
best architect to design a smart airport.

But what is the price? The proposed construction or expansion of airports in the UK
offers some pointers. Those who oppose the addition of a fifth terminal at Heathrow

2 “Climate: Air Travel Emissions”. Rocky Mountain Institute.

3 Whitelegg, John and Cambridge, Howard: Aviation and Sustainability. Stockholm Environment
Institute. July 2004.
4 ibid

Airport in London, which was proposed by British Airways back in 1993, have noted the
noise and air pollution associated with expanding an airport situated in an area already
suffering from transport problems. There is also the issue of having to clear a vast tract
of land to make way for the expansion. A proposal to expand Stansted Airport, in the
southeast, elicited even more vociferous opposition. Norman Mead, chairman of the
campaign group Stop Stansted Expansion, called the proposal “environmental vandalism
on an unprecedented scale” and pointed out that it would put at risk "homes that have
existed for centuries - as well as ancient woodlands and important wildlife habitats"5.
Think a campaign group's chairman cannot be trusted to be objective about the real risks?
Well, here's a statement from English Heritage, the UK's statutory body charged with the
responsibility for protecting the country's historical monuments:

“English Heritage has expressed fears for the future of the historic environment of Essex
as a result of the Government's decision to go ahead with proposals for a new runway at
Stansted Airport.

“It is feared that the proposals could result in the direct loss of nearly three square miles
of historic Essex, including as many as 30 listed buildings and two nationally important
ancient monuments. It could also have a serious impact on many adjacent properties and
surrounding historic towns and villages including Great Dunmow, Thaxted, Bishop's
Stortford and Saffron Walden. These are part of England's irreplaceable heritage.”6

The concern over the impact of airports on the environment is so great that a national
organisation, AirportWatch, was established in 2000 “to oppose unnecessary,
unsustainable and irresponsible airport expansion across the UK”7. The group's reasons
for opposing airport expansion are precisely those that affect the sustainable development
of the town or city involved, namely climate change, noise, and air quality and health.
Two other reasons cited by the group, economics and social justice, will be addressed in
later chapters.

In 2003, the British Government published a white paper, “The Future of Air Transport”,
that set out a 30-year framework for the development of the aviation industry. Among its
proposals were plans for additional runways at Stansted, Heathrow and Birmingham
airports; runway lengthening at Liverpool, Newcastle, Teeside, Leeds and Inverness
airports; and new airports in Kent and Rugby. But such was the vehemence of the
opposition campaigners secured a judicial review of the paper in February 20058.

The British are fortunate in that they have the law to turn to as a last resort; the citizens of
many other countries do not enjoy the rule of law and those most affected by airport

5 “Airport expansion plans condemned”. BBC News, 12 May 2003.
6 “Stansted Airport”. English Heritage. http://www.english-
7 AirportWatch.
8 “Airport Expansion”. Issue Briefs.

developments are simply brushed aside as authorities see fit. The farmers who own land
around Japan's Narita Airport did score a rare victory recently, but their battle to stop the
expansion of the airport into their land had gone on for 39 years9.

The fear of those opposed to airport developments is not unfounded. The United Nations
have catalogued a number of coastal airport developments which have had negative
impact on the local ecosystems. For example, the construction of Bali's Kuta airport
created a landing strip which is at right angles to the shore and extends one kilometre
offshore. The design has prevented sand replenishment and led to more than 300 metres
of erosion on the downstream side of the airstrip, destroying beach and dune habitat10.

Proponents of airport development would argue that an environmental impact assessment

will be conducted beforehand, but this is not necessarily the case in all countries, nor are
mitigative measures necessarily adopted or, if adopted, always effective. For example,
an environmental impact assessment was conducted prior to the construction of Hong
Kong's new international airport at Chek Lap Kok in the 1990s. It was recognised that
the reclamation work would adversely affect a major white dolphin habitat. As a
mitigative measure, the Hong Kong Government established a 12-kilometre dolphin
sanctuary, but figures released by the Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department
indicate the dolphins have been dying at an increasing rate11.

Of course, those familiar with the situation in Hong Kong would point out that it's not the
airport, but continued reclamation in the area, North Lantau, that has affected the
dolphins. As it happens, the continued reclamation is related to the city's bid to increase
its potential as a tourist destination: much of the reclamation is being carried out to form
land for theme parks.

Destructive land use

If the environment can still be damaged despite the implementation of environmental

impact assessment, how much worse is the situation in developing countries where it is
by no means an accepted procedure? Local authorities in many Asian countries have
been rushing to build airports to bring in tourists. Do we know what damage these
airports have wrought on the local ecosystems?

Airports and aircraft are not alone in causing damage to the environment; tourist facilities
such as resorts and golf courses also have a huge impact. Hotel and resort operators,
mindful of their image, tend to emphasise the implementation of environmental impact
assessments before their facilities are developed and how much care has gone into
blending them with the environment. Unfortunately, the reality is that unscrupulous
developers eager to make a quick buck will do everything they can to bypass
9 “Narita fiasco: never again”. Japan Times editorial, 26 July 2005.
10 UN Atlas of the Oceans: Airports.
11 “Fears over rising dolphin deaths”. The Standard, 3 October 2005.

environmental regulations, sweep aside local stakeholders and either put up their own
hotels/resorts or sell on the right to do so to the international chains which may or may
not be aware that lagoons have already been dredged and wetlands filled. That is the fate
of Koh Chang, which the Thai Government decided would be the country's next tourist
hot spot, after Phuket and Samui.12 In fact, Thailand has a catalogue of idyllic
environments which have been spoiled by tourist developments. There is a pattern to
them: they started off as truly unspoiled places, with clean beaches and simple fisherfolk
or farmers occupying the land; their discovery by backpackers woke up local tour
operators, and before long the big developers, aided by government policy, would be in
on the act, kicking out the locals to erect hotels and resorts for rich foreigners.

Before the Asian tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 presented the irony of once-again pristine
beaches, which made those tourists that remained realised what a big money-spinning
contraption Phuket had become, the place was already subject to pollution, inadequate
waste management, and environmental degradation that prompted one tourist to complain
to the Bangkok Post on 17 May 2003, saying: “After being in Thailand for two months,
my wife and I will not be extending our visas for a further month as planned. The reason
is that we have been worn down by the ambivalence of people who rely on tourism and
the destruction of the environment, particularly beaches and coral.”13

Golf courses have an even more destructive impact on the environment, by virtue of their
size: the average course takes up about 100 hectares of land. Throughout Asia, vast
tracts of land on which local farmers and wildlife are dependent have been cleared to
make way for golf courses. As an American University case study points out: “The
beauty found in the setting of a golf course often hides many of the environmental, social,
and health problems ... Developing a golf course entails the clearing of vegetation,cutting
forests and creating artificial landscapes, which lead to land erosion and block the soil's
ability to retain water. Golf courses need 3,000 cubic metres of water per day, which is
enough to meet the needs of 15,000 people. Golf courses also need large quantities of
pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides”14.

Technology may have improved the environmental performance of golf courses

somewhat since the case study quoted was prepared (no date was indicated in the report,
but the dates on the references – the most recent one dates back to 1995 – suggest that it
was written in the late 1990s), but by and large its environmental impact is still
phenomenally negative. Much of the world is facing a water crisis today; imagine what
the amount consumed by golf courses could do if it was used for irrigation and human

Tourist activities
12 Gray, Denis: “Thai island faces resort onslaught”. The Globe & Mail. 28 September 2002.
13 Raksakulthai , Vivian: “Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation for Tourism in Phuket, Thailand”.
Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, July 2003.
14 Walsh, Laurie: “Asia Golf and Environment”. The American University's Trade & Environment
Database, Case number 249.

Tourist activities are inherently environmentally unfriendly. The carbon emissions of
aircraft that fly tourists all round the globe have already been mentioned. Depletion of
water resources is another problem and golf courses are just one of the culprits. Tourists
consume far more water than locals, through the facilities provided for their comfort and
enjoyment. They take long showers or bathe, sit in jacuzzis, dip in swimming pools, play
18 holes of golf. They also bring with them bad habits like brushing their teeth or
shaving with the tap running while the locals in a slum nearby have so little water to go
on they can only afford a wipe every few days. According to a report by the World Wide
Fund for Nature on the impact of tourism on the Mediterranean, tourists and tourism
facilities in the region use up to 850 litres of water per person a day during the summer,
which is almost four times the daily water consumption of an average Spanish city
dweller.15 The report adds that poor water treatment systems are failing to cope with the
increased demand imposed by tourism, causing untreated water to contaminate sea water
and rivers, threatening fish and water fowls.

Tourists also consume huge amounts of energy, principally through the air-conditioned
hotels they stay in. Know what China did at the height of the sizzling summer of 2005?
The country did not have sufficient power generation capacity to fuel its many factories,
but in major cities like Shanghai, the supply of water and electricity to hotels was
guaranteed by a country ever eager to give foreigners a good impression, while the
supply to factories was rationed. I know of Hong Kong visitors who, in the midst of the
power shortage in China at the time, enjoyed a perfectly cool and fun time in Shanghai,
staying in air-conditioned hotels, going to air-conditioned restaurants and moving around
in air-conditioned coaches.

Many hotels implement energy efficiency programmes - to minimise operation cost while
winning plaudits for protecting the environment at the same time – but the energy
consumption per guest still far exceeds that of the average citizen.

Tourism also generates pollution that can have a devastating impact on monuments. It
does not help that package tourists eager to show they've “been there, done that” are
flocking to monuments around the world, but even those who fancy themselves as
cultural tourists who can really appreciate the value of what they see should balance their
interest against the well-being of the monuments they see. The best-known case is
perhaps that of the Taj Mahal, which receives millions of visitors every year. The acid
residues of visitors are corroding its white marble surface, already suffering from the
effects of air pollution in the area, and its paving stones, pounded by so many, are going
through a rate of wear and tear they were never designed to sustain.16 Or take the case of
the Dunhuang caves in China, where something as seemingly innocuous as a tourist's
breath is gradually destroying the fragile murals, which have survived centuries in the

15 De Stefano, Lucia: “Freshwater and Tourism in the Mediterranean”. WWF Mediterranean Programme,
June 2004.
16 Kapoor, Sanjay: “Edifice Angst”. 24 August 2001.,8782,171446,00.html

arid desert climate but can't withstand the moisture brought by the human breath.17

Rubbish left behind by tourists is also turning many formerly pristine sites into dumps. In
one major clean-up of Mount Everest a team of American climbers collected 1.2 tonnes
of rubbish from the mountain18 - and we're not even talking about the average, less
environmentally-aware package tourists here. Or let's not go as far as the world's tallest
mountain for an example; let's look at what happens closer to sea level. According to a
report by the United Nations' Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine
Environmental Protection (GESAMP), “the sewage and rubbish that tourists produce add
to the difficulties resident populations already have in managing their own debris,
especially as the visitors each usually generate more solid waste than local people. The
extra sewage they produce often ends up in the sea, with little treatment.”19

Even “eco-tourists” should beware: their intentions may be noble, but the concept of eco-
tourism has often been hijacked or abused. Safaris, for example, in theory help poor
African countries preserve their wildlife reserves and earn foreign exchange. What
happens in fact is that the money this brings in becomes too much to ignore, and more
safari tours and lodges than the parks can sustain get organised and built. Kenya is a
well-known case. In 1989 the Masai Mara National Reserve was established in Kenya as
a world heritage site with the aim of protecting the wildlife there. Demand by tourists to
see wildlife up close led to the organisation of wildlife tours – rumbling four-wheel
drives that uproot vegetation, scare the more timid animals and familiarise the big
predators with humans – and construction of hotels and resorts. Guess where the land for
these hotels and resorts comes from? Agricultural communities around the reserve are
suffering because they have to compete with the tourist industry for the same resources,
and wildlife are encroaching on their farms as soil degraded by sightseers drive them to
seek food on the margins of the reserve. Waste generated by tourists has given rise to
disposal problems and also threatens to permanently change the feeding habit of certain
wildlife, which turn into scavengers unafraid of contact with humans.20

Even the souvenirs tourists buy could have a negative impact on the environment.
According to a charity called ARKive, demand for crocodile and snakeskin products
contribute to decline of species; coral jewellery lead to over-harvesting of coral reefs;
turtle soup and tortoiseshell are made from endangered or critically endangered species;
and demand for shahtoosh shawls have led to decimation of the critically endangered
Tibetan antelope.21 And these are just a few examples.

17 “China Strives to Protect Ancient Grottoes”. Xinhua News Agency 27 June 2004.
18 “Mount Everest Clean-up”. BBC News, 6 June 1998.
19 A Sea of Troubles. GESAMP 70, 2001.
20 Bhandari, M: Tourism Raised Problems in Masai Mara National Park, Narok, Kenya. Mountain Forum
On-line Library Document, 1999.
21 Randerson, James: “Souvenirs add to decline of endangered species”. The Guardian, 31 July 2006.,,1833833,00.html

Finally, as more tourist facilities are developed to cater to the rising number of tourists, a
location loses the very qualities that attract tourists in the first place. This in turn lead
tourists to desert it in favour of more attractive destinations, which go through the same
vicious cycle as the one before. Consider the irony of Phuket: until the tsunami wiped
out everything, tourists were complaining about how commercialised and seedy it had
become, and some were highly appreciative of the stretches of white sand that reappeared
after the killer wave. At the same time, neighbouring Khao Lak was going through the
same process of being transformed into a tourist paradise, to cater to precisely those
visitors who no longer found Phuket appealing.

But tourism provides employment opportunities, right? Up to a point, but at significant

social and cultural cost, as the next chapter will explain.

Chapter 3: The social and cultural impact of tourism
Tourism is widely embraced as a development solution because it creates employment
opportunities. However, if we look at how many and who get employed as well as the
type of employment they become engaged in, we will see the substantial social and
cultural cost of tourism.

Sex tourism

The most obvious problem is sex tourism. Although no government sets out deliberately
to develop sex tourism, this has been the inevitable by-product in many cases. What
happens when a developing country with a poor, badly educated population decides to
embrace tourism as a quick way to bring in some foreign revenue? Young girls with little
prospect of a decent education and therefore the chance to make a good living are lured
into the sex trade. The case of foreigners who visit places like Thailand and Cambodia in
search of cheap sex with underage girls has been well-documented.

Not only are these girls subjected to the threat of AIDS, they are exploited by the rackets
that control the sex trade, often being held captive, abused and denied claim to their
earnings. A 1994 estimate by ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and
the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Exploitation) put the number of children forced
into the sex trade at 200,000-850,000 in Thailand, 500,000 in Brazil and 400,000 in

What happens to the girls when they are no longer deemed attractive to these foreigners?
What is the cost of treating those who develop AIDS? Whether or not they become
infected by HIV, the social stigma of prostitution will remain with them all their lives.

Low-skilled employment

And what of legitimate employment opportunities provided by the tourist industry?

The touted opportunities are often limited, low-skilled in nature, and only serve to draw
in migrant labour who are subject to abuse and exploitation. Development of a golf
course may involve the displacement of entire villages but only provide employment to a
handful of former villagers as caddies whose health will suffer as a result. According to
the European Christian Environmental Network, many golfers, caddies and residents
living near a golf course suffer from skin inflammation, disorders of the ear, nose and
throat and other respiratory illnesses which are attributed to the inhalation of the
pesticides sprayed on golf courses. In parts of Thailand, such diseases did not exist prior
to the construction of golf courses23.

22 University of California at Santa Barbara's SexInfo site:
23 ECEN Tourism and Environmental Dossier.

The cases of villagers offered too little compensation, under threat of eviction, to vacate
their land to make way for golf courses and tourist resorts, are numerous and widespread.
They lose their livelihood, their communities and their homes, and those lucky enough to
find employment at these resorts, if they're not caddies, find themselves working as
housemaids, bell boys and porters. And more tend to discover that, even at the low wage
they are prepared to accept, they cannot compete against migrant workers, especially
those whose status is illegal, who are willing to work for less. Consider the tragic case of
the Burmese who worked legally or illegally in Phuket at the time of the tsunami. The
survivors were discriminated against, unable to obtain the kind of quick assistance
offered to the foreign tourists or afraid to seek assistance for fear of arrest and
deportation. Relatives of those who died could not claim the bodies because the Burmese
junta refused to recognise Burmese people had to leave the country to find work. If the
relatives themselves were not registered with the Thai authorities, then they had little
hope of reclaiming the bodies of their loved ones24.

Staged authenticity and commodification of culture

After a day of being trucked around “sights”, being given a rundown of a place's history
by the guide as they go along, a coach-load of tourists are deposited at a swank restaurant
or hotel for a sumptuous evening meal full of local fare and an “ethnic” performance.
Having been given a taste of local culture, they will be taken to a market, perhaps the
next day, to pick some souvenirs to take home.

Such an itinerary is followed by hundreds of thousands of tour groups everywhere,

everyday. In the process, all things associated with a culture becomes commodified,
losing their meaning for the populace whose reverence for the sacred is corrupted into a
pursuit of the tourist dollar. Consider some of these “ethnic” performances. Most of
these have their origins in the religious rituals of a local community. A dance to appeal
to a god of agriculture for a good harvest, say, or invoke the protection of the gods.
These rituals are not easily dismissed as mere superstition; they have evolved to become
the threads that knit communities together, providing occasions for families to get
together and reinforce their ties, to the land and to each other.

When such performances are staged out of context, they give the viewer no clue to the
cultural background that gives rise to them in the first place, and a brief explanation by
the tour guide will not suffice at all. OK, you say, in that case, let's not have staged
performances, let tourists go to the real thing. Unfortunately, that is just as bad, because
these rituals serve a real purpose; they were not devised to function as a spectacle for

When a culture is packaged into a tourist spectacle, the level of exploitation can reach
shocking heights. One blatant example which alarmed even the national tourist authority
is the case of the long-neck Karens of northern Thailand. Many people will have seen

24 McGeown, Kate: “Hurdles in identifying tsunami victims”. BBC News, 19 December 2005.

pictures of the women of this tribe, who wear brass rings that elongate their necks to
improbable lengths. As if being refugees from neighbouring Burma wasn't suffering
enough, some were at one stage rounded up by a businessman for display in a “human

Once rituals become tourist entertainment and the objects associated with them turn into
souvenirs, they lose their cultural value and become mere capital goods. Traditional
values are corroded. What were once revered are now treated only as a means for capital
gains. A ritual mask used to scare off the devil by the old comes to be dismissed as
nothing more than a souvenir for tourists by the young, to be exploited to earn some

Undeniably, demand for such commodities often improve the livelihood of craftsmen,
and who is to deny them a better living, even when products once carefully made to serve
sacred purposes are now customised to meet the preferences of the marketplace? But
where is the craftsmanship, when cultural objects are mass produced? Are the genuine
craftsmen the beneficiaries? Consider: a traditional cultural object typically takes days if
not months to craft; how likely are the products found in a souvenir shop likely to be
made the same way, with the same care and skill?

Mutual exploitation

Those who have come across unscrupulous shopkeepers or other kind of swindlers during
their travels raise their hands. Even in countries famous for their hospitality, it is not
unusual for tourists to be the victims of all manners of scams. For example, one minute a
tourist in Hong Kong may have a local running after him with the wallet he has dropped
but has a fortune tricked out of him the next, when he walks into a shop to buy a digital
camera from a sales guy who uses bait-and-switch tactics.

There is mutual exploitation everywhere, even when honest dealings are conducted,
because tourists are considered cash cows. They have the money to travel, to look at us
like some kind of spectacle; they are fair game – so locals, especially those in developing
countries, reason. Tourism establishes a mutually exploitative relationship in which one
side often feels victimised while the other side is corrupted. Think of the street children
in major Indian cities who swarm around tourists, unabashedly demanding money. Do
you give them what they want and perpetuate their parasitic habit, or do you ignore them
and head straight off for the hotel where all's ready to ensure your comfort? The first
tourists go into a little roadside restaurant, enjoy the great local fare and give the owner a
big tip despite his/her protestations; later tourists go to the same roadside restaurant and
the owner wears an uncertain smile: are these ones going to give me a big tip or not?

The more a place is dependent on tourism for its survival, the greater the degree of
mutual exploitation. Yes, you say, but at least it means the tourist has a greater positive

25 “Is this a tourist attraction or a violation of human rights?”. Straits Times, 18 November 1997.

impact on its economy, right? That may be true, but read on to find out the other side of
the argument.

Chapter 4: The real economic impact of tourism
There is no doubt tourism has had a tremendous impact on economic development.
Places with few other resources depend on tourism to survive; think Bali, the Seychelles,
Phuket and many more. Increasingly, too, places that do have other resources are putting
a heavier emphasis on tourism to generate revenue. Dubai, for example, is forestalling a
drop in revenue that comes with drying oil wells by spending vast sums of money on
building tourist attractions that range from huge man-made islands to museums. Tourism
creates jobs, gives governments incentive to improve services and brings in foreign
exchange. What's the downside?

Most of the money spent by tourists do not actually end up benefiting the local economy.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), once taxes have been
paid to local or national governments, profits repatriated by hotel chains, tour operators
and such, and the wages claimed by those working outside the visited area settled, there
is very little left over for the local economy. “In most all-inclusive package tours, about
80% of travellers' expenditures go to the airlines, hotels and other international
companies (who often have their headquarters in the travellers' home countries), and not
to local businesses or workers. In addition, significant amounts of income actually
retained at destination level can leave again through leakage,” said the UNEP.26

The leakage, as it is called by the agency, occurs in two ways: import leakage, and export
leakage. The former occurs when products that satisfy the quality and comfort tourists
are used to in their home countries have to be procured from abroad. Export leakage
occurs when the foreign investors who have the funds to develop tourist infrastructure
and facilities in the destination take their profits home. If the destination country
concerned has foreign debt to repay, then even less of what remains gets pumped back
into the local economy.

According to UNEP's estimate, in developing countries about 40-50% of tourist revenue

is lost through import-related leakage; even for what it called “advanced and diversified
economies”, the leakage rate is 10-20%. Bear in mind these figures do not cover export
leakage, which, if taken into account also, would certainly increase the percentages.

The package tour

Package tours provide the least benefit to local economies because of the way tourist
spending is channelled. The most extreme example perhaps is the cruise, where tourists
are encouraged to spend all their money on the ship rather than the ports it calls. The case
of resorts is similar in that the tourists spend most of their time, and money, within the
confines of the resort.

The itinerary of a tourist on a package tour is organised to benefit a small number of

establishments with which the tour operator has cut attractive deals, leaving little for the
26 UNEP: “Economic impacts of tourism”.

majority of locals, who have little chance of winning business from such tourists anyway
because they are so busily herded from one place to another.

Tourism-related expenditure

Some governments try to use what resources they have to attract tourists. This may be in
the form of a historical ruin whose condition deteriorates much more rapidly as a result
of tourism, as mentioned in Chapter 2; and the irony is that, thanks to leakage (and
corruption in many cases), little money gets invested in maintaining such sites in a decent

Richer governments, on the other hand, try to bring in the tourist dollar by spending
heavily on related infrastructure at the expense of investment in such areas as health and
education. Take the case of Hong Kong, whose government bent over backwards to
accommodate the demands of Disney, in order to persuade the US company to build a
theme park in the city. It provided the land and infrastructure and became an equity
shareholder in the controversial Disneyland subsequently developed, but the US
company will take home a chunk of the theme park's earnings. Will Hong Kong ever get
anything back for its investment? The Hong Kong Government provided 90% of the
US$3.55 billion total investment, but Walt Disney Co would get 47% of the net profit –
an arrangement arrived at by excluding the infrastructure expenditure from the profit
sharing calculations.27

This type of infrastructure spending also involves leakage. Locals may be hired to do the
dirty work, but most of the money will go to the foreign investors, consultants and
architects who develop and design the facilities.

Such expenditure diverts funds that may be better spent on local capacity building,
thereby inhibiting the long-term development of an economy. Instead of schools and
hospitals that help to create a more literate and healthier population capable of serving in
roles of responsibility, farmers seeking a better living only go so far as being trained to
become cooks, waiters and porters, but never managers. Their employers may actually
hope to provide better advancement opportunities, but their limited education means they
are not equipped to take advantage of them.

And when the tourists stop coming...

The biggest problem with relying on tourism to facilitate economic development is the
susceptibility of such economies to slumps caused by a drop in tourist arrivals. The
greater the reliance, the more serious the slump.

Contrast the fate of Bali and London. Both are popular tourist destinations, but while the
British capital is also a financial centre with people working in a large variety of service

27 Takahashi, Nobuyuki: “Disney Hong Kong: magic is missing”. Asia Times, 18 July 2002.

industries, Bali is almost entirely dependent on tourism for its survival. The bombing of
London's mass transit network in July 2005 shocked many, but the locals had work to do
and stoically returned to their jobs immediately afterwards; the economic repercussion
was limited. Bali, on the other hand, has been devastated by the terrorist bombings of
2002 and 2005 as well as the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 and the threat of bird flu.
Although Bali itself had not been affected by either the tsunami and so far bird flu has
had a limited impact compared to other parts of Indonesia, the fact that it is located in the
same region as places that are affected has been sufficient to put off tourists.

Analysts predicted that the second wave of bombing in Bali would have a lesser impact
on the island's economy because tourists have become hardened to the threat, but the
point is no one knows when the next disaster may strike and flatten the economy once
more. Also, the analyst's chart may demonstrate the pace of economic recovery, but it
won't tell you what a struggle it is for the locals to get back on their feet, whether they are
craftsmen who make souvenirs for tourists or owners of big businesses. Air Paradise
International, an airline set up by a Balinese, was forced to shut after the second bombing
in 2005.28


Tourism has some trigger-down effect on local economies, but the lack of investment in
the long-term development of the people means that, short of efforts to increase tourist
arrivals, an economy will eventually suffer as tourists seek novelty elsewhere, as
explained in Chapter 2. The downside of efforts to boost tourist numbers is that those
efforts are by their very nature counter-productive: as more tourist facilities are built to
cater for more arrivals, a place becomes over-developed, which in turn puts people off
from visiting. Spain is fretting over exactly this problem as its coastline becomes
swamped with massive developments that have sent potential visitors to look elsewhere
for a quiet holiday.29

Unless an economy diversifies, increasing dependence on tourism for revenue generation

will serve to make it more vulnerable to natural or manmade disasters as well as any
collective change in taste. It may not seem obvious yet, but the effect of mass tourism
will become apparent within one generation. The beautiful beaches and historical
monuments that some of our parents were able to enjoy after putting their savings into an
expensive tour are now packed with people, concrete and crumbling facades that anyone
can see after jumping off a cheap flight.

When natural assets and precious heritage are treated like consumer products, they will
be discarded in the same way, when tourists become tired of or disillusioned with them.
Failing that, locals will become tired or resentful of tourists, because they have ruined the
environment, are not spending enough or simply getting in the way of ordinary lives.
28 Suwastoyo, Bhimanto: “Bali attacks fallout takes toll on airline”. Hong Kong Standard, 25 November
29 Satiroglu, Handan T: “Sun, golf and cement: On Spain’s latest construction craze”. Dragofly, 28 July

Just ask a Venetian what he/she thinks of the tourists swarming the city.

Are there any alternatives?

From the perspective of the destinations, especially those in developing countries, there
are certainly alternatives that offer a more promising future than tourism. For example,
the Asian Development Bank is funding the development of contract farming in rural
Cambodia and Laos, under which small farmers are assured markets for their crops, and
given technical support and credit so that they could do more than survive on subsistence
production.30 Microfinancing – providing loans which are too small to interest regular
banks but which constitute amounts substantial enough to allow poor people to start their
own businesses – has allowed villagers and urban poor all over Southeast Asia to make a
better living serving their own communities, say by enabling a farmer to earn some extra
from selling eggs laid by the chickens bought using a loan, or a housewife to set up her
own stall selling simple goods like cooking oil and utensils to her neighbours. These
people can stay in their communities and work for themselves rather than leave home to
become porters and cleaners for others.

If public funds are spent on building schools and hospitals, an economy will have a better
educated, healthier population with a better chance of advancement, which is capable of
assuming jobs with more rewarding prospects.

For the tourist-originating countries, their economies will be boosted by people spending
their money at home. There is less environmental damage from such a holiday, and no
culture shock either.

The political factor

“When tourists come here they go to the Shwedagon Pagoda... they go to the pagoda at
Pegu. Mind you, if you go to Pegu by car you will see the roads are very bad. But [the
tourists] live in hotels, they go around in airconditioned taxis, they don't see anything of
what is going on in the country. They know nothing of the situation of people in the rural
areas, [who] are the backbone of the country. Eighty percent of our people live in the
countryside. And it's whether or not they are well off which decides whether the country
is developing or not.”31

Those are the words of Burmese democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi.

Not only did she confirm the fact tourists don't see the real face of a country, her words
also highlight the fact that tourism often enriches repressive governments, such as the one
in Burma. Even where the repression is not obvious, tourism often only benefits those in
power; leakage, in this case, is through corruption or extortion, as a result of which the
30 Asian Development Bank poverty reduction report as of 13 July 2006.
31 “Burma debate: Aung San Suu Kyi on tourism”.

people don't get much out of the tourist dollar at all.

Chapter 5: Why do we travel?
There is something alluring about going to exotic places for a holiday. These places look
so beautiful on TV and print ads. For people who live in temperate climes where it gets
dark as early as three in the winter, lots of sun and sand into the evening seems
irresistible. And even with the fuel surcharge imposed by airlines in response to high oil
prices, flights are unbelievably cheap (although the threat of terrorism may have
dampened enthusiasm for travelling). Trips one would never have contemplated taking
before are now bargains, and any fear of culture shock has been largely assuaged by the
promise of familiarity offered by global hotel chains. One could be right at the foot of a
volcano in Java and yet enjoy all the comforts of a western lifestyle in a marble-paved
resort fitted with modern bathrooms and the latest amenities.

And don't we all want to get away? Life is getting more hectic than ever before and the
stress level is unbelievable now everyone's practically glued to a mobile and instantly
reachable by phone or email all the time. Taking a break at home just won't do the trick;
we have to get away, be in an exotic setting that will help us forget all about the in-tray
and the gossips in the office. Besides, for some of us at least, it's a chance to learn about
other peoples and cultures and see monuments and scenery that grace postcards,
magazines and online photo albums.

And let's not forget the friends and colleagues: won't they be shocked if they ask us
where we've been for our holiday and we tell them that, well, we didn't go anywhere; we
stayed at home. The shame of it! This has become important even for children now: in
Hong Kong students of an elite school starting the new term after the summer are heard
boasting about the foreign countries they visited, and apparently not even China would
do – it's not far away or exotic enough. It's absolutely essential that we come home with
hundreds of photos of us standing in front of various landmarks: evidence that we've been
there, done that.

There are scholars and professionals who travel to study a place, its culture and heritage.
There are people who are so bitten by the travel bug that they can't help but pack up their
backpacks and head off for a distant land somewhere; people who save up for a year
doing odd jobs in order to travel for another year, or spend time in one country or
another, teaching English and waitering.

For the majority of us though, travelling is just a way to have some exotic fun, escape
from tedious work and show off our lifestyle. But why do we crave exotic fun, escape
and status, as implied by the ability to travel? What is it about our existing lives and the
world around us that drive us to strange places?

Many of us fly off to foreign lands to visit tourist spots but have never seen the
monuments and landmarks in our own countries. We know about them and can even say
something about them, but we don't bother visiting them; they are too familiar to us, even
if only by reputation. And what about all the quaint little places that every locale has – a

little back alley with stalls that sell authentic native delicacies maybe, or a deserted
building with the architecture of a distant past? Either we're so used to them we've long
ceased to notice them, or it wouldn't have occurred to us to explore them; they're just
there, in the background. If they were in a foreign country and cleverly packaged into
tourist sights, though, we're off.

We go to smart hotels, get taken around to the must-see places, are treated to meals
adjusted to suit the taste of tourists – all the time failing to see the real world beyond the
packaged tour. There may be grinding poverty or unspeakable pollution, but all we see
are frozen smiles on the faces of shopkeepers or souvenir sellers hoping to lighten our
wallets. After a day going round places populated by people out to make a buck from the
tourists, we then head back to the suave hotels, built with imported materials and fittings,
to sit back and enjoy an amount and variety of food the locals can never hope to taste in
their entire lives.

Before taking a holiday abroad, ask yourself these questions first:

• Why do I need to get away?

• Am I too stressed out at work? Do I need to lighten the workload?
• Am I too stressed out by my lifestyle?
• Do I still need to take this trip if I'm not under peer pressure to do so?
• Can I get the rest I want by staying in my own country?

If you still fancy going on holiday after asking the above questions, then consider the
following questions first:

• Why am I taking this trip?

• Why have I chosen this country/city/itinerary?
• What environmental impact will I have on the country I visit?
• What natural resources will I consume getting there and back and whilst I am there?
• Will my presence and consumption pattern corrupt the locals and degrade their
• Will I be supporting a repressive regime by visiting this country?
• Who owns the hotel where I will stay?
• Was the land on which the hotel was built originally farmed by the locals, a pristine
beach, a virgin forest, or perhaps land occupied by local people who were forced out
to make way for tourist development?
• Will I be sensitive to local customs and culture?
• What will I do with my experiences when I get home?

The few cases where tourism has helped a country is where it is restricted by a quota
system or pricing strategy that means the country concerned is not swamped by tourists.
They shall remain unnamed here. In a few rare cases, visitors can also have a positive
impact on a local community, but beware that most eco-tours are only that in name and
not in fact. “Eco-tours” has already become a much abused term exploited to attract

those who feel guilty about travelling. The obvious irony is that, as more and more
people join these “eco-tours” in the belief that they are helping the environment or
something else, their sheer number means the tours cease to be “eco” in nature. There
are also agents and governments that pay only lip service to the concept.

Help the world address the problem of global warming. By spending your holiday at
home, you will cut the amount of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere and reduce
the amount of resources wasted at the destination country. By staying at home, you will
have helped preserve pristine environments where wildlife and vegetation should thrive

Economies accustomed to relying on the tourist dollar will have to restructure if enough
people decide not to travel, but the end result is true, long-term development that benefits
the local community, not short-term, unsustainable gain.

Next time you think about going on holiday, why not spare yourself the airport chaos,
worries about vaccinations and upset stomachs and the hassle of packing and unpacking,
and relax in a familiar environment? If you're an adventurous spirit who can't stand the
very idea, how about joining up with MSF, Oxfam or some other non-government
organisation and help out in places that need assistance? You may see scenes of
devastation, as the volunteers who toiled in Aceh after the tsunami would attest, but you
may also see unspoilt landscape that is only so because tourism has not ravaged it. At the
very least, such a trip will give you a new perspective on life.

© Angela Tam 2006