International Tourism’s Sinister Impact

2 years ago Alger Mag Editor 2


International tourism, for most, elicits excitement and fascination. Yet aside from its obvious purpose of leisure, tourism is also a major player in world economics, responsible for 10% of global GDP. It may seem cynical to critically evaluate cultural exchanges and foreign travel, but underneath the pleasant surface lie issues that must be analyzed to continue successful and mindful tourism and international development.

The rise of modern tourism is overwhelmingly credited to a series of occurrences post-WWII in developed nations that remain economic powers today; tourism’s very existence is predicated on a power imbalance. For instance, the Caribbean offered a setting where prior imperialist colonization allowed for the comfort of visitors, as Europeans could speak their own languages. Tourism was, essentially, a way for foreigners who benefitted from “postwar affluence and the adoption of guaranteed holidays with pay” to participate in the excitement of the islands, writes George Gmelch in his book Behind the Smile.

When considering the promotion of tourism as a route to economic development for an area, we must consider if the benefits outweigh the potential degradation and be wary of the line between wholesome tourism and cultural exploitation. The benefits of tourism are its challenges reversed; while they all stem from the same root, the results are considered benefits when they are accomplished in a sensitive, sustainable, and ethical manner.

The overarching question framing the discussion is this: does modern tourism burden local people as much as it helps them? Tourism increases economic activity, but whether that activity is positive or negative depends on where the money goes and how it’s being used. Likewise, tourism promotes cultural interactions and can be verifiably successful at displaying nature, history, and culture. But are these interactions genuine and beneficial for both parties, or are they culturally insensitive?

When discussing financial problems associated with tourism, it is perhaps best to begin with the issue of leakage — when local economies do not directly benefit from tourist expenditures. Leakage can occur in two ways. Import leakage occurs when tourist facilities, such as hotels, import a variety of products to meet the standards and expectations of visiting tourists. These imports disproportionately affect less developed countries, who domestically are less likely to be able to provide products desired by visitors. Export leakage, on the other hand, is a symptom of globalization, arising “when overseas investors who finance the resorts and hotels take their profits back to their country of origin.” Cruise ships, resorts, and other all-inclusive tourist venues are notorious for perpetuating export leakage cycles.

When local economies lose money to leakage, there are very real consequences. The less money accrued from tourism retained locally, the less there is for the private sector or local governments to reinvest. If tourism is to be treated as a tactic for international development, its profits must actually being used to develop, and leakage thwarts that process.

Just as visitors’ expectations of comfortable hospitality can send their hosts scrambling to accommodate, large-scale tourism may significantly impact local cultures. Visitors understandably want authentic experiences, but in an effort to please visitors, local cultures may be exaggerated – “Staged authenticity” has become the term for this distortion.

This often results in the oversimplification of culture and the perpetuation of stereotypes. In Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, the Mursi people “will dress up in their most flamboyant ceremonial costumes when the tour bus shows up, because they can make more money dressed in goatskins and war-paint than t-shirts and sneakers,” explains travel writer Rolf Potts of his experience with extreme staged authenticity in the region. “They might use that money to save up for things like cell phones—but they have to put away those cell phones when the tour vans show up, because Europeans and Americans are more likely to pay for photographs that depict a primitive and ‘pure’ way of life. This phenomenon can happen in many different parts of the world, but I’ve never seen it illustrated so vividly as in the Omo Valley.”

While residents of remote, unique locations may by now be used to posing or exaggerating for visitors’ entertainment, not all cultural interactions are so harmless. As portrayed in the documentary Gringo Trails, environmental degradation is a worrisome pattern that sometimes follows the rise of tourist destinations. Haad Rin beach, once a desolate and beautiful hidden gem of Thailand’s Koh Pangan Island, has become an overcrowded environmental hazard. The beach, known for its monthly Full Moon Parties, regularly hosts thousands of foreign partygoers who have a reputation for disrespect. “These days … there can be little doubt of the toll the decades of debauchery have taken on the environment,” wrote Charlie Campbell for TIME in 2013. “In addition to the vast quantities of broken glass and plastic strewn across the sand each month, the island is currently in the throes of a freshwater crisis as it seeks to accommodate an unfeasibly large number of visitors.”

This poor treatment of Haad Rin by visitors not only endangers the environment that locals must live with, but also subtly disregards their culture. The people of Haad Rin might have fatter wallets to show for their hospitality, but in the end, is that extra income worth the trouble? And is any economic boom that may be occurring actually opening doors for these people, or does it simply maintain the status quo, subjugating them to out-of-touch foreigners in their own land?

This example parallels a central theme of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, in which the book’s troubled main character is enlisted to write brochure guides for a soon-to-be-created resort near San Juan, Puerto Rico. “I was being paid 25 dollars a day to ruin the only place I’d seen in 10 years where I’d felt a sense of peace,” writes Paul Kemp, the remorseful and resigned journalist. Is his introspective sadness something to learn from? Should some places be kept hidden?

So, what does this all mean?

Just like any kind of economic development, tourism can be taken too far and distorted, causing more damage than positive change. This is why tourist activities must be evaluated from the points of view of both visitor and host. Thinking of going on a Spring Break trip to the Caribbean? If you want your visit to mean something to the local economy, don’t stay at an all-inclusive resort, home to top-down ownership and export leakage. Visiting a developing country on an upcoming study-abroad or service-learning trip? If you’ll be taking photos or buying local merchandise, challenge yourself to learn from and understand the person on the other end of that deal. Think of how they are receiving your visit and your money, as well as what type of feeling you want to leave them. If you’re seeking authenticity, know that a connection with another person is as real as it gets, and let that suffice. Go all the way – don’t cut the experience short because it pushes you out of your comfort zone as a consumer.

To begin to solve the problem of the marginalization of foreign hosts, we must think critically about the relationship that tourism creates between them and visitors, which centers on one question: does paying for something entitle you to dictate your access in a foreign place? Should tourists feel entitled to ownership, or even comfort, in another country or culture?

All assumptions about what your trip will be like should be checked at the door. As a guest in another country, your priority should be to remain respectful and open-minded. Too often, people from developed countries assume they’re welcome all over the world, but this thinking is at best careless, and at worst paternalistic and greedy. It pervades our approach to private industry in foreign countries (think of export leakage) as well as some policies aimed at international development.

Traveling has a unique way of creating scenarios where people affect each other. Therefore, travelers have a duty to make humble and compassionate impressions, in order to be respectful, sincerely welcomed visitors. Ultimately, consumption abroad must be thoughtful. As long as tourists and those involved in international development are sensitive to the needs of local areas by prioritizing and respecting their hosts, there is potential for the tourism industry to serve as a catalyst for development.


by Nathan Cotton

(photo credit: jwhor,