Tourism in the Third World: A critical look

Tourism in the South: An agent for Economic Development or continuation of Cultural and social Imperialism?

Tourism and the tourist industry in the impoverished nations of the so-called Global South is often viewed as a means of ‘developing’ these poor countries and many travelers are thus oblivious to its controversial implications. However the issue of this so-called “slum tourism” or neo-“green-zone” tourism is also highly contentious, with some critics denouncing, among other things, the ever-present notion of “cheapness” the relatively affluent travelers often uncritically associate with these poor countries. Some calling this out as simply a quasi-continuation of the ignorant Colonial Safari’s of an early generation, as though the existence of these poor countries is simply to serve the interests of the traveler, without thought of the local livelihoods and epistemology that may be heavily encroached upon. Furthermore, the selling and prostitution of these desperately poor countries (both metaphorically and literally), to attract the “benevolent” westernized or modern traveler often results in the commodification of traditional cultures as they commercialize their civilizations into the shopping milieu of the tourist. However being only cynical towards the tourism industry in the Global South ignores the wealth and employment it can certainly provide and disregards the cosmopolitan outlook it can produce in both the tourist and civilian in the South. Thus often these cynical critics, like those who brand tourism in the South as purely a tool of development, reduce the subject to being either good or bad, when a more reasonable answer is far more complex.
In addition its essential to note that the “tourist industry” in question is the mass, conventional hegemonically dominating tourist sector, not to be confused with other forms of more ethically, culturally, and environmentally sentient tourist sectors that are however in the minority. This paper will largely explore the effects, both beneficial and controversial of the mass hegemonic tourist industry upon the nations of the so-called Global South.
Firstly, it is important to understand that critics of tourism in the Global South are comparatively in the minority, a situation helped in no small part by the praise awarded to the tourist industry by powerful hegemonic forces such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation, popular media and culture plus elites in the Global South themselves (Seabrook. 2007). All these separate actors seemingly put their faith in tourism as a positive business in the Global South, and for the majority of travelers that is what it seems: affluent tourists given money to poor countries while enjoying themselves; it’s a win, win right?
It is true, tourism can help a country gain pockets of wealth. Some pockets however, larger than others as ‘tourists visiting Third world countries tend to be increasingly confined to isolated enclaves separated from much of the local population’ (Lea. 1988, p.13). The phrase neo-greenzone tourism has been used to describe these enclaves of development that are so far removed from the true realities facing much of the population in these host countries. Therefore it is critical to consider the implications tourism in the global South can have.
Employment, the hall-mark of success that tourism brings is a double-edged sword. While it does provide employment, it does so often through the elimination of jobs that used to exist where the mega-tourist plaza’s now situate, jobs such as fishing and agriculture. Jobs that can enhance and continue tradition community. This isn’t to say the new jobs do not provide and construct a sense of community, just simply that often this newly created community is far removed from the traditional, often significantly. Whether or not the elimination of the traditional is a real problem is another complex and controversial subject, yet it’s important to acknowledge that it is at least an issue. What’s more, much of the new employment provided by the tourist industry is hire-and-fire style jobs that are highly seasonal, part-time and, when available, often involve highly exploitative hours, pay and conditions (Brown & Hall. 2008). Additionally in some destinations like Thailand, where tourism provides 70% of the nation’s GDP, the distribution of wealth is largely unequal (Pleumarmon. 2007). Furthermore Lea argues that ‘the bulk of tourist expenditure is retained by transnational companies’ who often own much of the airlines, hotels, tour facilities and fast-food restaurants especially in poor countries (1988, p.13).
In many of the so-called tourist hot spots the marginalization of much of the rural sector in order to give precedence to the ‘developing’ tourism industry has resulted in steep losses of traditional jobs deemed “unproductive”. Thus much of the employment created by tourism has come through replacing other traditional trades (Brown & Hall. 2008). In addition Pleumarmon argues that ‘women in tourism are found to have the most dehumanizing and the worst-paid jobs [and] tourism has an infamous reputation of boosting the sex industry wherever it takes root’ (2007). This further emphasizes the controversial nature of tourism’s job creation.
In many of these countries, the sheer magnitude of resources diverted to supply the relatively affluent tourists with their “creature comforts” is enormous and can have a large impact on other industries trying to develop in the country. The channeling of resources to continue mass tourism’s business-as-usual comes not only in the form of land clearances and taxes to support and grow the industry, but also, perhaps more critically in the form of food, water and energy. In a staggering UN study it was found the average tourist uses as much water in one day as the average farmer from the South uses to cultivate their rice fields for 100 days (Pleumarmon. 2007)! In many countries were the average population has little access to running water, the average tourist can often enjoy a hit of golf on the lush green course, a trip to the spa’s and stay in a resort with several swimming pools. In Bali for example, the average citizen needs 100 liters of water each day both for agriculture and general usage, in contrast one of the many tourist golf courses uses 3 million liters of water each day (! Likewise in countries where many citizens struggle to live a year free from malnutrition, the tourism industry in these countries often allows for the average tourist a buffet breakfast, gourmet lunch and a three course dinner, such luxuries the overwhelmingly majority of the population will never enjoy.
Like food and water, energy (or lack of it), is often a severe problem for many in these tourist-hotspots although this usually doesn’t hinder the extravagant levels of energy consumption that many tourists use during their getaways. This further exemplifies the enormity of resources that are channeled to appease the growing tourism industry in the South, an industry that in many ways reinforces dependency upon the so-called developed nations of the Global North. Some critics, such as Enloe, reinforce this arguing that ‘tourism replaces the colonial mono-cultures and dependency upon the one-commodity exports’ with yet further dependence upon the “modern” nations, this time in the form of the affluent tourist (1989, p.31-32). Consequently, ‘as many poor countries put their resources into the tourism industry, this only heightens their dependence’ and reduces their level of economic autonomy, crippling their economic bargaining power so that these poorer countries, and likewise the citizens within them, have little choice but to sell themselves, their nation and their culture in the hope the affluent tourist finds it inviting (Enloe. 1989, p.32). A process, Enloe argues, that is ‘encouraged by the so-called experts of development the IMF, WTO and World Bank’ and therefore often places the economic hopes of many poor but geographically inviting nations upon such things as ‘sun, surf and souvenirs’ (1989, p.40). This economic practice allows for such things as simple ‘changes in tourism fashion, often dictated by transnational travel groups,’ to devastate destinations that rely disproportionately upon tourism (Lea. 1988, p.49).
However rather than solely the asymmetrical usage of resources in these tourist-hotspots of the Global South that can give it its neo-colonial locale, it is also the cultural domination and the one world-view of the hegemonic tourist industry, which multiplies the factors mentioned earlier. The commoditisation of the tourist industry often permeates all aspects of the indigenous, local and traditional, thus sometimes turning an entire civilization into a theme park, or consumer outlet to often fulfill the aspirations of the affluent tourist seeking to ‘encounter an intense or different experience’ in the so-called “exotic” (Giles & Middleton. 2008, p.153). The conventional tourist industry in the global South, Giles and Middleton suggest, tries to ‘offer an imaginary space of resistance to the “turbo-capitalism”’ of the tourists homeland and a space free from ‘the destruction of environments and the vanishing of communities’ (2008, p.169-170). [Thus] ‘By recreating the past [of traditional societies] in material form, it seems to make time stand still’ and the affluent tourist, escaping the ‘daily grind of work and routine’ can enjoy this narrative of exploring the so-called unspoilt (Giles & Middleton. 2008, p.169-70, p.157). However, this quasi-utopian myth of many tourists, while viewing these other cultures as unspoilt, innocent and pure, never considers them as equals, but rather often akin to a primitive utopia. This common traveler myth does not equate the unspoilt with an equal epistemological view, but rather, metaphorically, as a beautiful piece of art (to be respected of course), but within the framework of their world, and produced to be viewed by their world, though never equal with their world. This culturally arrogant tourism, Wahid & Storm propose, ‘is (at its core) aimed at exploiting the natural beauty and cultural heritage of a region for quick financial gain without respect or concern for the social, ecological or intellectual prerogatives of the host culture’ (1981, p.98). In addition often those originally responsible for preserving these traditional cultures are not the main benefactors of the tourism industry, but still find themselves marginalized.
Consequently Lea suggests that ‘tourism can lead to a revolution of rising expectations’ as consumerist culture infiltrates societies that are not ready both economically and socially to deal with such pressures, this, some argue, can enhance criminality within societies (1988, p.51). It is for these reasons that the global and conventional tourist industry can resemble, for many critics, a form of twenty-first century neo-colonialism culturally, economically and socially.
Conversely however, tourism, in conjunction with its economic rewards, can also provide countries of the Global South with many other benefits, and although ‘we should beware of being overly utopian about tourisms potential’ there are many ways in which tourism can act as a force for good, not only economically but also culturally. The critics of tourisms cultural domination of the traditional societies, as Giles and Middleton propose, often overlook the fact that the ‘traditions that survive are [themselves] ones that have been re-invented…they are not the same as the original prototype’ (2008, p.176). Therefore rather than seeing these culture’s of the Global South becoming totally eroded by the infiltration of global tourism, Giles and Middleton argue that ‘cultures and cultural identities are constantly evolving’ (2008, p.168). Perhaps then, rather than losing this notion of traditional customs, these cultures, through tourism, are actually adapting to the hegemonic spread of globalization, a process which tourism is far from alone in instigating. Furthermore what the ‘advent of tourism has meant is that many traditional cultures and belief systems have become more widely known…[which can] help sustain language, customs and rituals’ albeit through the realm of consumerism (Giles & Middleton. 2008, p. 157). While of course these traditions are often received in the Global North as exotic “otherness”, not viewed equally alongside the hegemonic notion of “modernity”, and of course while they have to articulate themselves through the epistemological language and thought of so-called “modernity”, it nonetheless can provide publicity and financial support without which many traditional cultures would wither away.
Furthermore Lea proposes that ‘most development specialists agree that tourism must be included in the plans and strategies for national growth’ within Global South and for small impoverished nations it is sometimes the only option for development (1988, p.75). However, greater control over the tourist industry itself by the host government and population is vital. While this may prove hard for smaller nations, some believe that ‘regional groupings of countries to present a united front in negotiation with airlines and tour companies to increase their bargaining power’ may be an idea for a more just future of tourism (Lea. 1988, p.79).
Building on this, it isn’t necessarily the spread of conventional tourism that allows for it to be considered a form of neo-colonialism, but rather the type of tourism being spread. The industrial, heavy resource, neo-green-zone style tourism infusing the Global South is not the only form of tourism, nor does it necessarily need to be the major approach for tourism in the Global South. There are many other variations of more ethically, culturally and environmentally aware methods of tourism that give hope for a more mindful and morally just exchange between the relatively affluent tourist and the impoverished nations, communities and citizens. Other styles of tourism and travel include ecotourism, green-tourism, volunteering and more culturally attuned versions of tourism. However far more straightforward in the short-term than changing the mode of conventional tourism, is simply a reduction of the excesses of the conventional tourist industry and a mild consideration for the culture of the land where one travels. Thus rather than radically changing the style of tourism in the Global South, simply reducing the material surfeit and attaining a degree of moral conciseness would certainly go a long way to at least putting into perspective the contrast of poverty and prosperity between the tourist and the civilian. Only then can conventional tourism in the Global South be considered a truly fair exchange.

• Brown, F & Hall, D. (2008), “Tourism and Development in the Global South: the Issues”, Third World Quarterly, vol 29, (5), p.839-849
• Pleumarmon, A. (2007), “Does Tourism Benefit the Third World?”, Rethinking Tourism: An Agent for Third World Development? THIRD WORLD RESURGENCE #207/208, November/December 2007:

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