By Emilie de la Chapelle
I have made my way as far out as possible, to a remote desert town that can only be reached by riding several buses and sketchy jeeps. It is poor, really poor. The economy here is almost completely dependent on tourism, with the rest reliant on illegal trade. Young children are running barefoot after the jeep as we drive by their home, a solitary roof in the middle of the desert. No water, no money, few opportunities.
I am here to see this because it is ‘exciting’ for me – for those of us who have it all. We do not really consider ourselves tourists, but travelers, ‘adventure-seekers’. We go abroad and we look for something: something far different than our own culture. Hiking in our North Face gear, drinking Ayahuasca, “exploring the unknown”, we travel to “find ourselves”. We think it is important to reduce our carbon footprint, but not as important as travelling because we have so much #wanderlust. Being a “life enthusiast” is just so much easier when you are at the beach. And if you belong to the transnational class that has the socio-economic opportunities which allow you to travel, then why not be enthusiastic? You are one of the lucky ones.
Whatever we choose to call ourselves, we are tourists, and we are part of the industry known as tourism. Tourism is a commercialization of the human desire to travel, which has led to the exploitation of natural resources, as well as the cultures and environments of native communities, all in the name of economic growth. Due to the hegemony of multinational corporations, supported by global institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the tourism sector contributes to developing nation’s dependency and subordination to more advanced capitalist nations, often as a means of opening their economies to other forms of capitalist expansion.
As people have become more aware of the damaging effects of tourism, the industry has sought to rebrand itself. Alternative tourism, such as eco-tourism or voluntourism, is considered to be a superior alternative to conventional mass tourism, compensating for its negative impacts. As such, the social and environmental crises that neoliberal capitalism has contributed to have simply been transformed into new opportunities for economic growth. For example, dwindling biodiversity actually benefits international conservation and new forms of tourism, such as eco-tourism. The more exclusive and “genuine” the experience, the better. The more endangered an animal is, the more you will pay to see it. As I have learned through my own experience, poverty and class struggle are too often repackaged and sold as tourist experiences.
I recently met a middle-aged European man in South America who had decided to leave everything: all the madness, the stress and superficial values that were part of his everyday life. He was going to live self-sustainably, in a community with like-minded people where everyone grows their own food; a community based on sharing goods and knowledge, and helping one another. He had bought a piece of land in the Peruvian Amazon, a place where indigenous people have lived for thousands of years. Yet he did not even speak Spanish. He had no idea how to build a boat or a house, or generally survive in this area where like-minded white hippies had settled down to live their alternative lives. It made me wonder, how much does this really differ from colonization? A modern, organic, vegan, fair-trade colonization, but colonization nonetheless.
Much like this man, tourists seek to reinvent themselves as “enriched” full persons, aiming to overcome a sense of fragmentation that they feel in their urban, middle class lives within a capitalist society. We work and work, and then buy experiences which make us forget about how much we worked and how stressed we are. Existential angst caused by the alienating character of a capitalist society is cured by a sense of oneness with nature or ‘authentic’ culture, on a pristine beach or in a slum, with a shaman or by swimming with dolphins.
Traveling is a great way to experience personal development, so if you can, you should probably do it. But be aware of how we, as tourists, often consume someone else’s culture. It is exciting to see new cultures and develop an understanding of others, yet we close our borders because we are scared of difference. We are interested in what it is like to have nothing, but we are unwilling to share if it means sacrificing even a small amount of our material prosperity. In the end, no matter how much of a free spirit you are, traveling is often an unjust business.
By Emilie de la Chapelle