To spend most of your year looking forward to your two weeks holiday is not unusual. We want sun, we want hedonism, we want to get away from it all. One thing we don’t want to worry about is ethics. But whether you have travelled to Bath or Bali, you will probably have seen a thing or two that has made you worry about what your holiday is doing to the place you visit and the people who live there. Ever wondered how your swimming pool is kept brim-full with water when local fields are parched or local people are taking theirs from wells? Ever marvelled at the greenness of a golf course in the middle of the arid Mediterranean? Ever wondered how much your waiter is getting paid to serve you with drinks all day? Such are the queries around the ethics of tourism.
In fact, co-option of land and natural resources such as water, are common complaints of residents about tourism development. Women in parts of India walk for miles for water because underground water is siphoned off by hotels. Farmers in Indonesia have been imprisoned for protesting about losing their land to tourism development, and a protest in Mexico last year about a prospective golf course being built on farm land led to the shooting of one man and the harassment of several others.
One of the most disturbing examples of our holidays causing problems for local people is that of Burma. A beautiful, exotic country – the next destination on many globe-trotter’s ‘must-do’ list – Burma is described in brochures as ‘The Golden Land’. But life for the Burmese is far from golden. Torture, murder and rape are everyday occurrences at the hands of the military junta. Over the past few years the junta has forced hundreds of thousands of Burmese to labour on tourism projects and millions more have been forced from their homes to make way for widened roads, hotel developments and other tourist-related infrastructure. Burma’s human rights abuses are therefore directly related to developing holidays. Tourism – now the world’s largest industry – is not about buckets and spades and floppy hats any more. It’s no different to any other multinational industry like oil or logging. It just takes a while for us to get our heads round it.
The argument for tourism is obviously that it provides jobs and foreign exchange. These are the two big turn-ons for any government. But here too, the benefits are not always what they seem. A waiter in the Gambia – a big tourist destination for Europeans and especially Britons – will probably get Â£1 a day for his labours. The benefits for the country are illusive. Only around 30p out of every Â£1 spent actually stays in a Southern country. If you think about it, it’s easy to see why – as tourists we invariably book with a foreign travel agent, fly on a foreign airline, stay in a foreign-owned hotel (fitted out with imported, European furniture), travel with a foreign tour operators, and consume imported food and drinks. Eating a few local vegetables is often the closest we get to supporting the local economy.
So how do we have our two weeks of hedonism without making life more difficult for the people who live in destination areas? Over the past couple of decades various answers have been proffered. ‘Ecotourism’ and ‘Green’ tourism are two new labels often used in connection with holidays which have some nature or conservation factor. ‘Alternative tourism’ another. The problem is, as with the greening of any industry – it is difficult to separate the ‘green’ from the ‘green-wash’. You may be appreciating local wildlife (and therefore ‘green’) and donating to a local community project (and therefore ‘alternative’), but is that ‘ethical tourism’ if the local people are for instance, not allowed onto their ancestral lands to graze their cattle as has happened to the Maasai of East Africa?
Such dilemmas abound. The example of Nagarahole national park in Karnataka state is another example. As dream ecotourism destinations go, Nagarahole national park in India, is high on the list. Highlighted at the first Earth Summit as being of major importance to the earths biodiversity, here tourists can be awestruck by elephants, tiger, leopards, bison, marsh crocodiles and a rich variety of plants and birdlife.
The Taj Group of Hotels would seem a natural choice to manage ecotourism in the park. An award-winning member of the lnternational Hotels Environment Initiative water and waste is recycled with zeal and energy-saving has become an art-form. Yet local tribal people – the Adivasis – are highly critical of the Taj’s plans to build a hotel in the park, and this year won a court battle to stop the development going ahead. An historic victory – the 29,000-strong Adivasis claimed their customary rights of access to the forest and its produce were being taken away and that building the hotel in the national park was illegal.
What the Nagarahole case shows is the age old conflict between developers and local people. “But this developer is ‘green’,” comes the cry. “So what?” say the local people – “it’s our land they want to build on and our lives it will change.”
The Adivasis of Nagarahole are quite unusual – they are one of the few examples where the little guys have fought the big guys and won. But all over the world, local people are experiencing similar problems and finding it hard to fight their corner. In Europe, the British campaigning organisation Tourism Concern, is one of a number of non-governmental organisations which campaign in support of Southern groups experiencing problems with tourism, try to influence change in the European tourism industry and to raise awareness amongst our travelling public of some of the issues.
Organisations such as Equations in India, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project in Nepal, Kenya Tourism Concern and Gambia Tourism Concern (both of which are separate to the British organisation) have formed both to protest against tourism development which is damaging to the local culture and environment, and to campaign for a form of tourism which is rooted more in local interests than foreign ones.
With ‘Ethical business’ being the new buzz-words in our new political arena, ethical tourism is something that is getting more and more attention. Many tourists from affluent countries are starting to adopt an ethical stance, as are many tour operators. Call it the ’90s zeitgeist if you will, a reaction to the uncaring ’80s, but the word is getting round. The fact that last Year’s ‘Visit Myanmar Year’ (Myanmar is the junta’s new name for Burma) was an outstanding flop and that several British tour operators pulled out of Burma for ethical reasons, shows some sort of positive reaction.
On a general level, there is an increasing demand for holidays that both protect the environment and benefit local people more. At the moment, the only way to find such a holiday is to do your own research, ask difficult questions of your tour operator and choose the one you feel most comfortable with. But the ethical consumer concept of ‘fairtrade’ – where local people receive a fair wage and the environmental impact of a product is minimised- may be one way of finding an answer. If we can have fairtrade tea, coffee and bananas – can we have fairtrade tourism? Tourism Concern sees this as a major part of our work. The problem is, of course, that tourism is not a single product like coffee – it is a combination of a whole range of services provided by a whole range of people. Determining what is and is not a fairtrade holiday is fraught with difficulties. Tourism Concern’s Fairtrade in Tourism research programme – which works in consultation with partners in Southern countries plus VSO and the University of North London – is trying to find a way through these dilemmas.
Ethical tourism world-wide is of course, not something that can just happen overnight – especially when tourism is growing so quickly and controlled by some of the world’s largest multinational corporations. Fundamental changes have to happen in the way governments plan tourism and support it, the way tour operators operate tourism, and the way local people are involved in and benefit from it. The answers are not simple or obvious. But what is desperately needed is for everyone – tourists, the tourism industry, governments and community and environmental groups – to reassess things. The very least is for local people to be consulted and involved more about whether and how tourism is developed where they live. One thing is for sure, if we want to carry on going on holiday, something definitely has to change.