Travel as Imperialism

“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed.  I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.  But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.  I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.”

- Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948)

In last week’s piece, I looked at the idea that travel is simply a symptom of the chronic consumerism that defines the current era.  This gluttonous urge to splurge has made culture a commodity, as surplus demand from the West makes markets of the Rest.  With this in mind, we have no choice but to wonder: is travel a new form of imperialism?

Consider: the Age of Imperialism (1850-1914) saw the leading Western nations – Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the US – engaged in a tireless quest for virgin lands to sow with their surplus capital.  Put simply, industrial capitalism was generating more wealth than anyone knew what to do with while at the same time expending most of the West’s natural resources (coal, timber, etc.), so the hunt was on for new, resource-rich territories in which to invest some cash.  These wealthy imperialists were like capitalist parasites, draining their hosts of their land and labour and blighting their cultures to boot.  From political organisation to the economy, social structures to morality, imperialism affected (or perhaps infected) every aspect of society, relieving its victims of all autonomy and breeding an abject dependence.  The colonists, for their part, saw such sorry subordination as evidence of backwardness, and so justified their presence as promoting both material and moral development.  Surprisingly, people bought this.

And now consider: the Age of Tourism (1950-) has seen the major Western nations – Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the US – engaged in a tireless quest for virgin lands to sow with their surplus capital.  Put simply, late capitalism has generated more wealth than anyone knows what to do with while at the same time expending most of the West’s natural resources (picturesque landscapes, pristine nature, etc.), so the hunt is on for new, resource-rich territories in which to invest some cash.  These wealthy tourists are like capitalist parasites, draining their hosts of their land and labour and blighting their cultures to boot.  From political organisation to the economy, social structures to morality, tourism has affected (or perhaps infected) every aspect of society, relieving its victims of all autonomy and breeding an abject dependence.  The tourists, for their part, see such sorry subordination as evidence of backwardness, and thus justify their presence as promoting both material and moral development.  Surprisingly, people buy this.

Travel is imperialism.  It is born of inequality, of gaps of power and wealth.  Like imperialism, travel involves territorial expansion and the occupation of foreign lands.  In both cases, the colonised regions are subject to control from beyond their borders, as economic and political structures are increasingly shaped by those in far-flung metropoles.  As a consequence, local livelihoods are transformed; it’s out with farming, fishing and forestry, in with service, subservience.  At the heart of this arrangement is dependence.  It is a guest-host relationship in which the host is wholly at the mercy of its parasitic guest.  As such, the latter must be kept happy; anything that the guest desires is promptly provided, regardless of its fit with local tradition.  Swimming pools, beach bars, English breakfasts and banana pancakes – these are the wants of imperial travellers.  If the good sahib wishes to eat a hamburger in Hyderabad, or if ma’am sahib is wont to wear her miniskirt in Marrakesh, so be it! As ever, the West knows best.

All this poses a paradox: does travel destroy the very cultures it purports to encounter?  If the tourist is indeed a parasite that contaminates all it consumes, if it is replete with infectious moralities, then what becomes of its host?  These questions form the backbone of next week’s article.

Travel as Cultural Perversion

In last week’s piece, I looked at the idea that international travel is a neo-colonial venture founded on domination and dependence.  This expansionist regime, it was argued, restructures economies, transforms traditions and pollutes public morality, much as imperialism has done in previous centuries.  At the end, we were left with a prickly paradox: does travel destroy the very cultures it purports to encounter?

On the surface, the answer seems clear.  Anyone who’s holidayed abroad has at some point faced the awkward realisation that their presence, and that of others like them, has left a tourist-shaped blotch on the landscape.  We see the clubs in Faliraki or the Brit bars in Bangkok or the child prostitutes in Mombasa, and we can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, there’s something a touch wrong with this whole tourism thing.  “All this stuff”, as some gnarled traveller might lament, “all this Western, bourgeois stuff – this isn’t the real [India/China/Mexico/Wales]”.  Implicit in this appraisal is the idea that buried below the tacky crust of Western materialism congealing across the globe is a panoply of ‘authentic’ cultures waiting to be discovered.  These bastions of authenticity are seen as traditional and timeless, pristine and primordial.  Inside, we find simple folk, quaint and superstitious, the custodians of custom.  All is perfect and lovely, then we come along…

Though seemingly self-evident, the assertion that tourism damages culture is in fact a product of Orientalist fantasy.  It presupposes that cultures are static and bounded, and, moreover, that some (i.e. those in the East or the ‘developing world’) are innately ‘traditional’, such that tourists, as conduits of modernity, cannot help but sully them.  But of course, cultures are not solid but fluid; they are always converging, intermingling.  This flow of information and innovation has existed since time immemorial; it brought stone tools from Africa, farming from the Near East, industry from Britain and Starbucks from the States.  Cultures, then, are always changing; there is no primal state, no ‘real’ India/Africa/Belgium.  It is important to accept that shopping malls are as much a part of Indian culture as yoga, that cell phones are not alien to Africa, that Belgium has more to it than waffles.  To believe otherwise is to endorse a vaguely racist worldview, in which Africa, Asia and parts of the Americas are seen as essentially primitive or backward.  From this standpoint, cell phones, shopping malls and other accoutrements of modernity, though legitimate in the West, are perverting to the Rest, as if our ‘less developed’ cousins were children who must be kept apart from grown-up vices.

If cultures are always mixing, if they blend and bleed like liquids, then clearly they cannot be damaged: tourism can’t ‘harm’ culture any more than a teabag can ‘harm’ a cup of hot water.  Fair enough, you might say, but what about Majorca, where each year the population of 850,000 is swamped by some 6 million holidaymakers, or Vang Vieng in Laos, a one-stop-shop for bawdy backpackers – surely here we have signs of travel’s perniciousness?  Again, though, one must bear in mind that in the period before tourism (B.T.) these sites did not exist in some pre-contact vacuum, hermetically sealed from history and the winds of cultural change.  2000 years ago Majorca was occupied by the Romans, and later by the Vandals, Moors and Byzantines, while 100 years B.T. Laos was a French protectorate.  Clearly, these cultures are always in flux.  What some may perceive as a problem with tourism is in fact a problem with change itself.  This is interesting for a number reasons, not least because cultural change is a fact of life, but also for what it says about the Western (postmodern) condition, born as it is of temporal ruptures and a sense of paradise lost.  But putting aside our own histrionics for a moment, let us think about this from our hosts’ perspective.  For most in the ‘developing world’, cultural change means improved infrastructure, higher wages, better access to healthcare and so on; it is something to be desired.  While tourism undoubtedly changes livelihoods, it may also offer a path to development that we in the West, though increasingly disillusioned by material ‘progress’, have no grounds to deny anyone.  In next week’s piece, I’ll look at this, the emancipatory potential of tourism, in more detail.

Travel as Development

In last week’s piece I looked at the idea that travel ‘damages’ cultures, and showed how, perhaps counter-intuitively, this is in fact a meaningless assertion; culture is not some ancient and fragile ornament in danger of destruction, but rather a heady flux of thoughts and things, ever-flowing, ever-changing.  To argue that the tourist ‘damages’ their host culture is to presuppose an essence where none really exists.  What we damage, if anything, is a chimera – our own idealised image of the world we inhabit.

But let’s make one thing clear: while it may be nonsense to claim that travel ‘damages’ other cultures, this is not to say that tourism is wholly without effect for its host communities.  Clearly, international travel has countless consequences, some of which, depending on who you ask, will be perceived as negative.  Thus, ecologists might highlight habitat destruction, economists might warn of dependency and clerics might mourn for morality.  It’s not difficult to think of ways that the global travel industry (or any modern enterprise for that matter) can be seen as dysfunctional; indeed, such social pathologising is for many a popular pastime.  But what about travel’s positives?  Can tourism help as well as hinder, and if so, how?

The belief that travel brings development is arguably its raison d’être.  Nations invest in tourism for the same sake they invest in other industries – to boost employment and GDP – and it is this economic contribution that is most often cited as beneficial.  However, there is no reason to suppose that economic development is necessarily equitable.  Mass tourism, for example, may source both work and income, but the vast majority of its profits are siphoned off by ‘big businesses’ (tour operators, hotel groups, etc.) with next to nothing remaining in the host communities.  This begs the question: if tourism brings development, what sort of development is it?  In order to address this issue, we must first embark on a whistle-stop tour through the history of this curious concept…

‘Development’, you see, is a strange idea.  It presupposes that some parts of the world are inherently inferior or ‘underdeveloped’ (i.e. economically, technologically, culturally), while other parts, by virtue of some arbitrary disparities, are self-defined as ‘developed’ and thus qualified to instruct.  (This is the transnational equivalent of a kind of “when I was your age…” reasoning.)  There is no standard definition of ‘development’; it is simply what we have (prosperity, equality, obesity, etc.) and the rest lack.  Herein lies the logic of international aid.

The history of development can be divided into three eras.  When the idea came into being shortly after World War II, the onus was on economic change in the former colonies.  The Western nations invested heavily in these fledgling states, often restructuring entire economies, but things rarely got any better; quite the opposite in fact.  Loss of livelihoods, urban overcrowding and environmental catastrophes were among the many bleak consequences of rapid industrialisation, just as they had been in Europe a century before.  Unlike their predecessors, though, these newly industrialised states had no overseas empires to help balance the books.  All they had, or so it seemed, was poverty, lots and lots of poverty.

In the 1970s, the international development community, faced with the problems it had all but created, shifted its emphasis from economic development to ‘basic needs’ such as sanitation, water provision, food security and poverty alleviation.  (This was the era of Band Aid, Comic Relief and news footage of babies with flies in their eyes, a time when Europe and the States, in a bilious discharge of hypocrisy, dug deep into their pockets and into their hearts to help avert disasters in which they themselves were complicit.)  The basic needs approach was intended to help the world’s poorest and most marginalised peoples, thereby promoting more equitable development.  Again, though, the results have been somewhat mixed; the new approach casts the world’s poor as needy infants whose woes will be abated with a little spoon-feeding, forgetting, of course, that poverty, hunger and the like (i.e. ‘underdevelopment’) are human-made (i.e. social, political) problems.  Put another way, basic needs development can only tackle the symptoms of poverty, not its causes.  And more worryingly, it may leave beneficiaries dependent on aid, with little scope for self-actualisation.

Since the 1990s, the failings of both state-directed and basic needs development have led policy-makers to seek new ways of tackling global inequality.  Recent years have seen a surge in ‘grassroots’ approaches that aim to foster sustainable, people-led development.  Often, these are associated with ideas about human rights: the right to land, the right to resources, the right to self-reliance.  Development now must be bottom-up and empowering; ‘give a man a fish…’ and so on…

The forms of development offered by travel reflect these three stages.  As mentioned above, mass tourism may bolster a country’s GDP, but it does so at the cost of widening the wealth gap, levelling livelihoods and damaging the environment; in this sense, it is much like the heavy-handed (and ill-fated) economic development of the post-war period.  The basic needs approaches of the 70s and 80s, meanwhile, have their parallels in Lonely Planet-style ‘independent travel’, which sees tourists frequent family-run hotels and restaurants, employ local tour operators and use public transportation.  Here, tourism may serve to engender more equitable economic development, but it does little to undermine the structures of inequality and may in fact reinforce them.

When we come to development’s most recent guise, that of sustainable, bottom-up action, we once again find a convergence with the modern tourism industry.  Specifically, it is so-called ‘responsible travel’ that mirrors the grassroots turn; now, tourism must be planned and produced by the people themselves, with profits feeding back into the community.  In this way, tourism, like development, can be rendered sustainable; travel becomes ‘ethical’.  ‘Teach a man to fish…

Now there are several ways we could go from here.  We could question the integrity of these ‘ethical’ credentials.  We could look at the marketing of morality in the Age of Green.  We could speculate whether grassroots development, like its precursors, is destined for debacle, and ask what this might mean for its travel-based twin.  These are all interesting issues.  But in the next set of articles I want to take the discussion in a different direction.   Putting aside all the polemics, the simple question remains: given that tourism exists, given that it has countless consequences that may be perceived as good or bad (depending on who you ask), how, then, should we travel?  In next week’s piece we will begin to reflect on this matter.