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The Cultural Costs of Tourism


At a time when many tribal peoples and ethnic minorities face the prospect of cultural, and at times physical, annihilation, it may seem grotesque to examine the effects of mass tourism on poorer countries and regions in the same way as we would consider the consequences of a large-scale development scheme in a tropical forest zone. Tourism, quite clearly, has never led to the massacre of native inhabitants, and only rarely to the uprooting of local populations.

But while tourism is a relatively benign form of economic change, it does share with many other developmental strategies a potential for cultural dislocation, which is not to say that it is inherently bad or exploitative. At the root of the problem lies the nature and organization of modern tourism, especially as it affects less developed countries. Mass tourism is really quite new and came into being after World War II as a manifestation of Western mass consumption and an increasingly interdependent global economy. Of course, tourism in the sense of travel to distant lands is very ancient, but the scale and reach of contemporary tourism is something new.


Average annual Average annual

growth rate, growth rate,

Country 1964-1976 1971-1976

Bahamas(a) 21 -1

Brazil 29 18

Colombia 88 33

Egypt 1 8

Grenada 11 -6

Hong Kong 27 14

India 20 15

Israel 18 4

Jamaica 17 -2

Jordan(a) 8 44

Kenya(a) 41 2

Mexico(a) 116 7

Morocco 16 7

Pakistan 17 21

Panama 20 10

Peru 23 14

Philippines 60 72

Republic of Korea 242 44

Singapore 113 22

Sri Lanka 41 40

Thailand 35 14

Trinidad and Tobago11 16

Tunisia 51 12

Turkey 58 34

Venezuela 88 51

Source: WTO, World Travel Statistics, 1976. Cited In UNCTC 1982:91.

(a) Up to 1975 only.

There are really very few places off the beaten path any more. Regular flights now reach Eskimo villages and Amazonian tribes, trips of a few hours that a generation ago would have taken weeks. As for scale, some eight hundred million vacationers travel every year, a quarter of them crossing national frontiers. This constitutes a huge movement of people and a large transfer of resources.

The lure of tourist money, In many cases more apparent than real, initially attracted the Interest of development agencies and governments. The basic argument in favor of touristic development stresses exchange: the tourist purchases goods and services in exchange for recreation and leisure. Very important in this equation is the role of natural, human and cultural environments as resources and commodities. For less developed countries there is a particularly heavy stress on exotic locations and peoples: rustic modes of life, the appeal of sun and sand, open and "wild" spaces, etc. The less industrialized portions of the globe have landscapes that are climatically and economically different from those to be found in developed countries. Economic backwardness and rural poverty may even seem to have an idyllic quality.

How well does this exchange work? A reasonable answer is that in economic terms the benefits to host countries and societies correlate closely to the degree of control they have over the industry. This control is very much a function of the economic strength and political autonomy of the society. Thus, while there is tourism in Senegal and in Switzerland, the Swiss benefit a great deal more from every tourist that visits their country: not only are tourists in Switzerland likely to leave more money in local pockets, staying at Swiss-owned hotels and buying Swiss watches, but much of the infrastructure (tour operators, transportation, etc.) will be Swiss.

The reverse tends to hold true in poor countries. Resort hotels are generally foreign-owned, and so are the agencies and airlines that take tourists to their destination. In such circumstances, a high percentage of the profits earned from tourism are repatriated to parent companies in the developed world. Furthermore, most tourists do not expect to rough it but count on accommodation and cuisine similar to that at home, all adding up to high import costs for materials and food. Maintaining a resort complex in a developing country is not simply expensive; such vast expenditure often underwrites a style of life in sharp contrast to that of local people. As a case in point, every room in a recently built Ivory Coast hotel consumes 150 gallons of water a day, while in neighboring villages even a central water supply is a recent luxury.


% of % of

% of revenue revenue

Destination Average revenue for trans- to tour

(miles from market) revenue for hotel portation operator

1,000 miles

2/3-star hotels $270 52 40 8

1,000 miles

4-star hotels $390 58 33 8

1,500 miles

A- and B-class

hotels $420 58 36 6

4,000-5,000 miles $840 33 48 19

Source: UNCTC 1982:76.

In summary, the economic benefits of tourism for developing societies may turn out to be Illusory, especially at the local level. Even if tourism does help with a country's balance of payments, it does not follow that It will be of much help to the local farmer or shopkeeper.


Obviously, the economic costs and benefits of tourism should be examined on a case-by-case basis, and the same is true for what we may term cultural considerations. In this respect, it is very important to keep in mind that, fundamentally, tourism involves the merchandising of fantasy.

For the tourist, San Francisco is cable cars and Fisherman's Wharf (too expensive for locals) and Spain is bullfights and flamenco music (local stations carry rock and Spaniards much prefer to watch soccer).

In Amsterdam "sex tours" are organized to fly men to Bangkok. In common with all package tours, payment was in advance; but this particular arrangement included the chance to act out scenarios of dominance in suitable "Oriental" environments.

Much more typical is the situation of tourists in a Senegal resort who are offered the opportunity to "fish in the native style" and cheerfully lend a hand helping the natives haul in the nets. What the visitors don't know is that the authentic local fishermen have been ordered away from this part of the coast; in fact, the people they help are employed by the hotel to give the requisite degree of native flavor.

Whatever these scenarios may achieve in satisfying the variety of needs of the tourist, this fabrication of cultural images for mass consumption is disturbing.

Tourism in its present form can carry prohibitive cultural costs for the so-called host societies. This argument is succinctly stated by Anthony Smith, the director of the British Film Institute:

Tourism places the whole of the visited culture on sale, distorting its imagery and symbolism, turning its emotions loose, transforming a way of life into an industry...A turned from subject to object, from independent to dependent, from audience-in-its-own-right to spectacle.

I quote Smith because of the linkage he makes between imagery and fantasy on the one hand and economic and social forces on the other. There is, of course, nothing inherently destructive about fantasy. What matters is how such fantasies are played out and how they reflect the relative power of the actors.

In Amherst, Massachusetts, where I live, I do not have to worry about uninvited strangers entering my kitchen to photograph me as I prepare supper. I would enjoy no such privacy if I were an Eskimo butchering a seal behind my house when tourists were in town. My private world, my private affairs, respected by my fellow villagers, become public property, open to public scrutiny. In a small but significant way, my culture and my tranquility have been disturbed. The tourist, no doubt told that he will be free to record the everyday life of the natives, is unaware of the intrusiveness of his behavior. It should come as no surprise that when the pressure of the external world gets too high people react by closing off their life to outsiders, sometimes by erecting physical barriers.


Because modern tourism carries both economic and cultural consequences, it is inevitable that it will also have repercussions of a political nature. How people respond to tourism depends a great deal on the control they have over it, in the developed as well as in the poorer countries. Thus, some small tourist enterprises in the United States are reacting to the power of industry giants with much the same anguish as similar businesses in the less-developed world. A San Francisco tour-bus operator phrased the problem this way: "What we want to break through is a multinational monopoly that keeps a grip on the Japanese tourist and his money from the time he leaves Tokyo to the time he returns".

Natural resources and their utilization constitute another area of possible contention. In recent years, for example, there have been several episodes in Wales of nationalist militants setting fire to the houses of English summer residents, outsiders seen as unfairly buying up a shrinking supply of farm land. In the village of Cap Lloc in Catalonia, northeastern Spain, a confrontation lasted several years between local fishermen and summer residents, who planned to transform what was left of the town beach (where the fishermen keep their boats) into a yacht basin and club. Because the fishermen were able to win extensive public support, this particular development project was shelved.

At the more general level of group identity and cultural maintenance, tourism can also become a critical political issue, and not only for tribal people. Again, the problem has to be understood in terms of power relations. Here we have to keep in mind not only the power of the tourist industry to distort cultural reality, but also the power of higher-order political structures, especially the state, to influence the cultural dynamics of society. Depending on their policies and long-term goals, states may either wish to support cultural pluralism or to insist that such pluralism does not exist. While these issues are internal to a political system, they influence the perceptions that tourists have of the country they visit. The South African government, wishing to project an image of stability and tranquility, distributes tourist brochures with glossy pictures of traditionally-costumed Africans living peacefully (and colorfully) in their "homelands." In Turkey, it has long been government policy not to recognize the ethnic distinctiveness of Kurds - they are officially categorized as "mountain Turks."

Very few tourists have the knowledge or background that would make them aware of such distortions. In Spain, when the Franco government decided to espouse a development program heavily dependent on tourism in the 1960s, it did so knowing it would obliterate the linguistic and cultural diversity of the country. Since all the place names and road signs were in Spanish (even in minority language areas), the visitor was hardly in a position to understand that he was crossing cultural frontiers - unless local inhabitants corrected the signs, as regularly happened on Catalan roads off the main highway from France.


The crux of the matter is that tourism lends itself very easily to manipulation. There is, of course, no reason why tourism should not be a mutually beneficial experience and a reasonable source of income for the societies visited. Tourism, for instance, has been largely responsible for the survival of folk crafts in Mexico and the Southwest, and in Scotland it is tourists (and nostalgic descendants of emigrant Scots) who provide the audiences for Highland games and similar activities.

But if the positive effects of tourism are to become more widespread, it is indispensable that the societies and groups being visited be allowed to define and control much more stringently the conditions of interaction, both economic and cultural. The alternative for many societies is economic exploitation and increasingly sterile cultural environments, settings of "staged authenticity" with little meaning for the principal actors. Needless to say, the cultures most at risk are the economically vulnerable and politically subordinated.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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