MASS TOURISM – Global threat to the local cultures
Večernji list, November 2004
The number of tourists in the world is drastically increasing. Croatia is not caught up in this trend yet, so apart from the extremely rich, or from a handful of ambitious young adventurers, there are not many Croatians who travel out of Europe. The term ‘backpacker’, however, has slowly been introduced to Croatia these past few years. In West Europe, North America, Australia, or Japan, almost all youths are backpackers. They work and study throughout the whole year and then grab their backpacks and travel the world. Escapism in the West is not an illness but the norm. Older wealthier people pay tourist packages. Most of them find satisfaction by consuming the differences and photographing “the different”. But to the unquenchable Western spirit, not even that is enough, so these people choose more demanding and expensive tours. If money is not the limit, then you can go wherever you want to! You can drink tea with the Tuareg in the heart of the Sahara, you can hunt anacondas with the Indians in the Amazon, you can pay porters to carry you up Mount Everest, you can get close to hungry lions in Africa and man-eating tigers in India from the security of a four-by-four jeep, you can be lowered in a cage to be among scary sharks in the South African Republic, and you can travel by plane to the north or south pole. How did this happen, and what are the consequences of greedy consummation of the world by infinitely unsatisfied tourists?
A well-known American sociologist, Hakim Bey, explains: “The tourist seeks out Culture because – in our world – culture has disappeared into the maw of the Spectacle. Culture has been torn down and replaced with a Mall or a talkshow- because our education is nothing but a preparation for a lifetime of work and consumption-because we ourselves have ceased to create. Even though tourists appear to be physically present in Nature or Culture, in effect one might call them ghosts haunting ruins, lacking all bodily presence. They’re not really there, but rather move through a mindscape, an abstraction («Nature», «Culture»), collecting images rather than experience. All too frequently their vacations are taken in the midst of other peoples’ misery and even add to that misery.”
French Guiana, a French colony in South America, is divided into two zones. The coastal zone is a true copy of France, and the inner one is the zone of rain forest inhabited by the Indians who live in the Stone Age conditions. The border between those two zones has always been impenetrable for all but anthropologists. This year, the French government from far away Europe decided to open that border for tourists. Mainly overweight Caucasians, armed with cameras, dressed uniformly and in line with the latest tourist fashion, boarded motor boats and set off for a jungle adventure. As if they were aliens, they were watched from the river banks by the dark-skinned, naked and skinny prehistoric people. Cameras were clicking! It was a once in a lifetime experience! Anthropologists complained to the government that the Indians were being shown as animals, and the tourists were behaving as if in a zoo, so in order to conserve this rare and fragile culture, they demanded a complete ban of tourism in that zone. Ethically conscious France, that has built itself an image as a pacifist, as a defender of human dignity and of the principle of humanism itself, was enthralled with the newly discovered source of easy income and unanimously refused all proposals for protection of human rights in remote Amazonia.
The pyramids of Egypt, Statue of Liberty, Taj Mahal, Eiffel’s Tower, Aya Sofia, Great Wall of China, and other tourist must-see landmarks of the World, are photos that every serious tourist has in his album. When they cover all of the conventional destinations, they start chasing the unreachable. All countries that are rich in culture try to protect certain areas by proclaiming them ‘forbidden zones’. Access there is allowed only to scientists and extremely rich tourists. These then pay thousands of dollars to get to the place where they can feel the spirit of exploration and experience a cultureal virginity.
In one such place, hidden in the Himalayas between Nepal and China, there is a small kingdom where the Tibetan culture still remains intact. Once, during one of the annual festivals, about a dozen tourists received permission to attend. Colorfully dressed monks walked in a procession, playing shells and trumpets and chanting formulas of eternal spirituality. One tourist photographed with his digital camera that he had bought because it could reproduce pictures instantly. After having entered the area and interrupting the local culture, he showed the photo on a small screen to the monks. The motive behind his act was to gain positive points from these different people, because they were the reason why he had traveled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars. A very possible consequence of this act is destruction of the local culture. The seed of destructive doubt can be sown in a monk that sees something unbelievable, something from the future. Many monks have already abandoned their vocation in this way, and blended into a copy culture of the West. Most of these acculturated people accept negative aspects of the new culture, while overseeing the positive.
Hakim Bey evaluated the three ancient reasons for travel- war, trade and pilgrimage, and looked to see which one of these gave birth to contemporary tourism. Most of the people he had questioned said that it was pilgrimage. However, Bey disagrees with this theory because the pilgrim on his journey experiences a true change of consciousness. The pilgrim looks for baraka (Arabic word for blessing), whereas the tourist looks for the opposite: cultural difference. Production of baraka is unlimited: every temple, such as in Mekka, Varanasi, or Lourdes, accepts all pilgrims that make the effort to reach it. No matter how many blessings pilgrims take home with them, there are always enough blessings remaining for the others. On the other hand, production of cultural difference is not infinite: the more of it that is spent, the less of it that remains.
Archeologists that discovered the ancient Incan city Macchu Picchu in Peru, took the authentic experience of discovery with them. Consecutively, each next traveler got less and less of the original experience. Nowadays, one still needs to walk four days up the Andean slopes to reach Macchu Picchu. But the Peruvian government is now constructing a cable car that will ensure a greater number of tourists and greater profit. The authentic experience of discovery will then completely disappear with the first flow of tourists in cableways.
“Tourism’s real roots do not lie in pilgrimage (or even in «fair» trade), but in war,” the famous sociologist concludes. “Rape and pillage were the original forms of tourism, or rather, the first tourists followed directly in the wake of war, like human vultures picking over battlefield carnage for imaginary booty – for images.“
Tourist agencies try to lure customers by selling them the smell of discovery. On the Croatian market, the Jordan package appeared recently. “Discover Petra, the hidden city of Nabateans carved into the rocks!” Sounds amazing! If a tourist does some research before his journey, he can discover that Petra is visited by 4 million tourists annually. That means 10 000 people a day. When he pushes his way through the crowds of tourists, along the narrow canyon that is the only path to the city, and reaches the plateau in front of a 40 meter high temple carved completely out of a rock, a tourist will shout, “The Indiana Jones movie was filmed here!” The discovery that had been promised in the commercial brochure at the beginning of the journey, is then lost in the noise of cameras clicking and tourist guides yelling, far in the desert mountains of the Near East.
Chosen tourist destinations are shifting more and more from the first into the third world. Many African, Asian and Latin American countries live from tourism. Egypt, the most inhabited country in Africa with 50 million people, annually attracts almost twice the number of tourists. Millions of people along the shores of the Nile live from foreign visitors’ money. Parents do not send their children to school. Instead, they send them among the hordes of tourists. There they learn a dozen languages and come home with pockets full of money. After one Croatian tourist in Luxor ignored a little girl that was begging to him in different languages, he was surprised to hear her yell in Croatian, “Give me money!” Because of the great differences in living standards, a one dollar tip is an unimaginable large amount of money in those kinds of countries. The same as how tourists perceive locals in the wrong way, the locals see tourists as an easy source of money.
Mass tourism is the fastest way to destroy a local culture. A country that realized that and offers a special type of tourism is Bhutan. If you want to enter the last Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, you have to sign that you will spend at least $200 a day. For that money, you won’t get luxurious accommodation or food, but you will still have the illusion of discovery. You will pass forests along the slopes of the Himalayas where people still walk about in traditional attire. You won’t see cars because there is only one road from the Indian border to the only city Thimpu, you won’t see televisions because the royal government bans them, and so on. As a result, a special type of tourism was born there: amanism. For one night of ideal, peace, and luxury in an Aman apartment, wealthy tourists pay between 700 and 2000 dollars. If the average salary of a Bhutanese is taken into consideration, which is about $600 per year, then the width of the unbridgeable gap between the guest and the host can be surmised. The locals, however, don’t complain. And what is even more important, they don’t hassle foreigners, so the government harvests the extraordinary fruit of ‘low volume – high value’ tourism. A small number of visitors pay enormously high sums to get there and in the same time they don’t destroy the local culture, landscape, or authenticity of Bhutan, because there are so few of them present, that they are almost invisible.
What connection does this chaos of exotic examples have with Croatia? Egypt and Bhutan earn almost the same amount of money per capita. The number of tourists in Egypt is two times greater than its population, and in Bhutan it is twenty times smaller. There is no need for further explanation of which one of these two examples is healthier for the country, the environment, and the population of any particular country. The Croatian example is similar to the Egyptian model: This year (that hasn’t finish yet) Croatia was visited by 7.5 million foreign tourists. 88% of them stayed in lower-category hotels. While international travel corporations like Lonely Planet choose Croatia as the best destination in Europe because of its attractions and cheap prices, we ourselves choose to be a classical example of ’high volume – low value’ tourism, the form that is specific for its destructive nature.