Controversies in Tourism

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14 april 2009 | Tourism is neither panacea nor blight. The impacts of tourism on people and the environment are well documented. Yet, the controversies in tourism remain undocumented, and sometimes even unpopular. A look at the current tourism environments from non-academic sources illustrates the importance and need to discuss tourism controversies in academia, Omar Moufakkir writes.

…New tourism environments and new actors make new tourism news, and the show must go on, with praises and trophies,  detestation and trophies. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.  Trends, damn trends, and tourism.

Old civilizations are potentially being sold and bought as new destinations, and strangely, the motives of the tourist have remained unchanged, combining the elements of learning and excitement, thrill-seeking and understanding. This is done through the gaze of the foreigner and the complicity of the native, under the whims of the winning rules of market supply and demand.

New forms of tourism are being invented and old ones re-invented, responding to the insatiable lightness of being. It’s pro-misery tourism. While Pro-poor tourism is supposedly tourism that helps the poor, Pro-misery tourism is literally tourism that consumes misery. A new form of adventure tourism –going where misery is.

“As foreigners flock to India to find lower health-care costs and avoid long waiting times, the rapid growth of this medical tourism has begun to create significant opposition among doctors here” and there. Here the sick is dead. Long live the sick, there. What about the sick and what might happen to the hungry? Some support that medical tourism can not only contribute to improving the quality of the infrastructure in rural areas, but it does also contribute to the patients’ quality of life.

In China, while the May 2008 earthquake claimed thousands of lives, visiting the ruins in the Sichuan Province has become popular. Some argue that the dead make the living happy, while others respond that it certainly does make the dead and relatives sad.

In Kenya, as is the case in many other exotic destinations,  and more recently in India, people’s deprivation, misery and backwardness have become tourist attractions. Talk about virtual tourism. It’s happening, but it  seems to be working when it shouldn’t. People don’t want to experience slums virtually, in front of the “Slumdog Millionaire”, when they actually have the luxury to experience “experience tourism”, and  to personally sign in the book of experience the slums. They have been there, seriously, experiencing the slums, their smells, and gazing at the dispossessed slumees, robbed of their lives, whose lives have become part of this filth. What an achievement –memories to cherish and photos to share with friends and relatives to picture for them the inexperienced, around a happy meal. But, “there’s an enormous amount of art, dance, drama and sports projects in the area that are overlooked by those focused on the poverty” some may argue. Could it also be adventure tourism!

In New Mexico, “Instead of highlighting New Mexico’s picturesque desert landscapes, art galleries or centuries-old culture, a new tourism campaign features drooling, grotesque office workers from outer space chatting about their personal lives”, and it is a winning ad. To attract Americans to New Mexico, you need to show spaghetti Mexicans –you know, those in once upon a time Italian Westerns. Do we also have to degrade Asians to invite Americans to visit LA? Yes, I mean no. What a confusion. Tourists bring business to them.

Ecotourism brings business too. Yes, but not much business because ecotourists come in small groups. Small groups are good for the environment, but less for business. Sure, we need business to protect the environment. To help the community, they should come in small groups, yes, but more often and regularly. As long as they come in small groups their impacts are minimised. The community will see to it, and the miracle of sustainable projects. Miraculously, regardless of the grievances of community participants, or whether locals are sharply divided in their views on this type of development.

In the Holy Land(s), people are divided in their views of heritage and heritage tourism plays a role. While heritage is said to cement people, when you have two peoples living with and without each other on the same land, some must argue that heritage is what brings them apart. How can tourism contribute to lessening conflict in a geopolitically divided context? Talking about geography when you talk about borders as tourist attractions, attracting tourists shamelessly to witness the walls of shame is good for politics, but is it good for peace? Political tourism brings people and tourists together against the other tourists and people together. Winners and losers.

In Burma, for example, some argue against sending tourists to Burma to help the Burmese, because they see tourism not as an economic activity, but as a cash cow for the Burmese “unlawful and corrupt” government to support their repressive policies. Others, on the other hand, and especially tourists who have visited Burma, do argue that their visit rather echoes their empathy and support for the Burmese oppressed population, psychologically and economically. Most of them, of course, stay at franchised hotels, away from the crowd.

Those who like the crowd go to South East Asia. There they have Big time opportunities to “meat and greed”. Business is good for those tourists, local families, and their governments, and the orchestra goes on playing the orchestrated sex tourism controversy.

In Dubai, for example, this controversy does not exist. Sex, you mean? Sure. Is it any different from that of prostituting nature and the environment? What a gamble! Let’s visit a casino. Why not develop one -may be in an Islamic country! So what? Arab hospitality: open for foreigners and closed for natives.

Global citizens
Clearly, tourists are concerned global citizens, moved by the plight of the hungry and the condition of the naked. Critics have argued that due to the problems associated with mass tourism, tourists are moving away from the ‘traditional irresponsible’ tourists towards a more responsible, ‘new’, ‘ethical’,‘ environmentally responsible’, ‘good’ ‘enlightened’, and ‘experiential type of tourists. These are called niche tourism markets. Others, however, have advanced that any form of responsible tourism, if not ethics in general seem to remain a “myth”, and oppose the vocabulary of the New Moral Tourist. Tourism trends indicate the predominance of a hedonistic philosophy towards indulgence of pleasure and debauchery.

According to a study of a representative sample, undertaken by Stenden University, over seventy-five percent of respondents from the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and Switzerland would like to be ethical in their tourism orientation. While about three-fourth of them looked for information before their trip, over ninety percent of them were not familiar with ethical issues in tourism. The study concluded that:

1. Traditional criteria to select a tourism destination –affordable cost, good weather and good accommodation and service- (Tearfund) seem to load heavier than the ethics-oriented criteria -there is a significant opportunity for interaction with the local people , good information is available on the social, economic and political situation of the country and local area visited, trip has been specifically designed to cause as little damage as possible to the environment (Tearfund).

2. There is a positive inclination towards ethics/be-coming ethical.

3. There appears to be a deficit of ethics in tourism, tourism education, tourist behavior, and tourism marketing.

The ethical deficit often seems to be a feature of many areas of modern society, and tourism is no exception. In general, ethics refers to well-based standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Ethical tourism may be defined as tourism that incorporates tourism ethics principles; whereby consumers make the difference between what is right and what is wrong in their tourism behavior.

According to the European Travel Commission (ETC, 2006:5), “People are seeking genuine experiences rather than staged ones. Tourists try to achieve ‘deeper’ and more ‘meaningful tourism’ experiences”. The question that follows is how deep? Krippendorf (1987) argued for greater humanism in life before having humanism in tourism. There is an acknowledged advocacy to call for ethical principles beyond niche markets, and towards being ethical in life. There are things that people won’t do in their backyards, but do experience deeply outside. Does it make sense to say: at home I do what is right. Outside I do what feels good? Or how can people be ethical in tourism if they are not in life?

There exists a multitude of controversies in tourism that are not only related to mass tourist but also to niche or alternative types of tourists, even when they are labeled as cultural. Cultural tourism is defined as “The movement of persons to cultural attractions away from their normal place of residence, with the intension to gather new information and experiences to satisfy their cultural needs (ATLAS). Emerging niche types of tourism such as pro-misery tourism, although may conform to the definition of cultural tourism, they, nevertheless, need to be ethical in their orientation. A responsible cultural tourism is thus needed, whereby tourists can deeply satisfy their cultural needs without trashing the needs of their shrinks.

For more about Tourism for Peace visit

Omar Moufakkir

Lector Tourism for Peace, Stenden

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