Friday, July 11, 2014

My position on tourism

This is a separate post and it is not related to this trip. It has been inspired by a comment made by one reader and it seeks to explain my position on tourism, since I am fully aware that many of the comments I write ranting about it might be misunderstood and taken the wrong way.

 There are several ways of traveling around the world. From the the most ephemeral, like a quick journey somewhere to visit only major tourist attractions, to the longest and most profound that leads to a high degree of penetration in a different culture. While they are all valid ways of traveling there is only one that is the best one, and that is the one that fits one's personal goals. Not everybody has to enjoy visiting the Statue of Liberty or spending days walking around the Louvre. Likewise, not everybody has to be willing to jump on a fully loaded bicycle and set off to ride across a desert or walk the world at 20 km a day. However, regardless of the way we choose to travel, I believe that we all have an important responsibility at the time of visiting a foreign country. Just like when we go for a visit to someone else's house and we generally adapt to its codes even putting them above our own, when we visit a foreign culture we should do something similar.

Along 18 years of traveling and 54 countries (and counting...) behind me, I have seen over and over again the negative effects that a determined type of tourists have on the local cultures. For many people, it might seem that traveling (or the very fact of being able to simply do it) is a mere symbol of social and/or financial status. There is neither profound interest whatsoever in what it is going to be seen nor there is knowledge of any kind about it, let alone interest of any kind in having a certain degree of genuine exchange with the local people. It is a very shallow type of tourist. It is the one that visits a country in order to be able to say that he/she has been there, or even worse, to say that just because he was there or saw some thing he is entitled to say that he knows that country. This type of tourist can be of any kind. It can be a “package tour” tourist, it can be a backpacker, it can be a cyclist. It is the tourist that shows no care, no commitment. They don't travel for the passion to learn, to discover, to enrich themselves from the experience but for the passion to show off and many times to take advantage of things that aren't available to them in their own countries. These are the kind of tourists that are likely to be found always along the famous tourist circuits and main landmarks of a country and never outside them, since it is highly unlikely that they will ever even think of coming out of them. Now, none of this would actually be a problem if it did not affect the local culture, but ignorance and negligence DO affect it and they have a huge impact in the behaviour of local people and their traditions. This is the kind of tourism to which I direct my rants.
 It is the guy that locks himself inside a five stars resort in the third world and treats all the personnel like slaves. It is the guy that jumps on a luxurious bus to get to the Taj Mahal so he doesn't have to bump into the “poor” people on the way because he is ultimately scared of them. It is the guy that pays whatever ridiculous amount of money he is asked in countries where haggling is an intrinsic part of every day life in business. It is the rich “backpacker” of the 21st century that travels to South East Asia deluding himself into thinking he is an adventurer but he only goes there because it is much cheaper to get drunk and high every single day in some “full moon party” than in his home country. It is the kind of tourist that doesn't really care about anything, it is the one that uses money to pay others to sort out any inconvenience instead of working it out for himself. All this kind of behaviours have a tremendous impact in local traditions, they erode it and pervert it, especially in the third world. The examples I can give are more than I am even able to remember because sadly, I have see way too many, but I am going to cite a few ones:

 The case of Kawah Ijen volcano. For those who don't know what this is, you can read this article I posted here last year. The crater of this active volcano itself is nothing short of spectacular. However, unlike mostly every other volcano in Indonesia, this one is first and foremost a working place for hundreds of people, who by the way, work in some of the most inhumane conditions. Unfortunately for them, it has become a major tourist destination in the country and thousands of tourists visit it every year. When I was there, I spotted a group of European tourists, mostly Swiss and French, visibly rich and old tourists. They were having themselves a ball taking photos of themselves (and stupidly risking their own lives) standing on the edge of the crater and blatantly standing on the way of the miners who were reaching the top of the crater exhausted, wearing flip-flops, carrying up to 90 kg of sulphur on their shoulders. I had to stand there in awe and disgust to see them patiently asking these assholes to stand out of their way so they could continue their work. Many times they even had to ask them more than twice and the tourists would reluctantly move mumbling words of disgust in French, as if they were the ones being disturbed.

 The children. The so-called begging industry is a huge problem in countries like India. In the three opportunities I have been there, I have seen over and over again how tourists arrive in their tour buses to some famous places where they get off and immediately find themselves surrounded by swarms of kids who beg for their money. They proudly respond giving them money, pencils or whatever they have so they can make themselves feel like good Samaritans. In India, like in many other countries where this happens, I have talked about this issue with local people and ALL of them seem to agree that giving money to street children only increases the problem. It does not only contribute to keep children on the streets (many of them are sent by their own parents or they are exploited by local mafias) but it encourages many others to arrive every day to stay. For this kind of tourist it is way much easier and cheaper to throw some coins to a kid, feeling a philanthropist in doing so, telling his friends about it, instead of going back home, do some proper research about the local organizations who do work to take hundreds of these kids out of the streets every day, and donate them the money that they need urgently in order to keep doing it. There are many of them, but to collaborate with them, one has to be truly kind, from the heart.

Business. In most corners of the Asian continent, haggling is pretty much part of everybody's every day life. The business owner usually asks for a price that is much higher than what is fair, thus customers necessarily haggle it down until it is fair for both parties. You might like this way of doing business or not but it is what it is like it or not. It's somehow like a game. In places affected by mass tourism, tourists either don't know this aspect of a culture or even worse they simply ignore it and they just pay whatever they are asked (after all, whatever they pay in Thailand at an outrageous price will still be much cheaper than in their homeland). The problem is that this creates inflation in local communities and distorts the traditional values. The business men, sooner or later succumb to greed and simply stop playing the “game” of haggling. They stop lowering their inflated prices. Why would they do it after all if he knows that some stupid tourist will eventually show up and pay 10 times the regular price without complaining. In this way, local people connected to tourism lose their own values, they become more aggressive, they forget kindness and they end up like money hunting vultures. Dozens of places in South East Asia have suffered this destiny since the tourism boom there began. Mobs of taxis, rickshaws, tuk tuks, street sellers, hotel owners, shit guest houses, all setting insane prices that would never go down. The list goes on and on and on. People that want nothing but getting as much money as they can. Even if one chooses not to pay it doesn't matter because they know very well that another one will come next and will pay it anyway. Some of these people even stop selling their stuff or services to their own people because it isn't convenient for them anymore.

 The way of dressing. The uttermost disregard that some tourists show for the local codes and traditions is sometimes extremely distressing. Funnily enough it happens more often with women than with men (but only perhaps because the latter enjoy relatively more “freedom” in conservative countries). Time and time again I have come across women wearing tang tops and shorts that easily let underwear be seen (if they actually even wear some) in countries that have strict conservative codes of dressing and strong reservations about exposing some areas of the body. This can be seen everywhere in for examples the temples of India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, etc or the mosques of Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia and so many other places. One might agree or not with such restrictions, but what one cannot do is to blatantly ignore them expecting to impose one's own values when, to begin with, one is in the position of a guest as soon as leaving one's own country. This is not only a problem of absolute disrespect for the local people and their traditions but in many cases, a good example would be India among others, means putting oneself in situations of great danger.

Photography. As a photographer, this one touches me personally. Many tribal regions that have turned into tourist destinations, the constant flux of masses of people coming and going have made that the local people take photography as a business. In any small town or village disconnected from the tourist circuits, most of the time people feel grateful and honored for someone wanting to have their photo taken. They are very happy to pose and truly enjoy an experience that is so foreign to them, especially these days of the digital age, that they take it with a lot of fun. On the other hand, when it comes to villages that are regularly hit by tourists, villagers demand for money for having their photo taken, many times even aggressively. If there's no money, there's no photo, only contempt. There are plenty of cases of locals who will actually wear a costume to pass as tribal people in order to profit from it. This doesn't happen out of thin air, but from the constant irresponsible behavior of tourists (and aspiring photographers with little principles) that in order to have a photo to show later in some online gallery, they agree to give money in exchange of a photo. It only takes a handful of people doing this for a while to distort the traditions of a whole village and found greed in places where otherwise they wouldn't know of it.

I could go on and on, because the list is virtually infinite and it keeps growing day by day in these days of cheap traveling. Not for nothing, many organizations already consider mass tourism as another form of pollution. From an individual standpoint, my path as a traveler diverts more and more from famous tourist circuits and attractions every day, because in them I find it increasingly difficult if not impossible sometimes, to find either genuine local people who are willing to truly have an exchange with me that doesn't involve money or other travelers who are committed to travel responsibly and in search of a truly enriching and self-fulfilling experience. Above all, I believe that it is essential to try to reduce the impact that we have in local cultures, respecting them, informing us beforehand, moving around respectfully.  With that as a base, everything is valid.

Finally, when it comes to my own aims, a tourist attraction though interesting, be it a museum, a monument, a beach, a building,etc doesn't even reflect a fraction of what a country truly has to offer. In them, you don't get to know a country, you just get to know the country's landmarks which is a totally different thing. I am personally interested in knowing the countries from the inside, their people, their idiosyncrasies, their different ways of conceiving existence and dealing with it. In my case, the bicycle is the mean of transport that allows me to discover the world in this very profound way. It is my way of traveling and it is the best because it is the one that fits perfectly for myself and my goals when I'm on the road. It doesn't have to be the ultimate reality for everybody. It certainly isn't it, luckily! When it comes to others, I really hope they enjoy as they wish however they choose to travel, as long as they take respect and a minimum knowledge as a base and always keep in mind to minimize their possible impact when visiting foreign cultures. 

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