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9 December 2002updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Against the western invaders

With the world in turmoil, tourists will have to realise that to carry on partying or trying to "fin

By David Nicholson-Lord

The conventions of media reporting often tell a story different from the one intended. The bomb that destroyed a holiday hotel in Mombasa, killing 16 people, including three suicide bombers, coincided with the re-emergence of a 19-year-old British backpacker after a couple of nights on a not-so-bare Australian mountain. The two events, not otherwise connected, spoke to a common theme: tourists in trouble. Sadly, anyone wondering why tourists are in trouble – and why, despite recent and unignorable attacks such as the Bali nightclub bombing, they go on getting into it – would find clues aplenty littering the coverage.

Take Mombasa first. Beyond the headline politics of the bombing – the targeting of Israeli tourists, the probable involvement of al-Qaeda – the themes were familiar. Dreams had turned to nightmares. Global politics had intruded savagely on a tropical idyll at a hotel named Paradise. Western holidaymakers expressed shock, bewilderment, indignation. There was talk of soft targets and innocent victims.

On Louise Saunders’s well-canopied Queensland mountain-top, the leitmotif shifted, from innocence to ignorance. Here was the classic “ordeal”, in which an individual is obliged to battle heroically against a hostile environment. But this particular fiction proved harder to maintain once it became clear that Mount Tyson, scene of the ordeal, is not remarkable for its height or its extent, is surrounded by roads, and is sufficiently hedged about by suburban development for Louise, a trainee beauty therapist on a gap year, to make her escape via a municipal rubbish tip. In that sense, hers was something of a parable. The “wilderness” where she lost herself has residents, living near if not in it, who regard it neither as wild nor noticeably hostile.

Similarly, “paradise”, whether it’s Bali or Mombasa or any one of hundreds of other tropical holiday spots, is inhabited, too, although if you relied on what the travel industry told you, the point might well prove elusive.

A few years ago, I took part in a radio discussion programme about tourism. Even more striking than the disbelief with which my fellow panellists, all making a living from “professional” travel, greeted just about every criticism of their calling was their apparent assumption that well-brought-up westerners have an absolute right to travel wherever they wish. And the real reason for travel, one woman writer solemnly declared, was the journey through one’s own mind. To that extent, place – geography, culture, peoples, languages – was irrelevant.

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There may be a certain literary force in this argument. But that does not diminish the countervailing conclusion that it smells – of moral casuistry, of self-indulgence, even of that much-debated commodity, decadence. Rich westerners can “find themselves” via Byronic meanderings through poor countries. And if they can’t find themselves, or if they’re not really bothering to look, never mind, they can get stuck into other, less highfalutin commodities instead: sun, sea, sand, sex, drugs, booze. Above all, perhaps, they can escape, from the grimy and pressured routine of their lives to distant paradises and wildernesses where reality is suspended, miracles occur and ends of rainbows are located.

The modern mass tourism industry is built on such beliefs, which is another way of saying that it thrives on myths and ignorance. And like many peddlers of myths and dreams, it has proved highly successful. In 1950, there were roughly 25 million international tourist visits. Today there are approximately 700 million; by 2020 there will be about 1.6 billion. But it is a sad truth of mass society that what works for the few stops working for the many. You cannot have more than one-tenth of the planet’s population taking flight around it every year without stresses emerging, particularly when the traffic is largely one-way, from developed to developing world.

Imagine yourself as a year-round resident of paradise – a sub-tropical coastal settlement in, say, south-east Asia. You earn a living farming but one day a hotel chain arrives and either buys up your land for a song or forces you off it because your property rights are imprecise. Pretty soon, unless you take a job hotel portering or taxi-driving, you’re landless and unemployed. So you join the drift to the cities. Here you see the growing evidence of Coca-colonisation – McDonald’s, Starbucks, the KFCs – and start to understand the anti-western, anti-American attitudes that distinguish much contemporary third world radicalism. If you stay, meanwhile, you watch the hotels proliferating along the coastal strip, privatising the beaches, commandeering scarce resources such as water. You may resent your newly servile role, contrast it with your former independence, watch with slowly mounting resentment the casualness and disdain with which many of the foreigners treat your religious beliefs and sacred places. Their hedonism, their affluence, their apparently limitless leisure, make you envious and also hostile. If you derive no benefit from tourism, your hostility is so much the greater.

Over the past decade or two, tourism has spawned countless campaigns of resistance and protest throughout the developing world. Sometimes they culminate in violence – between indigenous people and resort developers, for instance. But they rarely lead to direct attacks on tourists (as when tourist coaches were pelted with cow dung in Goa) and therefore rarely reach western ears. And although there is also a growing international movement critical of mass tourism and pressing for greener and more socially aware travel, this has taken the conventional civil-society route of lobbying, publicity and awareness-raising; and it has faced an industry that doesn’t really want to know and a clientele that has been given no good reason to care. Both responses, the local and the global, nevertheless constitute the background from which deadlier and more overtly “political” attacks on tourists – Mombasa, Bali, Luxor in Egypt in 1997, and so on – emerge.

What unites all these strands of resistance is the dawning realisation that tourism is the cutting edge of western development and that, like much of western development, it doesn’t work – or at least it doesn’t work anything like so well as it was supposed to. It destroys landscapes and natural resources. It brings in foreign currency earnings, but much of these are sucked back out again because tourist facilities are often owned by multinational companies – in less developed countries such losses have been put as high as 70 per cent. Most of the financial benefits, in any case, accrue to local or national elites, accentuating income polarities. And the low-paid jobs it does create are not self-reliant: they can be blown away by distant tremors in financial markets.

Perhaps most offensively for those on the receiving end, tourism is a powerful cultural solvent; it takes customs and beliefs that are locally rooted and distinctive, puts them into the global blending machine and turns them into the liquefied gunk to which a mass market has been primed to respond. One consequence is the phenomenon known as “staged authenticity”, in which a cultural tradition, once celebrated for its own sake and out of a belief in its intrinsic value, turns into a tourist spectacle and thus, insidiously, into a performance. In Thailand, where many local government staff are told to dress up in national costume at the office, the people are reasonably shameless about this, inventing new “cultural” festivals and plagiarising foreign ones – the northern (Buddhist) city of Chiang Mai has taken to celebrating the (Christian) festival of Mardi Gras. Even here, however, undercurrents exist. The tourism authority tells us that the water-throwing at Thai New Year in April is “good-natured”. So it may be. But tourists often find they get very wet indeed. The odd ice cube in the water suggests that the joke has an edge to it.

For many people in the developing world, the tourist is development made flesh, the nearest they get to an embodiment of western values. Helena Norberg-Hodge, in her modern classic Ancient Futures: learning from Ladakh, describes how tourists awe and intimidate indigenous peoples and ultimately undermine their value systems, giving an impression of constant leisure, special powers and “inexhaustible wealth”. Yet those same tourists miss the quality of family or community relations, or the spiritual wealth, of places such as Ladakh: they see only “poverty” and “backwardness”.

Two cultures colliding and misunderstanding each other. It’s not very far from here to the fundamentalists’ characterisation of tourism as a kind of post-colonial “invasion” – a word, interestingly, that Norberg-Hodge uses about its arrival in Ladakh. And for all the pretensions at the snootier end of the tourism market that the “independent traveller” is somehow a superior being to the package holidaymaker, the one usually follows the other. The hippies were the first to Goa, back in the 1960s and 1970s, but package hotels have now covered the coastline in concrete. In any case, both carry the label “made in the west”; it is idle to pretend that “independent” travel, whether that means high-priced safaris in East Africa or backpacking round the world with assorted Lonely Planet guides in your rucksack, isn’t as much a phenomenon of a mass culture as a fortnight in Magaluf.

Given that there’s good reason to regard tourists as the shock troops of development and post-colonialism, therefore, it’s really not surprising, however awful the consequences, that they find themselves targeted by anti-western militants. What is surprising is that the tourists themselves, when it happens, are surprised. A few inquiries, a little bit of thought, would surely indicate that much of the planet is in turmoil or despair and that to go on partying in the midst of it all, or trying to “find oneself”, is at the very least in questionable taste. But even if the good times go on rolling, it’s clear that this conspiracy of silence will no longer do. If industry refuses to spell out the issues and risks, individual travellers will have to do it for themselves – or risk paying the price. For independent travellers and package tourists alike, the world is getting steadily more dangerous. Innocence may be blameless; ignorance, after Bali and Mombasa, looks all too culpable.

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