This is article has been inspired by a comment made by one reader on my blog. Here I will intend to explain my overall 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 many ways to travel the world. From the most ephemeral, such as a quick tour visiting only tourist attractions, to the deepest, which leads to a high degree of penetration in the culture that one visits. They are all valid, but there is only one that is the best, and that is, the one that fits one's personal interests. Not everyone has to enjoy seeing the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal or visiting the Louvre, as much as not everyone has to be willing to ride a loaded bicycle to pedal across the jungle, or walk the world at 20km a day. Now, whatever the way we choose to travel, I think we all have a responsibility when visiting a foreign country. Just as when we visit someone else's house and we generally adapt to their codes, putting them above ours, we should do something similar when we visit a foreign country.
Along more than 20 years of travelling around the world, and nearly a hundred countries behind me, I have seen again and again the harmful effects that tourism, in general, has on local cultures. These effects have increased exponentially in these times of globalisation, inequality and low prices (for some), in which travelling, especially in third world countries, has become more accessible than ever. However, what has not increased in parallel is the education of many of those who now travel, or rather: the awareness of the impact that we, visitors, have on the places we visit. Hence, today more than ever, we have a responsibility when it comes to conducting ourselves in foreign lands where we are no more than guests, and it is as such that we must behave.
For many people, travelling is a mere symbol of social and/or economic status. For others, nowadays, it is just one more thing that has to be accomplished in a long list of things, in order to earn the respect and appreciation of others. For this type of tourists, travelling is not the result of a curiosity that is deeply rooted in the interest of the world in itself, let alone the true desire to learn from the cultures that are visited. There is also no intention to try to generate any sort of genuine exchange with the local people or even respect it. It is the kind of tourist that is shallow, ignorant and almost always arrogant. He/She is the one who sees the countries in the same way he sees the objects he has in his house: something else to accumulate. They collect passport stamps in order to be entitled to say they were there. In the most extreme cases, the fact of having been here or there serves them as the perfect excuse to brag and argue that because they were in many places and saw some things, then they "know the world". Therefore, they allow themselves to judge indiscriminately and sometimes even despise the vision and lives of the others. But luckily, knowing the world is a much deeper exercise than visiting its tourist attractions, one that escapes the experience of these people.
This is not about the means chosen to travel, it is not about whether you travel in a package tour, or as a backpacker or by bicycle, but it is about the underlying motivation that each person has in every trip one undertakes. The medium is irrelevant, the attitude is not. The uncompromised tourist does not travel to learn, to discover, to open her/his heart to those who live and think differently and enrich her/himself as a human being. They travel for the passion of showing off, exalting their ego and/or taking advantage of certain benefits that they do not enjoy in their own country. This is the kind of tourist that is found invariably in the famous tourist circuits where the landmarks of a country are, but never outside of them. Now, none of this would certainly be a problem if it did not affect the local culture, but the ignorance and arrogance of visitors do hurt local cultures and have a huge impact on the behaviour of their people.
That's the kind of tourist that I'm referring to in my rants. It is the guy who locks himself up in a luxury hotel in an idyllic third world country to be served like a king and mistreats the service staff. It is the one that gets on an impeccable bus with air conditioning to get to a tourist attraction without having to mix with the "poor" people because they are afraid of being robbed. It is the one who pays any nonsense without question in countries where bargaining is an intrinsic part of everyday commerce. It is the one who does not want to learn but seeks to teach with his example because he believes he knows better and that his culture is superior. It is the rich "backpacker" of the 21st century that goes to Southeast Asia because he thinks he is adventurous but he goes mainly because everything is easy and it is much cheaper to get drunk there every day than in his country of origin. It is the tourist who does not care about anything and will get everything arranged and fixed by paying money.
This whole series of attitudes erode the values and principles of local cultures and pervert them, especially in the third world, where economic strain makes people very vulnerable. The specific examples that I can cite are more than I can remember and I have already written about many of them in the past, so here, I will mention just a few examples that I have seen happening very frequently and produce the most negative effects.
It is important to clarify at this point, that in some of these examples that I am going to mention, it is possible that many people can incur in them by simple ignorance and without necessarily being "bad" tourists. In that case, I would like you to use these examples to learn and reflect on the impact we can sometimes have without even realising it.
Children. The begging industry is a very big problem in places like India (and many others). There, I have seen again and again tourists who are herded like sheeps in tourist buses to places where, as soon as they get off, they are immediately surrounded by street children asking them for money. In response to the overwhelming demands, the tourist proudly responds by giving them coins, candies, pencils, or anything they bring with them. In India, as in all countries where this happens, I have talked about this issue with both local people and NGO workers. In all cases, everyone agrees that giving money and/or things straight to children only increases the problem and contributes to, not only that those children stay in the streets (many are sent by their parents or are run by mafias) but it also encourages many others to choose begging as a way of life. For this type of tourist, it is much easier to throw a coin to a child, feel like a philanthropist and talk later about the horror of the poverty they witnessed, rather than going back home, taking the time to research local organizations that take dozens of these children out of the streets and donate them the money they need to continue doing it. There are many who do this, but to collaborate with them you have to be trully generous, from the heart, and that requires letting go more than a few coins.
Business. In Asia, in almost every corner of the continent, haggling is part of everyday life for all people. The shopkeeper offers a price and customers make a counteroffer to lower it. You may like it or not, but that's the way it is, it's like a game. In the famous tourist spots where tourists flock in big numbers, it is common to see most being either completely unaware of this aspect of culture or even worse, blatantly ignoring it for laziness. As a result, they go and pay whatever they are told without contemplation (after all, anything they pay in places like Thailand or Turkey at an exorbitant local price, will cost much less than in their countries of origin). The problem is that this generates local inflation and distorts local values. The shopkeepers, now driven by greed, quickly abandon their tradition of bargaining and start selling things at inflated prices to everyone with very little room for negotiation. After all, why are they going to lower the price to a budget traveller that understands their culture and wants to be treated equally, if they know a tourist will come with money later and pay anything that they ask for? In this way, local people connected to tourism lose their values, become more aggressive, less hospitable and just want more money. Foreigners begin to be seen as walking money. Dozens of places in Southeast Asia have suffered from this since the boom in tourism began there. Mafias of taxis, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, street vendors, hotels, low-quality guesthouses at exorbitant prices, restaurants with menus which prices are determined at the cashier according to the origin of the client, etc. The list is endless. In the worst case, shopkeepers stop selling to their own people altogether because it no longer suits them, putting tourists as a priority.
Dress code. The utter disregard of many tourists to respect local codes is sometimes very distressing. Curiously, it occurs more frequently in women than in men (perhaps because the latter have more "freedom" in conservative countries). Over and over again, I have come across women in sleeveless shirts and shorts, showing off their underwear and behaving in the same way they would in their country of origin, in conservative countries where people have strict dress codes and very strong reservations about exhibiting the body. This is seen in the temples of India, Thailand, Laos, in the mosques of Egypt and Turkey and in so many other touristy places in the world. One may or may not agree with such restrictions, but what one should not do is to blatantly ignore them, as if trying to impose their own habits in places where one is the guest. It reflects the profound ignorance of someone who travels without even knowing the rules and codes that govern in other cultures or even worse, the arrogance of those who think they can behave in any way they want wherever they are. Not only is it a problem of an absolute lack of respect for local people, their customs and their idiosyncrasies, but in many cases, like in India for example, among others, it is putting oneself in situations of serious risk to personal safety, specifically in the case of women, and tragedies did occur and keep occurring.
Photography, a subject that touches me personally as a photographer. In many tribal regions that have become touristy (Namibia, Ethiopia, Kenya), the constant flow of large numbers of tourists has made local people see photography as a business. In any town or village away from tourism, people are happy and generally feel flattered when someone asks to take their picture. In the tourist spots, on the other hand, money is demanded, sometimes even violently. Without money, there is no photo, only contempt. There are people who even without belonging to a certain tribe, disguise themselves to profit when they see tourists. This does not happen out of nowhere, it started with tourists and also professional photographers who again and again agree to give money in order to have a photo taken and later be able to show off the places and the "exotic" people they visited. The photo is a trophy and not the result of a deeper experience. It is enough for a handful of them to do so, to distort the tradition of an entire population and found greed in places where it did not exist before.
Touristic spots. The case of the Kawah Ijen volcano is one of the paradigmatic cases where the bad behaviour of tourists comes to light. For those who do not know what it is, you can read this article that I wrote last year. The crater of the volcano is a splendid place in itself, but unlike other volcanoes, this is mainly a place of work for many people. A place where work is inhumane too. Unfortunately, it has also become a tourist destination and thousands of tourists visit it all year round. When I was there, I ran into a group of European people, mostly rich Swiss and French tourists. They were having themselves a ball, standing on the edge of the crater, taking pictures (and risking their lives) while blatantly ignoring the miners who passed by. They posed and smile while obstructing the path of the miners who, wearing flip flops, carrying 80kg of sulfur on the shoulders, exhausted after a highly dangerous ascent, would have to stop in order to kindly ask the tourists to step aside so they could pass. The tourists would frown, scoff and show themselves annoyed by the request while mumbling in French to these humble people who speak only a local dialect. It was as heart-breaking as enraging for me to see, and I've seen similar behaviour in all tourist spots I've been to.
I could go on because there are many more examples. Many organisations nowadays have come to consider tourism as one more form of pollution. From a personal point of view, my interests lie far away from the tourist circuits because, in them, I find it increasingly difficult to meet local people who genuinely want to share moments of their lives with me without expecting money in return. In addition, it is also as hard to find other like-minded travellers committed to travelling responsibly and seeking to really learn from the experience.
As far as I am concerned, a tourist attraction, be it a museum, a monument, a famous beach, a building, etc., although interesting, does not reflect a fraction of everything a country has to offer. Through them, you don't know a country, you only know its landmarks. I am interested in knowing the countries from the inside, their essence, their people, their idiosyncrasy, their different ways of conceiving existence and ways of dealing with it. Bearing this in mind, the bicycle, for several reasons, is the medium that in my opinion is best suited to get to this. It is my way of travelling and of penetrating in a culture, and it is what I consider the best for me because it is the one that suits what I look for. It does not have to be the ultimate reality of all people. Certainly it is not, and I celebrate that it isn't.
Finally, regardless of the means of transport one chooses to travel, it is essential to try to reduce to the minimum the impact that one has on the local cultures. Respecting them, informing ourselves before, conducting ourselves with prudence and humility, without trying to impose our own truth over that of our hosts. With this openness of heart and mind as a basis, everything is then valid. Let all of us enjoy as we please as long as we do so with education, respect and responsibility.