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Are You A Tourist Or A Traveller?

Are You A Tourist Or A Traveller?

The Guardian, August 24, 2002

Dea Birkett reckons it's time we owned up about where we go on holiday and why we really go there

One day, there will be no more tourists. There will be adventurers, "fieldwork assistants", "exploraholics", "volunteers" and, of course, "travellers". But the term tourist will be extinct. There might still be those who quietly slip away to foreign lands for nothing other than pure pleasure, but it will be a secretive and frowned upon activity. No one will want to own up to being one of those. It might even be illegal.

Bali and Burma are only extreme cases in a trend to prohibit tourists from entering certain areas. New names are being added to the list of territories where we should fear to tread. Tourism Concern lists China, Botswana, Belize, Zanzibar, East Africa, Peru and Thailand as having areas that have been adversely affected by tourism. Tourists only wreak havoc. Tourists only destroy the natural environment. Tourists only emasculate local cultures. Tourists bring with them nothing but their money. They must be stopped at any price.

Less than 40 years ago, tourism was encouraged as an unquestionable good. With the arrival of package holidays and charter flights, tourism could at last be enjoyed by the masses. The United Nations declared 1967 the International Year of the Tourist. A resolution was passed recognising tourism as "a basic and most desirable human activity, deserving the praise and encouragement of all peoples and all governments". By the 1980s, tourism was the largest and fastest-growing industry in the world. By the end of that decade, 20 million Britons a year went abroad on holiday.

It won't be easy to wipe out this massive, ever growing tribe. Today there are more than 700m "tourist arrivals" each year. The World Tourism Organisation (WTO) forecasts that, by 2020, there will be 1.56 billion tourists travelling at any one time. The challenge to forcibly curtail more than a billion tourists from going where they want to go is immense. It is so immense as to be impossible. You cannot make so many economically empowered people stop doing something they want to do unless you argue that it is of such extreme damage to the welfare of the world that only the truly malicious, utterly selfish and totally irresponsible would ever even consider doing it. This is clearly absurd. Whatever benefits or otherwise accrue from tourism, it is not, despite what a tiny minority might say, evil. It can cause harm. It can be morally neutral. And it can, occasionally, be a force for great good.

So the tourist is being attacked by more subtle methods: by being re-branded in the hope we won't recognise it as the unattractive entity it once was. The word "tourist" is being removed from anything that was once called a holiday in the pamphlet that was once called a holiday brochure.

As the tourist is re-branded, so the holiday has to follow. Adventurers, fieldwork assistants, exploraholics, volunteers and travellers don't go on holidays. Un-tourists (as I will call them) go on things called "cultural experiences", "expeditions", "projects", "mini-ventures" and, most tellingly, "missions". A Coral Cay Conservation Expedition flyer says: "The mission of any Coral Cay Conservation Volunteer is to help sustain livelihoods and alleviate poverty."

The word mission is apposite. While this re-branding is supposed to present a progressive, modernistic approach to travel, in fact it is firmly rooted in the Victorian experience. Like Victorian travellers, the modern day un-tourist insists that the main motive behind their adventure is to help others. Whereas the mass tourist and the area they visit are condemned as anti-ethical and at loggerheads, the ethos of the un-tourist and the needs of the area they wander into are presumed to be in tune with each other. Environmental charity Earthwatch, which organises holidays for "volunteers", assures that they will provide "life-changing opportunities for you and the environment... See the world and give it a future."

The re-packaging of tourism as meaningful, self-sacrificing travel is liberating. It allows you to go to all sorts of places that would be ethically out of bounds to a regular tourist under the guise of mission. Indeed, un-tourism relies upon exclusivity; it is all about preventing other people travelling in order that you might legitimise your own travels. Mass tourists are, by definition, excluded from partaking of this new kind of un-tourism. Pretending you are not doing something that you actually are - ie going on holiday - is at the heart of the un-tourist endeavour. Every aspect of the experience has to be disguised. So gone are the glossy brochures. Instead, the expeditions, projects and adventures are advertised in publications more likely to resemble magazines with a concern in ecological or cultural issues. The price is usually well hidden, as if there is a reluctance to admit that this is, in essence, a commercial transaction. There is something unedifying in having to pay to do good.

The various pamphlets, programmes and brochures disseminated by the un-tourist industry are modelled on the advertisements produced by charities for their sponsored events, such as treks and bicycle marathons. The confusion between missionary work and vacationing is complete. The British Red Cross Trek Ethiopia 2002 brochure could, and maybe should, be regarded as an un-tourist experience. Global Adventure magazine produces an annual 99 Great Adventures booklet, which mixes sponsored events (for example, the Disabled Living Foundation's Mount Kenya Trek) with commercial holidays (Exodus Travel's Thai Indo China Explorer), as if there were no difference between them.

Un-tourists are very concerned about holding the moral high ground. Afraid of being tainted by association, they avoid identifiably tourist infrastructures, such as hotels. They prefer to stay in a tent, a cabin, local-style houses (yurts, thatched huts etc) or, a typical example, "a traditional Malay wooden stilt house". These, they believe, are somehow more in keeping with something they call local culture. Local culture is very important to the un-tourist, whereas the mass tourist is believed to both shun and obliterate it.

Local culture, however, is often presumed to be place specific. It is almost always applied to a culture of the third world, and very rarely to the first world. When in the third world, we are encouraged to interact with the locals. Trips to meet hilltribes in northern Thailand, the tattoed Ifugua of the Philippines and ancient Berbers in Morocco are common. When we travel to other parts of the first world, however, the locals are not deemed so attractive, and we are warned to avoid them. Rarely are we implored when visiting New York to check out a housing project in the Bronx.

As part of this meaningful contact, we are urged to "respect local culture and customs". In the third world, respect for local culture is prefaced on a presumed innate inability within that culture to understand that there are other ways of living to their own. They are portrayed, in effect, as being perplexed by our newness. In addition, the third world's cultures may be presented as oppressive, with the un-tourist at the vanguard of helping the local people throw off their shackles. (It's back to the mission again.) And thirdly, local cultures in the third world are presented as so weak and vulnerable that the arrival of a handful of western tourists (we never travel in groups of more than a dozen) poses a huge threat. This is despite the fact that many of these cultures are more rooted, ancient and have survived far longer than any culture in the first world.

None of this ought to matter very much. Un-tourism makes up less than 4%, in terms of expenditure, of the total tourism industry. The actual number of un-tourists is even smaller, as each one will spend more per capita than a regular tourist. But they have been so successfully re-branded, that they have come to define what it means to be a good tourist, a respectful tourist, an eco tourist, and/or a responsible tourist.

So what about the remaining 96% of tourists? Are they beyond saving? Or can they, too, be shamed into being re-branded? We don't seem to care very much. Our efforts are almost exclusively centred on the upper edges of the holiday market. Tourists may survive in sunny Spain and the rest of Europe much longer than they do in the rest of the world. Travellers, fieldwork assistants, volunteers and adventurers will go to Africa and Asia. Tourism, a term which could once be applied worldwide, will, with the exception of a few popular places like Goa and Thai beach resorts, come to mean short haul and non-exotic.

It is easy to be prescriptive in a tiny part of the tourism industry. Matching responsible tourism and mass market is the challenge, as the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) realises. It is often overlooked that many European holidays, such as gtes in rural France, "where holidaymakers meet the local people, live as part of the community and where their money benefits local businesses" are by their very nature "green". The AITO acknowledges that "the standard charter-based package holiday requires much more determination in the search for green credentials".

Yet, in practice, it is in the area of mass-market tourism that the most meaningful, yet simple, measures have been taken to curb the harmful side effects of tourism. Many hotel chains have made efforts to considerably reduce water consumption. While this does have the benefit of allowing a 600-bed concrete structure to brand itself as eco-friendly, it does not demand that tourists change their spots. You are still allowed to be on holiday and have a good time, while showing consideration to the country that is hosting you.

All tourism should be responsible towards and respectful of environmental and human resources. Some tourist developments, as well as, inevitably, individual tourists, have not been so and should be challenged. But instead, a divide is being driven between those few privileged, high-paying, tourists and the masses. They are doing the same thing - they are just being packaged as something different. Our concern, as AITO rightly points out, should be not with this small number, but with the majority of travellers.

But why should we bother? We who concern ourselves with this debate are prime un-tourist fodder. We aren't interested in saving leisure time abroad for the majority of the British people; we're interested in making ourselves feel good. That's why we've succumbed to the re-branding of our enjoyment, and refuse to take up a term we believe to be tainted. How many times have you owned up to being a tourist, or used another label to describe yourself?

But do you really want to be a "volunteer" rather than go on holiday? Do you really want to be associated with the new missionary movement? Isn't it time to strike a blow against re-branding? Next time you're staying in that two-room local hotel in Oaxaca, Mexico's town for alternative travellers, reclaim a title that is rightfully yours. When asked by an adventurer, fieldwork assistant, exploraholic, or volunteer if you know where other travellers stay in Palenque, turn the classic rebuke on its head. Say, "I'm not a traveller; I'm a tourist."

This is an edited extract from the lead essay in Ethical Tourism: Who Benefits?, published by Hodder & Stoughton at 5.99.
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