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
be enjoyed by the masses. The United Nations declared 1967 the International
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
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
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
they want to do unless you argue that it is of such extreme damage to the
of the world that only the truly malicious, utterly selfish and totally
irresponsible would ever even consider doing it. This is clearly absurd.
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,
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
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
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,
holidays for "volunteers", assures that they will provide "life-changing
opportunities for you and the environment... See the world and give it
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
thatched huts etc) or, a typical example, "a traditional Malay wooden stilt
These, they believe, are somehow more in keeping with something they call
local culture. Local culture is very important to the un-tourist, whereas
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
In the third world, respect for local culture is prefaced on a presumed
innate inability within that culture to understand that there are other
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
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
such as gîtes 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
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.