Ethical Tourism?

Discussion topic - ACT Humanist’s Forum 27 February 2018

This is a very interesting question to ask Australians who surely must be the world’s greatest travellers. After all, we have to show enormous determination to travel just about anywhere overseas.  Go anywhere in the world and you are bound to find an Australian.  We have always liked seeing new places and getting out in the environment as witnessed by how many of us like holidaying on the coast.  But even this internal travelling to beautiful places near the sea illustrates the darker side of tourism.  For in flocking to beautiful and interesting places we alter them forever.  The very thing we loved about a place at the beach is destroyed as more and more people want to share the experience.  Think about a place like Surfers’ Paradise; once there was beautiful wild scenery and a few 1950s style beach houses, now there are many high-rise apartments. Surfers’ Paradise is unrecognisable because more people living at a place means more facilities are built to support and entertain them.  So now we have strip development all along the east coast of Australia, from Cairns to Warrnambool. What we most desired is lost and this is also often the case with overseas tourist destinations.

Like many Australians, I was very keen to travel overseas when young even though I couldn’t afford to do it in style.  In the 1970s I hitched hiked around South Africa, Tasmania, New Zealand and later Ireland.  Often the lifts were hard to come by because only locals used the roads we followed, sometimes I got no lift at all in more out of the way places.  But it was great when I did get a lift because the locals shared their perspectives on their lives and their places with me and I appreciated it.  

In the early 1980s I drove a Comber van with my partner across the Iron Curtain into Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia.  That experience was certainly an eye opener, we were on our own, no one spoke English and there were few fellow travellers.  

Travelling back to Australia on a bus from London to Kathmandu was mind blowing.  The Turks still treated visitors to their shores as guests, but this didn’t stop someone throwing stones at us when we went swimming and likewise when we strayed off the path in Nepal.  Not everyone welcomed interlopers into their environment.  In Bangkok it did worry me that the highlight for some of the male members of the trip was the cleanliness and subservience of the Thai prostitutes and it worried me in Pakistan when our bus was surrounded by men who had never seen Europeans before, that passengers wearing tank tops and shorts was probably a bit culturally insensitive, especially when the few local women we did see were covered in tent like garments.

But these experiences gave me what I most wanted from travel: it broadened my mind, it amazed and humbled me, it allowed me to see alternative ways of living, it made me aware of my own privilege, it immersed me in history and other cultures, it changed my perspective on life and at times scared me.  But it was essentially a selfish journey of discovery.  

We might like to boldly go where no-one has gone before but this is no longer possible on Earth.  We have passed from the time of the traveller to the time of the tourist.  This is because so many people in Western societies can afford to journey overseas.  As well known spots become clogged with tourists many of us seek more out of the way places so that no place is safe from our incursions.  A friend recently returned from a photographic tour of Iceland in the middle of a cold and dark winter said that in places they could not take photos because there were so many tourists taking in the sights.  In the past, travelling was for the few, it required enormous effort and commitment.  Now we travel en masse, and in comfort, and our visits are usually superficial.  As tourists we change cultures and we overwhelm the local inhabitants and their environment.  Anyone who has been to Bali recently will no doubt attest to this, it is paradise lost, and in many ways Australian tourists are responsible for it, even if inadvertently.    

Now, in my older age and no longer wanting to, nor capable of, roughing it, I wrestled with the ethical dilemma of being a tourist or not.  I was aware of the impact that tourists have on other cultures, the risk of the whole world becoming homogenised, resulting in everyone wearing jeans and tee-shirts and talking on mobile phones instead of the person next to them.  I worried about the huge amount of resources it takes to transport people to their destinations and take care of their every need and whim and the impact of this on our already strained environment.  The great disparity of wealth that often exists between the tourist and those that are visited was another moral dilemma.  Should I stay home and satisfy my curiosity for other places by watching TV or using Google Earth and my imagination to explore the globe?  Maybe, something like the virtual Mars experience in Total Recall will make travel obsolete entirely in the future and solve the dilemma of ethical tourism.

But the travel bug would not be assuaged. I went on two very long cruises and saw a lot of the world.  It was pure indulgence and I felt very privileged.  In many ways it was a superficial experience typical of tourism, but at the same time I learnt a lot from the guides, made home and cultural visits where I could and went to places I had always dreamed of going to, but in the end, it was a selfish dream.  Consider cruising into the lagoon in Venice in a cruise ship, you look ahead and two big cruise ships are in front, you look behind and two more floating hotels are following; or cruising the inside passage along the Alaskan and Canadian coasts and having the same experience, this time not in an ancient city but a pristine wilderness.  It does seem over the top.

On the contrary side though, is the huge contribution tourism makes to the economy of the places visited.  The tourism industry can lead to the improvement of amenities for locals.  Think of the old Melbourne docklands and industrial areas.  We might romanticise the hunter gather society or the subsistence farming culture but a lot people in these societies want what we have and most definitely want a less precarious life. For many of the crews of cruise ships the money they earn is vital to the well-being of their families back home.  

Many locals also take pride that they have something to share that is valued and have the opportunity to educate outsiders about their culture and way of life.  That is at least until the hordes of tourists descending on them overwhelm their goodwill.  And travelling should open our minds and increase our goodwill to those who live in other countries, who are different to us, who have less than us, and this is a good thing.  

What would be the consequences if we stopped tourism because on a large scale it is selfish and exploitative?  In Australia we would lose our second top export earner, we would wipe out an industry that employs over half a million people and injects $6 billion into our economy and which has the greatest secondary flow on effect of all our industries.  8.6 million people from overseas would no longer come to our shores each year.

Last year, I went on an ethically responsible trip on a small ship from Broome to Darwin along the Kimberley coast.  The ecological footprint of the cruise was kept to a minimum, strict protocols for interaction with the native wildlife were followed, great respect was paid to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customs and no sites were entered without their permission.  In-depth lectures on all aspects of the trip were provided and the 58 passengers on board were keen to learn and appreciate the landscape, the wildlife, the culture and history of the area.  The cruise exceeded all expectations but the cost and the small size of the ship means that such experiences can only be enjoyed by a few people – shades of the rather elite days of travellers not tourists.

Photo by Elizeu Dias on Unsplash