My last post was stimulated by thoughts at 5200 meteres amongst snow and ice in the Himalayas. This one came to me at exactly 0 metres elevaton -on the beach in SE Sri Lanka.
Perhaps a little different to many tourist destinations the main attraction here (and what pulled us) is surf. That means the tourist population is hugely skewed to young active people. Totally skewed to coolness too- tats, tans, hang tens and Bob Marley’s unmistakable beats drifting lazily out of hip beachside joints, sweet and heavy as marijuana smoke. Marajuana smoke too, drifting lazily out of hip joints, sweet and heavy as er…. marajuana smoke. Increasing tourism is a stated Sri Lankan government policy, (to the levels of Bali they say!) and they do it well, at least here. Hotels and restaurants were all beautifully designed- one evening we sipped cocktails in a garden bar encrusted with sun birds, another time we ate a Malaysian kottu on a platform up a tree. Add the incredible politeness and gentleness woven into Sri Lankan culture, hairy red rambutans piled high in street side stalls and autos always ready to take us wherever we wanted to go. Actually all we wanted to do was walk to the surf beach which was spotlessly clean with signs about heavy fines for littering. Fantastic- conservation driven by tourism. As a back-packer town this all comes at relatively affordable prices. Chronically short of money (at least in their own minds) backpackers keep prices low and anyway hotels were ready to cut prices to secure guests in the Easter-bombing slump. What a space to be in!
There we were in the midst of an entire town dedicated to serving Western Backpackers- The residents make us food, transport us, make our beds, teach us to surf. Around the world there must be tens of millions of people whose lives are dedicated to providing services for tourists (whose annual spending is around US$ 7 trillion). This is tourism “stimulating economies”. Of course it does. The kitchen-hand in the restaurant and his family depend on tourists. as much as the taxi driver and the hotel owner. But tourism only stimulates standard martinis-on-the-beach economies while doing nothing for all the other elements of a realistic 21st century economy. (See my last blog on what a realistic economy for the world-as-it-is should include). At least tourism supports lives and livelihoods but not by manufacturing arms or growing tobacco. Surely there is nothing intrinsically wrong with people building artistically designed hotels and others working in them or running eateries serving creative, well presented food at reasonable prices. And ebony Sri Lankan surf instructors with black velvet voices and sun bleached curls is coolness personified, no?
What about what those people and that money is not doing? There are towns all around the world dedicated to serving the needs of young westerners but no town whose entire purpose is saving the Amazonian rainforest or bettering the lives of victims of military atrocities or reducing the obscene levels of global inequality. (Doh! It’s the economy, stupid). Those things don’t pay, there is 7.6 trillion dollars annually in tourism. In fact tourism’s life blood is inequality. This description of 19th century slavery: “Vast numbers of people moving across oceans to serve the needs of the wealthy” fits 21st century tourism. There is an opportunity cost in dedicating a huge chunk of humanity’s resources to the (not very important but highly lucrative) pleasures of the elite, while many important issues for all humanity stagnate for lack of human and economic resources. Playing the waves in Sri Lanka while Rome burns? Also carbon is intrinsic to tourism- even our two-day train to Chennai came with carbon embedded. Consumption is in-built too. Where do those tuna steaks on the cool restaurants ‘ menus come from? And what about the much vaunted capital flow? One Sri Lankan manager proudly told me he’d phone the “English Owner” (whose daughter maybe backpacking in Costa Rica right now) to see if he could reduce the price. Should I have just continued negotiating or politely declined? (we did not stay there but does giving our money to a Colombo fat cat redistribute resources any better?) . Wealth re-distribution via tourism is an illusion if local solo mothers who make beds get chicken feed while most of the 7.6 trillion winds up back where the money and the guests come from.
And lets look at the personal level too. Toursists (deliberately) don’t give a F**K. When ugly things come up we sip mango lassis and look away. Every morning not 100 m from where we surfed fishing boats came in with their night’s catch: beautiful yellow fin tuna lying tragic as felled trees in the bottom of boats, crates of shrimps, baskets of small fish and nets emptied of thousands of small creatures- by-catch for dogs and crows to squabble over. Despite superficial changes like less litter and solar panels, there is little evidence that tourism drives deep systemic change. Tourism stimulates consumption not conservation. Tourists don’t care where the fish on their restaurant plates came from or if its sustainably fished. Pelagic ocean species like yellowfin tuna are classically susceptible to tragedies of the commons- local fishermen and policy makers say: “ While they’re in our territorial waters lets take as many as we can and serve them to tourists while they’re in our economy lest they (fish and tourists) go to Indonesia and “stimulate the economy” there.” . We listen to Dylan, sip Lion beer and look away. Deliberately. Then we fly away, home to Hamilton or Helsinki. Nor do we look behind the Sri Lankan smiles. There was genocide here not long ago, but we don’t talk about that. We’re tourists. If Rwanda had surf beaches maybe its genocide would be air brushed out of the picture too. In Trincomalee we dived on beautiful reefs and asked if the coral has recovered from the tsunami. We didn’t ask about systemic injustice against Sri Lankan Tamils which surely continues. Looking away. What about environmental issues in Sri Lanka or our own carbon footprints getting here? Look away. Again.
Looking away- a subtle art one perfects as a tourist.
From a Sri Lankan beach at 0 metres this blog comes from a. position of total surf-soaked complicity..… For all its faults tourism is great fun, it does provide a net flow of capital, and feels good. Nearly all of us have indulged at some level. “We needed that break” we say, locals in tourist destinations say “We need tourists”. Some countries are totally dependent on tourism, many are partly dependent. What am I saying? I am not saying to end all tourism. Is responsible tourism the answer? What does it look like? (It has to be more than standard tourism with the prefixes “eco-” or “sustainable-” added) What important questions would it ask and answer? How? Is visiting family/friends different to tourism? Travelling for business? An international development evaluation?????
I don’t have answers. Do you? Do you have other questions? Let me know in the comments.