Tourism is bad for locals and the environment. How do we fix this?

Who doesn’t want a vacation right about now? Especially as the weather gets worse here in Connecticut, jetting away to somewhere livelier and warmer sounds nice. There’s just one problem: You have to be a tourist.  

The tourism industry is a world of contradictions. It is opulent for those at the top but often leaves the actual destinations destitute. It is beloved by the governments that prosper from it but is often reviled by actual citizens. It can give tourists a more worldly perspective but also contribute to a great deal of injustice. How do we reconcile these problems? 

Tourism has been around for a long time — the Seven Wonders of the World were tourist sites for the ancient Greeks and Romans. Historically, the rationale for all this travel has been “just don’t think about it too hard.” But just as technological advances have made travel more available for the average person, they have made us more aware of the state of the world. As it turns out, there is a large, dark underbelly to the glamor of tourism.  

At its best, the tourism industry allows funds to be redistributed from the wealthy visiting far-off places to the local communities in those places. However, this isn’t always the case. The interests of tourists are not always or even often in line with those of the residents.  This is especially true in places with unstable or corrupt governments. Perhaps infrastructure upgrades can be helpful to the region, but is it really fair to say that knick-knack shops are a route to actual economic progress? Or how about restaurants catering to tourists that are of little affordability or interest to the residents?  

Jobs near tourist destinations too often end up being low-paying and unfulfilling. So, while tourism can be helpful for development, it is not necessarily economically sustainable. This is especially true in the most vulnerable places, as nothing ruins a tourism industry like war or civil unrest.  

Unsustainable is often the word that comes up when discussing tourism’s environmental impact as well. Tourism can be done in a way that is not overly detrimental to the environment, but these ways are less fun and comfortable, or at least are perceived as so. There is no doubt that planes carting travellers all around the world at every moment is not the best for the environment, though. The pampering of much of the tourism industry also results in a lot of waste byproducts. These aren’t problems inherent to the tourism industry in particular, but consumerism as a whole is rampant there. 

The largest problem with tourism is the ethical grayness of the way in which the industry conducts itself. Ideally, tourism allows for the broadening of perspectives, the understanding of cultures other than your own. Is it successful in this? 

Well, that’s a loaded question. Many governments around the world are very careful to craft a specific image of themselves to tourists. North Korea is the most stark modern example of this, but every country does it to a certain extent. After all, if a country is making a lot of money off of tourism, keeping a good reputation is necessary to keep people coming. In this way, the industry will try to hide unsavory or unappealing aspects of destination locations. Alternatively, they may exploit poverty in the region to sell an entirely different image, known as “slum tourism.” 

Furthermore, what of the tourist attractions themselves? Part of the reason Britain is such a nice tourist destination is all the history there. And nowhere can you get a more worldly view of historical artifacts than the British Museum. The great irony here, though, is that most of the items there are not originally British! Instead, it is a collection of things taken from all around the world. While it is spectacular to see so much, it leaves an uneasy feeling. By going there and supporting British tourism, are we not complicit in centuries of oppression?  

Of course, it is impossible to completely quash all of these contradictions. At the end of the day, tourism involves non-residents contributing to the local and national economies. So, when it comes time to budget out this money, sometimes the interests of the tourism industry will run counter to the interests of the local people. At the very least, thoughts should be put into how you travel and visit other places. While we cannot fix all the inherent issues, we can at least hold ourselves accountable to act respectfully, open-mindedly and thoughtfully. We can hold tourist destinations accountable for putting the sustainability and well-being of their own residents first. 


Filed Under: Hospitality

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