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Unwitting exploitation

by Hans Dembowski


Ethiopian encounter.

Ethiopian encounter.

In a rather strict sense, intercontinental eco-tourism is a contradiction in itself. Air travel is not climate-friendly. It is certainly better than nothing if some people invest in afforestation to compensate for the carbon emissions caused by the airplane trips they go on, but that does not make air travel any less harmful in itself. One must take into account, moreover, that wealthy nations emit far more carbon than is environmentally sustainable anyway, so a lot more needs to be compensated than air-travel sins.

That said, intercontinental tourism is unlikely to stop anytime soon. People love to travel. And an end to tourism would hurt many developing countries and emerging markets severely. Travellers mean foreign-exchange revenues and jobs. The industry accounts for about nine percent of global GNP. It is a pillar of many national economies.

In Tunisia, the success of the democratic transition depends on economic progress – and without tourism revenues, the future looks bleak. Terrorists targeted tourists at an important museum in Tunis in March for a reason. Violent extremists want to destabilise the Arab region’s first full-blown democracy by disrupting one of its most important industries.

The example of Tunisia shows a nation may need tourists. And there are several ways in which  this industry can make a positive difference. Consider national parks for instance. They are essential for protecting natural habitats. Local communities, however, often resent conservation areas. They depend on the exploitation of natural resources, but access to those resources is forbidden. Tourism can help: when a national park helps hotel staff, souvenir vendors and tour guides to earn a living, the protection of biodiversity makes sense to poor rural people.  

In development affairs, it is always essential to involve the local people. Responsible travellers will play their part, for instance by buying goods and services at the grass-roots level instead of boosting the revenues of corporate giants. Community-based initiatives may be harder to find than the operators of low-price packaged tours, but they deserve support more.

If vacationers from rich countries basically want to relax, they should not go on intercontinental trips. They should stay closer to home where labour relations tend to be regulated and environmental standards enforced. Those who travel to the distant shores of disadvantaged countries, are at risk of exploiting poor people without even noticing. Naïve tourists often do not know that hotel staff is underpaid and depends on tips. Most European holi­daymakers on tropical beaches are unable to tell whether local fishermen are being denied access to the sea in order for them to be able to bake in the sun.

It takes some commitment to understand a foreign culture. Unless intercontinental tourists make efforts, they may end up supporting exploitative settings unwittingly when they are trying to do good. What appears to be a charitable orphanage worthy of support, may actually be a scheme to rip off travellers and abuse children. If tourists want to get an idea of social reality, that is to be appreciated, but they must be discerning enough to find reliable guides. Discovering the truth is nothing that is done on a lazy afternoon. Consumer responsibility matters in tourism, as in most other spheres of life.


Hans Dembowski is editor in chief of D+C/E+Z.
[email protected]

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