analysis by primitivo morales

Submitted by ludd on July 4, 2010

"Some day I'm going to walk up to a white woman with a baby in her grocery cart and cry, "What a darling little white child! Is he a full-blood? May I take his picture? Could you stand over by the Wonder Bread, please--my Hopi friends will just die when they see this!" —Cynthia M. Dagnal-Myron, a Hopi woman

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The Vacation is no mere scrap of time wedged between onerous tasks; it is the oasis at the end of work. The standard two weeks, barely enough to decompress from habit, is so stretched and filled that it is frequently found to be exhausting: I need a vacation to recover from my vacation!

Vacations are often solitary, shared by the smallest social groupings: family, occasionally a few friends. This is only partly because of cost: it also reflects the importance of getting away for those who feel trapped at work or home. The ability to cast off the standard roles, duties and surroundings is the core of the experience. The false good cheer of the tour group, both guide and charges, is not to be mistaken for any genuine social contact. Transience and shallowness mark most such encounters with one's fellow tourists, and they are in far closer proximity—more understandable—than those who inhabit the landscape through which the tourist journeys.

By dress, money, mobility and behavior the tourist distinguishes itself. Norms of behavior from home are discarded, or at least modified, while none of the quaint indigenous customs are respected, let alone adopted. The sight of the tourist calmly walking uninvited into people's houses and ceremonial centers is common: such behavior would not be considered appropriate at home, wherever that may be.

The tourist pays out of the pocket for the often unpleasant treatment meted out to him/her. The cost of the infrastructure is often paid by government bodies of one sort or another (airports, roads, electricity, etc.). Private capital creates enormous islands--a mobile and cushioned gulag--dedicated to separating visitors from their money. There are many resort-destinations, which are often literal fortresses in the midst of intense poverty. Even the wealthy North American landscape is dotted with facilities catering exclusively to those outside the community, ranging from small tourist malls and parks to whole cities such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The consequences of this for the people in the area are rarely given more than lip service; they are expected to be grateful for the jobs. The hidden costs: sewage and garbage, traffic, etc. are borne entirely by the locals.

Examples of environmental despoliation are found around the globe. In a recent issue of Appen Features (2) there were articles illustrating environmental damage from resorts & tourists in Palawan (a unique island in the Philippines), the Antarctic. In China, the government's proclivity for giving pandas as political gifts--in this case to a Taiwan zoo--threatens the survival of these endangered animals by shrinking the available gene pool. Antarctica is threatened by commercial package tours (in addition to problems with scientific stations), which bring about 3,000 visitors to the continent yearly; they do not dispose of non-biodegradable waste in compliance with treaties covering the Antarctic. The Institute of Political Ecology of Chile now advocates the suspension of such commercial tours because this land of eternal ice and snow is being dangerously contaminated.

The damages of the tourist industry go beyond the obvious ones of ecological contamination and forcing people into a servant relationship. The effects are magnified in cultural (or anthropological) and green tourism because of their attraction to those areas that are the least spoiled. The tourist despoils what it most values. Sometimes deliberately (insisting on western accommodations) and sometimes unintentionally (as when government and private planners treat the indigenous people as objects of a development plan). There are hidden problems, as Peter Goering (3) shows: The tourist economy is centered around Leh [a small Indian city near the Chinese and Pakistani borders], and very little of the economic benefit of tourism accrues to the more than 90 percent of Ladakhis who live outside of this area. Within Leh the handful of Ladakhis who own large hotels benefit disproportionately. The problem goes beyond an uneven distribution of the benefits, however. Those not participating can become economically worse off simply by continuing to live as they always have. The reciprocal relations of mutual aid are broken down by the extension of the monetary economy, and tourists' demands for scarce resources drive up the price of local goods.

For example, in the past villagers commonly shared pack animals in informal exchange relations. Now, during the tourist season, animals are no longer available to a neighbor in need: they are frequently off in the hills carrying tourists' luggage.

Social problems such as theft are increased by the disparaging--and painful--comparison that is made with foreign cultures: it comes to be valued by at least some of the young as better than their parents' culture, which is often seen as ignorant, backwards, the object of amusement by sophisticated people; indeed, the customs the tourists come to see are perceived as the cause of backwardness. Emulation of the rich outside world further opens the village to the dollar, as well as exacerbating environmental problems. The village, disunited and increasingly out of step with a now damaged environment, often changes even more, and not for the better. Carried far enough this becomes a dissolution so complete it scares away even the tourists; the area survives in a ghastly imitation of foreign life. The Club Med's slogan, The Antidote for Civilization, is cruelly ironic.

Of course, the objects of attention become damaged as well--whether we speak of objects such as Lascaux's frescoes, or of peoples' practices which are driven underground or altered (for instance, performing seasonal rituals at the wrong time of year for the tourists). Often tourists are presented with empty rituals, which they mistake for reality, and villages contaminated by foreign elements, which they reject as being unrealistic (i.e. not like the pictures & descriptions).

The vacation is a token of both leisure and wealth: the more money you've got, the farther you can go from everyday life. Tastes differ; some prefer the pristine (but not for long) mountain fastness, others tour the Antarctic or swim with whales, etc. Some prefer to emulate the apparent leisure of the fabulously wealthy: the Club Med type vacation where one escapes from the sordid reality of work and the daily exchange of money, and where one has plenty of people to boss around while doing nothing useful. Time is the major constraint; money is secondary.

Tourists are usually passive: they aren't themselves a part of the surroundings, and are shown objects and spectacles devoid of any meaningful content. Given the pack-like nature of many tourist activities, as well as the ubiquitous telephone, escaping from the rat race becomes impossible: they bring it with them. Organized leisure is the rule of the day: the only choices are already determined, and are almost always reassuringly familiar. Impelled by the need to have a good time--fast--in a narrow social space, the tourist leaves unsatisfied: ready for more, but not at the same place.

Escape from responsibility and everyday drudgery is guaranteed: the ultimate promise remains a mirage.


1) Cultural Survival Quarterly #14(1).

2) Appen Features, Asia-Pacific People's Environment Network, releases 37/38, 38/39, and 1/90. Contact: c/o Sahabat Alam Malaysia, 43, Salween Road, Penang Malaysia.

3) Cultural Survival Quarterly 14(1), pg 20.