/ 27 February 2024

Global tourism: Destinations to social divisions

Immigration And Passport Control At The Airport. Woman Border Control Officer Puts A Stamp In The Us Passport Of American Citizen. Concept
The unbearable whiteness of tourism should change to one that welcomes all people regardless of skin colour or place of origin

In an article titled: The Unbearable Whiteness Of Tourism: Tourism is Colonialism with Tips (7 January 2020), Sri Lankan Indi Samarijiva wrote: “They call tourism the hospitality industry, but it’s hardly hospitable. Hospitality is a welcome that goes both ways. You are welcome to my home, and I am welcome to yours. Tourism is hardly that. White people are welcome to the world. Brown people have to show receipts.”

In this article, Samarijiva critiques the unequal power dynamics embedded in tourism, arguing it resembles modern-day colonialism. He further highlights the discriminatory visa processes that favour white travellers while making it difficult for people from brown countries to visit other countries. 

Samarijiva criticises the hypocrisy of welcoming white tourists to enjoy former colonial lands while simultaneously making it difficult for people from those countries to visit the West. He also disapproves of the racialised language used for immigrants and expats in migration and how even dark-skinned elites, or the petit bourgeois, often prioritise Western validation over advocating for their people.

Samarijiva’s core message calls for a fairer system where visa restrictions do not disadvantage people based on their skin colour or origin. Understandably, he argues for a world where travel is accessible to everyone, regardless of background, and where the “unbearable whiteness of tourism” is replaced by a truly inclusive experience.

Inspired by Samarijiva’s critique, this article aims to prompt individuals in the developing world to reconsider tourism’s downsides, arguing that economic and political theories tailored for a Westernised world perpetuate exploitative dynamics established during colonial times. These theories overlook the realities and nuances of post-colonial contexts, exacerbating inequalities in popular tourism destinations such as South Africa, Mexico and Thailand.

Mainstream economics: The poisoned chalice

In his ground-breaking book Orientalism, Edward Said writes about how the West constructed the East as the “other”, a fundamentally different and inferior entity. This perspective, woven into academic discourse, commercial ventures and even public policies, paints a specific and often judgmental picture of the Orient, its people and their cultures. 

This creates a persistent hierarchy where the West occupies a dominant position while the East is relegated to a subordinate one. Even seemingly innocuous figures such as travellers contribute to this power dynamic, which persists in tourism, reflecting the enduring effect of Orientalist perspectives on intercultural relations.

Western epistemologies articulated as academic thought entrench Said’s Orientalist perspective by creating unequal relations between the North (colonisers) and the South (the colonised). The mere existence of tourism as a subject of intellectual adventure is a problem because it feeds on the colonial impulse. Benign theories in economics and other disciplines perpetuate the dependency syndrome through a colonialism pose, which has, as Freya Higgins-Desbiolles writes, consistently “shaped the engagement of nations of the Global South with the international tourism market”. 

From a neoclassical economics view, the dominant approach to tourism for developing countries revolves around market efficiency, resource allocation and economic growth. This school of thought views tourism as a sector with significant potential for generating foreign exchange earnings, creating employment opportunities and stimulating economic development. Evidence suggests that for South Africa, international tourism revenue as a percentage of GDP amounted to only 0.8% from 1995 to 2020. 

Tourism in developing countries was built on colonial structures. For example, Kenyan academic John Akama argues that “the initial development of tourism in Kenya was colonial in orientation and mainly served the social and economic interests of the expatriate community and international tourists”. After independence, the Kenyan government actively sought foreign investments, leading to a trend of foreign control and management of the country’s tourism industry by multinational corporations.

According to neoclassical economists, developing countries are encouraged to prioritise tourism development to harness their comparative advantages, such as natural landscapes, cultural heritage and low-cost labour. They advocate for policies that promote investment in tourism infrastructure, deregulation of the industry and liberalisation of markets to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) and increase tourist arrivals. 

Researchers Kokel Melubo and Adam Doering, the authors of Socialising Tourism: Rethinking Tourism for Social and Ecological Justice, explain how local dispossession plays a significant role in establishing well-known conservation areas that foreigners from developed countries exclusively enjoy. They note that “colonial and postcolonial governments have long advocated for the relocation of people from such areas, highlighting the privileged status of conservation and the tourism trade in Tanzanian politics”. 

South Africa has numerous magnificent conservation and tourism sites, such as Kruger National Park, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Addo Elephant National Park. These sites are not only located on dispossessed lands but also cast a shadow over landless people, who continue to be denied justice in the name of jobs and FDI. For instance, eMamfemfetheni, amaNgwe and emaHlutshini cannot access Giants Castle and uKhahlamba reserves in the Drakensberg.

Inasmuch as tourism disregards the pains of those who were disposed of by colonialism, it also subverts recognised political struggles for self-determination in many places around the world. Kyle Kajihiro, of the University of Hawaiʻi, exposes the unjust incorporation of the occupied nation of Hawai’i into the international tourism system. Locals have taken matters into their own hands by resisting this second layer of occupation through “decolonising tours” to interrupt these forces.

Additionally, neoclassical theory claims that economic benefits from tourism are expected to “trickle down” from businesses and workers in the tourism sector to the broader population, reducing poverty. These assertions leave more questions than answers given that major tourism sites exist side-by-side with poverty in many countries including South Africa. 

Tolerance of exploitation

Deepening social, economic and political divisions among people in South Africa continue to draw attention. What remains unaddressed is how tourism exacerbates neo-apartheid in places like Cape Town, where the city pushes marginalised people into mental and physical obscurity.

Cape Town is positioned as a white European enclave in the international tourism system. This strategy promotes a narrative that prioritises and caters to the interests, preferences and perspectives of white European visitors over those of other demographic groups, especially locals. This positioning reinforces historical power dynamics and colonial legacies, perpetuating inequalities and marginalisation in the tourism industry and broader society.

“Poverty tourism” is growing in South Africa; tourist itineraries now include visits to townships such as Soweto between safaris and trips to the beach in Cape Town. Poverty and exploitation are a form of entertainment for the nobility of global travel and tourism.

The neoclassical approach to tourism for developing countries underscores the belief that free-market principles and competitive markets are essential drivers of sustainable economic growth and development in the tourism industry. This assertion then influences the public policy approach that unnecessarily favours excessive tourism promotion by developing countries to attract imperial cultural visitors.

Countries with predominantly non-white populations embrace tourism for economic benefits but rarely question why their citizens face barriers when travelling to other countries. This disparity often stems from unfair and skewed bilateral visa agreements with developed countries. While citizens from these countries freely enter on tourist visas, citizens from the developing world are subjected to strict visa requirements, including proof of departure funds, creating an atmosphere of unequal hospitality.

Compared with the rest of the world, passports from developed countries grant their holders extensive visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to numerous countries worldwide. According to the Henley Passport Index, a survey that ranks 199 passports against 227 destination countries, territories and micro-states, Australia, European Union states and the United States have accessibility rates ranging from 92.5% to 97.5%. South Africa’s accessibility rate is about 54%, while that of Bangladesh is 21% and Azerbaijan 36%.

Countries also adhere to the biased language of international politics, separating “illegal immigrants” and “refugees” (developing countries) and ‘tourists’ (developed countries). Public policy is about controlling the movement of the former citizens and granting unhindered access to the latter as “investors” and “expatriates”, who end up controlling tourism sites in the Global South. 

The assertion about tourism bringing capital inflows is overstated because the money predominantly remains with countries where these visitors originate. Excessive promotion of tourism in developing countries places a heavy burden on local residents. Furthermore, governments of developing countries are complicit in the infantilisation of people and their cultures. They create departments of tourism and migration to cater mainly to the developed countries.

The reality is that locals cannot compete with tourists from countries with stronger currencies, who drive up prices and hinder any potential economic growth and progress. In this scenario, they are relegated to supplying cheap labour and accepting low wages. This perpetuates a cycle of economic exploitation and reinforces global inequalities.

Tourism is responsible for more than just displacement and gentrification because it disrupts social structures and cultural heritage. It is a continuing story of colonial conquest as it leaves locals with little control over their land and resources, leading to frustration and resentment. Agitation for land reform and justice is relegated to the dustbin because the illusion of tourism benefits is promoted as a solution to their problems.

The developing countries’ obsession with attracting tourists from affluent countries at all costs perpetuates a narrative of cultural superiority. It reinforces stereotypes that further marginalise local cultures and people. Hence, there is a growing call for “socialising tourism”, reflecting a desire to promote equity and justice for marginalised communities.

Siyabonga Hadebe is a PhD candidate in international economic law and a labour market expert based in Geneva.