Dear Tourist, Will You Be Visiting for Business or Plunder?

Conniel Malek, Director, True Costs Initiative

CC0 Public Domain

Tourism has always been a commercial enterprise, yet it is increasingly intertwined with cultural and social upheaval as well as environmental degradation in the Global South. True Costs Initiative explores how the business of pleasure can become not so pleasurable business.

On my most recent trip home, the friendly customs' officer asked me with a smile, “Will you be visiting for business or pleasure?”  I proudly responded, “For pleasure, and with pleasure of course.” He vigorously stamped my passport and said, “Excellent, welcome to Jamaica.”  As I walked away congratulating myself on my witticism, it occurred to me that few, if any, trips for vacation or tourism are ever so binary.  Tourism has always been a commercial enterprise and is increasingly intertwined with cultural and social upheaval as well as environmental degradation in the Global South.  In fact, the business of pleasure can turn into some not so pleasurable business.

Tanzania is an East African nation that depends heavily on tourism to finance its budget, but the true cost of the tourism industry is a pricey one.  Recent and in depth research by Oakland-based think tank, The Oakland Institute, reveals that the Government of Tanzania has prioritised foreign safari companies’ desire to provide the ultimate tourist experience to their clients over the needs of Maasai herders for arable land to support their livelihoods.  The research highlights that discrimination towards indigenous groups, limiting access of pastoralists to arable land, famine and biodiversity loss are just some of the costs borne by local people to make way for the tourism industry which, ironically enough, is billed as part of a conservation efforts in the country.  Allegations of wrongdoing have persisted in recent years against conservation and other groups that organise hunting trips for the royal family of the United Arab Emirates.  Human rights groups including local community groups have been vocal in their insistence that the government has conducted a review of boundaries only to have such review lead to the eviction of communities in order to accommodate tourism ventures.

In Thailand, after consistent and coordinated civil society advocacy, the Ministry of Energy blocked the development of two coal-fired power plant projects, postponing them for three years.  The projects were planned for districts of the Thepa and Krabi but were met with opposition by local communities and civil society because of the threat the plants pose not only to the environment but also to tourism, in the case of Krabi, and to local fishing livelihoods, in the case of Thepa.  The projects are part of a proposed power development plan to increase electricity supply to the region but, for now, the environmental and social costs are thought to be too great.  Opponents have, however, continued to be vigilant because of the ongoing concern that the project will simply be resurrected after postponement. 

Upon taking office in November 2017, Zimbabwe President Emerson Mnangagwa said the country was “open for business” after almost four decades of authoritarian leadership by former 93 year old President Mugabe.  In a May 2018 New York Times Op-Ed, Mnangagwa promised to build an economy in which “enterprise is allowed, encouraged and protected..” and that “all foreign investments will be safe and secure in the new Zimbabwe”.  Hwange National Park and Mana Pools, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are some of the best National Parks and safari destinations on the continent.  Zimbabwe also boasts several tourist attractions including several medieval era city ruins unique to the continent.  The country has dangled a $15 million (R185.22m) incentive facility for the tourism industry.  But environmental advocates should be wary about the implications of these new policies for the country’s rich ecological resources.  Who knows what the “open for business” policy will mean for the Zimbabwean tourism industry, but the tell-tale stories of both Tanzania and Thailand show us that an unfettered embrace of the pro-business stance doesn’t augur well for the future.

"The tourist dollar is not a cheap one and not without an ecological, social and environmental cost."

My island home Jamaica is not immune from the tourism curse.  In fact, the National Environment and Planning Agency revealed that the sandy beaches in Negril, are receding at a rate of more than one metre per year. While the coastal environment in Caribbean is under threat by surges from intense storms and coastal pollution that affects marine life and coral reefs crumbling due to warm water, the slow loss of shoreline is exacerbated by hotel shoreline development infrastructure permitted by the Government and the increasing appetite of private sector hoteliers.

All four countries have had governments very receptive to some version of an “open for business” policy, which (especially in the case of Tanzania) has meant destroying and extracting from the natural environment and local communities in a manner which in no way justifies the tourist dollar earned.  Tourism’s pleasure often accompanies the plunder of environmental and social resources and that is a reminder that colonisation of indigenous land is still with us.  These countries teach us that: 1) governments are, at best, willing participants and, at worst, complicit business enablers when it comes to putting the interest of commercial tourism interests ahead of their people’s interests; 2) the business of pleasure can lead to some unpleasant business for indigenous and other vulnerable communities; 3) the tourism industry is highly extractive, and the tourist dollar is not a cheap one and not without an ecological, social and environmental cost.

So, the next time you casually complete your immigration form as you fly in to your next Global South vacation spot, ready for your first wildebeest sighting or first sip of ice cold coconut water from that fresh picked coconut, think about the implications of that seemingly innocuous immigration and customs form question:   Are you traveling for business or pleasure? Business or plunder?