I recently heard that in Bali tourists are sold tickets
to funerals. As soon as someone is on a deathbed, signs are hung up offering minivan
services to the village in question--all aimed directly at foreigners who want
to witness a real Balinese cremation ceremony. Since these mournful events are
held in public places, there is little the locals can do to keep tourists away.
At times over 200 foreigners (some indecently dressed, by local standards, in
shorts and tank tops) may be pushing their way through the crowds to snap a picture
of the procession. The local mourners weep, but the tourists merely look for that
one photo to show their friends back home.
As more and more people traverse the globe, plopping down in "exotic" countries
with little knowledge of local culture or politics, it's no wonder that the term
responsible tourism is gaining credence. The World Tourism Organization
says that in the world's 49 least developed countries tourism is the second-largest
source of foreign money, after oil. As Southeast Asia recuperates from the devastating
tsunami of late 2004, it is also recuperating from the loss of valuable revenue
brought it by tourists who are too shell-shocked to return to the region. The
double whammy of lost lives and lost livelihood brings home the fact that poor
countries are much more innately vulnerable to the shifting tides of tourism than
the rich travelers who partake in it. Even though tourism is on the steady increase
worldwide, it's still a rich man's (or woman's) game: Less than 5% of the world's
population enjoys the means to travel abroad.
This hit home on a recent trip I took to Morocco, the subject of this issue's
cover story. I checked into an incredible hotel that had been built in a remote,
renovated 19th-century kasbah (fortress) made from mud and straw. The Hotel Kasbah
Dar Ahlam was exquisite in every sense of the word, from its artistic decor to
its Arabian Nights pool. But as we headed up the long driveway, past the
goat herds and the dry riverbed, past crumbling houses and donkey carts, it felt
odd that I was staying at a place that cost several hundred dollars a night--a
fortune to the locals.
The next day I delicately asked my host, Sarah, about how the locals felt about
the French owners who renovated the kasbah.
"Oh, they understand how important the hotel is to the town," she said. I pried
for more details. "Well, we have not only brought jobs here but brought electricity
to the neighborhood. We buy food from the locals, we teach them foreign languages
and hotel skills, we support an orphanage, and we're helping to build a local
library. We tell our guests not to give gifts or money to the locals--that treats
them like beggars. Instead, buy something from them." The next day she even went
so far as to set up a meeting for me to speak with a local group of men who were
fighting to keep the town's poor from selling off their date palms for money--which
increases erosion and the loss of local produce.
I compared this whole experience to another I once had in the Caribbean at an
"all-inclusive" chain resort where large walls had been constructed to keep the
locals out. The hotel's fancy food and materials were all imported, while the
lion's share of the hotel's profits were funneled back to the company's home country.
Meanwhile, the host country was left with waste-disposal issues and higher taxes
to pay for the First World infrastructure for the tourists. How pointless and
cold that experience was compared to this.
I truly believe that gay and lesbian travelers tend to be more aware of local
sensitivities, since we have been so insensitively treated by our larger culture
as a whole. But how do we make certain our travel choices are helping, not hindering,
host localities? Don't be afraid to ask your hotel or tour operator questions
like where they acquire their food and materials; whether they train locals for
managerial positions and pay them fair wages; if they support local schools, hospitals,
or orphanages; if they have truly ecofriendly policies that don't deplete local
resources--basically, if they really care about the impact they are making.
There is no reason why tourism need be inherently exploitative. We can flex our
consumer muscle and keep from slowly destroying the places we love. And we change
our own attitude from what we can get from a place to what we can learn from it.
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