The Vain Pursuit of the Exotic

Tourism extracts the differences between ourselves and other people

By George Monbiot. Published in The Guardian 8th June 1995.

The main tourist hotel in Dili, the capital of East Timor, was, until recently, also an army intelligence headquarters. East Timorese political prisoners were tortured by Indonesian soldiers in the basement and uniformed men were despatched from its rooms to oversee the execution of dissidents.

Yet, while blood ran in the cellars, the Indonesian government started encouraging tourists to visit East Timor and stay in the hotel. Having killed one third of the occupied country’s population, having destroyed the people’s homes, their crops and their livelihoods, having invented torture techniques that would make the Gestapo wince, the government had managed to achieve a semblance of normality. The East Timorese are, most of the time, too frightened to protest in public, and the rebels still holding out against the government are confined to the remotest places. Bringing tourists into East Timor serves both to assure the rest of the world that nothing is amiss and to legitimise the island’s illegal occupation.

So should we do as the Indonesian government wants, and visit East Timor? One’s immediate response would be no. But the ethics of tourism, here and elsewhere, are complex: the arguments for going may be just as compelling as those for staying away.

Tourists visiting East Timor, or any other country subject to the brutal whims of an intractable dictatorship, can swiftly become accessories to inhumanity. The hotel in Dili, for example, is owned by army officers: everyone who pays for a room there puts money straight into the soldiers’ pockets. The ignorance in which most tourists are cocooned is infectious: when they go home and tell their family and friends that the beaches were great or the food was disgusting but say nothing about what is happening there, subtly, unwittingly, they help to blot out the efforts of people trying to draw attention to the atrocities.

On the other hand, for the first fifteen years of its occupation, East Timor languished in obscurity. The government could act without constraint, as there were no foreign witnesses. With the exception of a very few investigative journalists and human rights workers, the island was visited only by absurd processions of “independent observers”, who, neither independent nor observant, were steered away from the trouble spots by government minders, and concluded that the place was as peaceful as it appeared to be. The presence of tourists may impose restraints on the government’s treatment of the population. It provides a cover under which investigators can work. East Timor becomes, to the outside world, a place, rather than just a name.

The dilemma, of course, is not confined to East Timor. Indonesia is one of scores of tourist destinations in which gross abuses of human rights take place. There is probably not a country in the world for which a reasonable argument for a boycott could not be made. The publishing company Lonely Planet suspended for a while its guide to Norway, on account of that country’s continued harvest of minke whales. Both Europeans – pointing to our discharges of pollution – and North Americans – citing our continued presence in Northern Ireland – have called for a tourist boycott of Great Britain. The argument for a boycott of countries already subject to public scrutiny appears to be less clouded than the argument for a boycott of countries left out of the public eye.

At first sight, it would seem that a distinction can be drawn between the ethics of organised tours and the ethics of independent travel. Organised tour operators ensure that their customers are insulated from the unexpected. Nothing is supposed to happen which is not scheduled to happen. Tourists are kept away from trouble spots and seldom interact with anyone, other than those who serve or sell to them. Backpackers, on the other hand, claim to seek out the unexpected. In theory, they are more likely to stumble across atrocities, or meet people who can tell them what is happening. Yet the question is complicated by a further factor, for tourism is not just a means by which oppression can be either masked or exposed. Tourism itself can become an instrument of destruction.

When Burma’s State Law and Order Restoration Council decided to make the ancient town of Pagan one of its principal tourist destinations, it thought it would spare tourists the inconvenience and unsightliness of human beings. The townspeople, whose ancestors built the very attractions the tourists were to visit, were forcibly evacuated and their homes were destroyed. Some of them were then impressed into chain gangs, to clean the place up.

Such clearances are a common component of national tourist industries. All over South East Asia, farms, forests, villages, even suburbs, have been destroyed to make way for golf courses. Slums are razed for fear of offending visitors. In many parts of Africa, conservation is used to justify the creation of new parks and reserves for tourism. Their inhabitants are excluded from the lands they have possessed for centuries, re-entering, in Kenya, on pain of death.

It is not just the people’s land but also their culture which is expropriated for tourism by unscrupulous governments. During the 1980s, the longhouses of the Asmat people of Irian Jaya, in Indonesia, were destroyed and their traditional ceremonies were proscribed. In 1991, the government launched Visit Indonesia Year. Realising that tourists wanted to see how the country’s indigenous peoples lived, it instructed the Asmat to rebuild their longhouses and perform ceremonies for the tourists. If they refused they were beaten or imprisoned. Those who assumed that this meant they could once more start worshipping their ancestors were sadly mistaken: if they performed any ceremonies for their own purposes, they were, again, beaten or imprisoned.

While these are extreme examples, tourism is, wherever it occurs, an extractive industry. It extracts the differences between our land and culture and those of the nations we visit, until they scarcely exist. Remote and romantic beaches become mundane resorts. Remote and remarkable people tailor their culture to suit those who pay for it, until, in the words of a Maasai man, “We have ceased to be what we are; we are becoming what we seem.” The exotic, of course, is illusory: as we approach it, it disappears. Tourism, therefore, will never be sated, even when it has penetrated the remotest parts of the world.

While organised tours may be most directly responsible for the muffling of diversity, it is the backpackers who blaze the trail they follow. An independent travellers’ destination becomes a mainstream resort within a few years. Indeed as travel becomes easier and tourists more adventurous, the distinction between the two groups is breaking down: hundreds of tour companies organize journeys which mimic those of independent travellers. Independent travel itself is now exerting an enormous impact on places such as Goa, the South African coast and several Thai resorts, which are becoming increasingly unwilling hosts of the European rave scene. Neither category – if they can still be categorised – is blameless.

None of the ethical questions tourism raises can be easily answered. Tour organisers have justified their work to me on the grounds that it is a “cultural exchange”. Yet what I have seen of their activities suggests that no cultural exchange is taking place. While the visitors get culture, the hosts, if they are lucky, get money. As identity is rooted in place, the tourists have little to offer.

Other people claim that tourism breaks down the barriers between our lives and those of the people we visit. Yet, in most cases, tourists remain firmly behind barriers: be they the windows of a coach, the walls of an hotel or the lens of a camera. In many parts of the world, tourism has compounded misunderstanding and hostility: the Egyptian fundamentalists threatening to blow up hotels and the Oxford householders turning their hoses on open-topped buses doubtless have sympathisers all over the world.

Tourism, we are told, brings wealth to local people. All I have seen suggests the opposite: that tourism makes a very few people extremely rich, while impoverishing the majority, who lose their land, their resources and their sense of self and make, if anything, a tiny amount of money.

Even the oldest maxim of all, that travel broadens the mind, is questionable. Tourists are the aristocracy of the New World Order. They are pampered and protected wherever they go, they are treated with deference and never corrected. Indeed, tour companies do their best to provide what the tourists expect, rather than educating the tourists to expect what the country can reasonably provide. For most tourists, the only surprises will be unpleasant ones, when the reality of the countries they visit pricks the bubble in which they travel. Then the shock of discovery, rather than assuaging fear, tends to compound it: many people return home more convinced that foreigners are dirty, deceitful and dangerous than they were when they left.

There is, however, one axiom which does seem to hold true: he cannot England know who only England knows. For the few who respond to its challenges, travelling can expose both oppression abroad and injustice at home. Though seldom realized, this potential for enlightenment means that tourism, for all its monstrosities, cannot be wholly condemned.

George Monbiot is a columnist for the Guardian and Visiting Professor at the University of East London. His latest book is No Man’s Land: an investigative journey through Kenya and Tanzania.