Whingeing Poms

British tourists are furious that the Dominican Republic can’t provide them with the comforts they expect, but no one cares about the locals

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 25th April 1998.

“How do you know,” the Australians used to ask, “when a planeload of Poms has arrived at Sydney Airport? Because”, the answer went, “the whining doesn’t stop when the engines are cut.” The people of the Dominican Republic may well be telling the same gag.

Last month, three major tour companies either closed down or curtailed their business in the republic after hundreds of British tourists complained of upset stomachs. Though the far greater numbers of Germans and Canadians who visit the island had registered few complaints, British visitors were said to be falling like flies. “It’s become a nightmare,” Brenda Wall of Holiday Travelwatch moaned. “For the very first time a third world country has become a number one travel destination and the infrastructure can’t keep up with it.” Even the Guardian carried a lengthy sob story about a couple who had fallen ill on their holiday of a lifetime.

It’s time we woke up and smelt the sewers. Every year, thousands of Dominican children die of gastric diseases, and not a murmur of protest comes from the Guardian or anywhere else. A bunch of British tourists turns up in one of the most impoverished places on earth to drink cocktails and soak up the sun, gets the runs, and it’s reported as if the sky had fallen on our heads.

Tourists visit places like the Dominican Republic because they’re exotic, then complain when they turn out to be just that. The tropics, as everyone knows, are blessed with fecundity and biodiversity, and we don’t need David Attenborough to tell us that this exuberant fauna includes a fascinating range of pathological organisms, which love the high-fat, high-protein, meat-rich diet that visitors to the republic, but not its inhabitants, enjoy. The tour companies conspired in the problems they later lamented: while enthusing tourists with promises that this would be a holiday unlike any other, in a place unlike anywhere they had ever been before, they simultaneously assured them that their break on the island would be no more challenging than holidays anywhere else; that the whole physical and cultural paraphenalia of British tourism could be transplanted unadjusted into the republic, regardless of what or whom lived there already.

But adjusting is precisely what you don’t expect to do when you take a holiday abroad. Tourists are the aristocrats of the New World Order. They are pampered and protected wherever they go, they are treated with deference and never corrected. Tour companies do their best to provide what the tourists expect, rather than educating tourists to expect what the country can reasonably provide.

We may all become lords and ladies when we travel to the Third World, but we don’t leave much of our fabulous wealth behind. Children in the slums of Santo Domingo continue to die of diarrhoea because the money visitors spend on their holidays doesn’t reach them. Indeed, thousands are living in the most fetid conditions not despite the tourist industry but because of it: their homes on the coast were bulldozed and their parents’ livelihoods destroyed to make way for hotels and engineer the unspoilt paradise the tourists expect to discover. Some of the dispossessed have found work in the industry: the luckier ones become servants in the big hotels. The less fortunate scrape a marginal living selling flipflops and coconuts on the beach, or offering the sort of services which, for many British men, are the primary, often the sole, reason for travelling abroad.

Nearly all the money you lay down for a package holiday on the island either stays in Britain or finds its way into the hands of the dispossessors, who use it to eradicate yet more coastal villages and drive their inhabitants into the slums. And yet we continue to convince ourselves that bringing our delicate stomachs, our pub crawls and our insatiable demands to impoverished parts of the world is to confer upon them the most munificent favour: ask any travel agent and she or he will tell you, without a scrap of supporting evidence, that tourism brings wealth to local people.

Moreover, as many of those who HAD found jobs in the republic’s tourist industry now know to their cost, tourism is among the most volatile businesses on earth. A resort might be heaving one year and deserted the next, often through no fault of the local industry. During and after the Gulf War, Americans refused to travel to Europe or even Africa, in case Saddam Hussein shot their planes down. When the tourists disappear, the big operators can simply disinvest and reinvest elsewhere; local people are left with a ruined economy and a wrecked environment. More than five hundred years after Columbus brought his curse to the island, the new conquistadores continue to wreak the havoc he began.