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About the Author

Giedre Steikunaite
Student (London, United Kingdom)

Currently an editorial intern at the New Internationalist magazine ("The people, the ideas, the action in the fight for global justice"), I'm studying journalism and contemporary history in London, UK. Freelancing for various publications, back in Lithuania I was a reporter for a current affairs weekly Panorama. Development, climate change, and social issues are my main topics of interest.


Oh tourism! You have sinned

Published 26th May 2010 - 24 comments - 4765 views -

A Tourist is sipping a Piña Colada under a palm tree on a white sand beach, watching the blue blue sea. Another Tourist has just left the hotel to visit some great building. One more Tourist can’t wait to go to that awesome night club where beer is so indecently cheap.


What’s wrong with that? Nothing, I thought, until I read Pamela Nowicka’s No-Nonsense Guide to Tourism. Trouble in paradise!

Add to that Johan’s Sexy day in Kenya, Maasai dances, HIV, Africa’s share, and Eco-Tourism, and Kevin’s Sword and Mapuches, and the trouble really overshadows the paradise.

Tourism Concern (TC), the UK’s independent, non-industry based charity which fights exploitation in tourism, kindly agreed to answer some questions. Their answers were prepared with the assistance of Clara Handler, their campaigns volunteer.


The numbers

UNWTO, United Nations World Tourism Organization, estimates that in 2009, international tourism generated $ 852 billion.

There were 880 million international arrivals (compare to 25 million in 1950).

Travel and tourism generate over 10% of global GDP and account for more than 200 million jobs.

Tourism is the primary source for foreign exchange in the world’s poorest countries.


Colonizing consumerism

“Modern mass tourism did not just spring fully formed out of the collective consciousness. Apart from its historical roots in trade, exploitation and colonization, its more recent enablers were the rise of consumerism as a way of life in the West, together with the promotion of individualistic gratification as a desirable lifestyle.” Pamela Nowicka

Who benefits? That’s the main question regarding tourism, Ms Nowicka wrote in her harsh critic of mainstream tourism. She urges us to recognize tourism for what it is, “part of a political process which benefits the most well-off, while, in many cases, making the lives of poor people more difficult.” And it’s about time to challenge the way the tourism industry operates.

So where is the devil hiding?


The problems

They start when a tourist arrives to an airport with the intention to leave it:


Enter the poor. The common assumption that tourism helps the poor is not exactly right. It might, but it usually doesn't. Up to 95% of money will leave the country it is spent in. This phenomenon, called leakage, means that from every dollar, only some cents will stay in the local community, after the airline, the hotel chain, the tour operator and the government take their share.

TC explained: “At present, Northern tour operators are in the powerful position of controlling both the demand and supply of tourism. Southern countries, on the other hand, bear the brunt in terms of social and environmental costs, while they see little economic benefit, as so much of mainstream tourism is foreign-owned.”

TC went on: “Additionally, while tourism may generate economic growth, often very little of this trickles down to reach the poorest. In fact, tourism often forces people into deeper poverty by displacing them from their land to make way for resort developments and blocking access to areas used for livelihood activities, such as fishing. Job opportunities in the tourism industry for local people in developing countries are often limited to the most menial, poorly paid roles, involving long hours without proper contracts.”

When “we” go to “their” homes to enjoy our “deserved break from work”, we might be surprised to know that often people serving our cocktails and cleaning our bed sheets only have 6 days a year of holidays. And no, they don’t tend to go to a far away land for a “deserved break”. Too expensive the trip and too humiliating the visa process.


Exploited resources

The Sustainable Tourism Gateway explains how poorly controlled and profit-driven management of mass tourism damages the environment:

Water. Hotels use it, showering tourists use it, thirsty tourists use it, swimming pools use it, golf courses use it massively. Clean water is not infinite.

Local resources. Peak season puts huge pressure on local resources to meet high demands of tourists for energy, food, and raw materials.

Pollution. Planes, cars, cruise ships all add to air pollution. Little heavens on Earth will not be as heavenly for long.

Rubbish. Areas with high tourist concentration face enormous problems of waste management. An empty bottle here, a chocolate wrapping there, a “Coca Cola trail” in the mountains.

Sewage. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5* hotel construction leads to increased sewage pollution. Wastewater pollutes lakes and rivers in areas close to tourist attractions.

Biodiversity. Infrastructure needed to meet tourists’ demands threatens local ecosystems. Scuba diving, snorkeling, yachting and cruising can cause degradation of marine ecosystems such as coral reefs.


The solution

So that’s it, no more trips? No, but we need a change of direction. TC explained: “Too often, tourism causes exploitation and human rights abuses, especially in poor countries and the developing world. But staying at home is not a viable solution. Millions of people rely on tourism for their livelihoods, including many who are economically vulnerable. The point is not to stop tourism, but to change the way it’s developed and operated so it benefits local people in tourism destinations more.”

TC says the alternative to the exploitative mainstream tourism is community-based tourism. It directly involves and benefits local communities, socially and economically. It “typically includes and encourages opportunities for meaningful cultural exchange between guest and host. This allows guests to leave with a much richer understanding of the place and people they visited, while benefits stay with the local people.” Over 400 places like these in more than 70 countries are listed in TC’s Ethical Travel Guide.

The governments have to do their part, too. They “need to think more carefully about the kinds of tourist developments they approve – there is not much sense in trusting to the environmental and ethical good sense of the travel and tourism industry,” wrote Chris Brazier in New Internationalist in March 2008.

TC agrees: “Governments need to recognise that tourism is no “silver bullet” out of poverty for developing countries. Like most industries and processes of development, there are both winners and losers in the tourism game. Those most vulnerable to exploitation and to losing out to the sector (including future generations) must have their rights protected by governments and respected by the industry.” In addition, local communities have to have the right to say No to tourism if they wish so.


The challenge for the Tourist and another Tourist and one more Tourist is not to choose between a holiday and staying at home. The challenge is to acknowledge that one’s paradise adds to the other one’s poverty. Do I, a Tourist, really want to be part of this exploitation? How can I help change it?


Video by Plane Stupid, a network of grassroots groups which take non-violent direct action against aviation expansion

Photos: palm tree by me, girl with cameras by Nono Fara via flickr, front yellow by Sean McGrath also via flickr

Category: Tourism | Tags:


  • Johan Knols on 26th May 2010:

    Hello Giedre,

    Thanks for a great post (and some organizations I, as a dutchman, was not aware of).
    Personally I had to deal with the powerful northern operators as they dictate the price they want a trip for. The company I dealt with has its mouth full about ‘eco’ and ‘sustainable’, but simply chooses someone else if they don’t get the price they want. (I gave them a specific finger…).
    Also leakage is a very common problem. Although I have not always said positive things about the Botswana government, on this topic I must say they are quite keen and they seem to address it.

    The video you have chosen is great btw!

    On communities the following. It can be extremely difficult to let communities decide for themselves if they want tourism or not. Since quite a few communities have little, if any, knowledge about doing business, they appear to be following their guts instead of being able to see the consequences of their actions. What we need is a situation where they get explained in understandable terms what progress could mean for them and then let them decide what they want.

    To put the ball of ‘responsible travel’ in the courtyard of the tourist is no option.

  • Robert Stefanicki on 26th May 2010:

    Very bleak picture, and I’m pessimistic about the future, since the conditions will always be dictated by the actors with money, and they by no means come from the South. “Responsible” or “eco” travel will always remain marginal comparing to “mass” of the same reason why more people attend Madonna concerts than Bach. I am aware of one example of successful resistance to mass tourism, which is Bhutan - would be interesting to read an analysis of this particular case, I mean the balance of gains and loses, and whether the model is applicable elsewhere. Well, actually I may try to do a research on this one day - thanks for inspiration, Giedre.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 27th May 2010:

    Thank you Johan, I appreciate it.

    Yeah I imagine it can be hard to let communities decide for themselves if they want tourism or not, and as you say it’s important to explain all the issues involved if they say yes and if they say no. In addition, local communities have to be helped with some business training if they hadn’t had it before, if they decide to run it. And how to get rid of the powerful Northern companies which claim so many places in the world as theirs?

    TC quotes a research by the Association of British Travel Agents which showed that 64% of people indicated they were prepared to pay an extra £10 to £25 for their holiday if this money went towards environmental or social improvements. That might be some good news in the tourist yard, if it actually materializes.

    But I’m quite pessimistic, just like you, Robert. The industry is too powerful, they have all the money, and many governments just fall to their demands. It is also unregulated, and the common assumption that tourism is only good and a palm tree can do no harm and that smiling locals are smiling because they are so happy about your presence also adds to this resistance for change.

    If we dig deeper into the reasons which drive tourists, it gets even worse (this is all explained in the No-Nonsense Guide, sounds like an ad, but it’s really a great series!). We have adopted “a new religion of consumerism which has taken away from many people the ability to think in any meaningful way about the impact of their lifestyle”... and it gets even darker.

    Robert, it’d be great if you follow up the story of Bhutan! Successful resistance to mass tourism could be a positive example and maybe an answer to one of our many questions. wink

  • Clare Herbert on 01st June 2010:

    Really interesting piece, Giedre. I would certainly be willing to pay more for an eco-friendly holiday. But, is’s always more complex than visiting a country = economic gain for that country.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 01st June 2010:

    Exactly, Clare. More people should be made aware of this complexity. The image of the almighty tourism that will lead out of poverty should be changed into a more realistic one, acknowledging the issues involved. Pamela Nowicka wrote that tourism should be put on the same ladder as mining and sweatshops. That’s not what the sandy beach brochures tell us, now is it.

  • Johan Knols on 01st June 2010:

    @ Clare & @ Giedre,

    Ladies, when we would make exotic tourism more expensive, we would even get less travellers. Now that might be great for the reduction of carbon emissions, but it would certainly not benefit poverty reduction.
    And although circumstances can be improved in the tourism industry Giedre, it goes too far to compare it with sweat-shops and mining.

  • Clare Herbert on 01st June 2010:

    @ Giedre. Shall I add Nowicka’s book to my list of books to read?

    @Johan: Of course increasing the cost will reduce the numbers travelling, but I guess you have to do a cost/benefit analysis for the host countries. If an African state is forced to pump money into sanitation for their thriving tourist population, when their indigineous people suffer, is that worth the revenue raised by tourism? These things are endlessly complex.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 01st June 2010:

    @Clare, I really suggest you read the book!

    @Johan, I bet you are well aware that tourism as it is now doesn’t do much to reduce poverty. And besides, it’s funny how people can pay a thousand, two thousand, four thousand for a trip all included and then complain that a souvenir from a local is too expensive. It’s all endlessly complex, as Clare says.

  • Johan Knols on 01st June 2010:

    @ Giedre,

    I definitely don’t agree with you that tourism doesn’t do much. BUT..I am not disputing that it could do more.
    I have seen many people in Botswana, amongst them some of my own staff, getting jobs and starting to look after their (extended) families. That is what you should not forget. If all those employed in tourism would be able to keep the money for themselves, the changes would be much more visible.
    I also agree with you that the rich that pay up to $1200 a night p.p. are trying to get a souvenir for next to nothing. Adding to the complexity of not only tourism but everything that has to do with poverty, poverty reduction and the millennium development goals.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 01st June 2010:


    I respect your knowledge and experience as an insider, and in your case it all worked well for everyone. More cases like this! However, there are numerous examples in which local people actually lose out. E.g. I read about the Maldives, perfectly beautiful islands where nothing can go wrong. Wrong. Every third child there suffers from malnutrition. Fruit&veg; tends to go to islands which host tourists.

    I’m not blaming tourism for the world’s problems, there are obviously many more factors involved. But tourism is not as innocent as it is presented, and I wish more people knew about this.

  • tourism on 04th June 2010:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on tourism. It will really work out for any country if they seriously take this.

  • tourism on 04th June 2010:

    Nice information on tourism article.Every one should aware about this.  The video posted on this article is really very great. Any one can get benefited from it.

  • Iwona Frydryszak on 04th June 2010:

    the sad thing about tourist is that people are not mostly interested in “human safaris” - visiting slums and hunting with cameras to shoot kids playing there…. it’s quite common in India (the image in Slum dog we all know), but it’s entering Africa with a great speed as well.

  • Johan Knols on 04th June 2010:


    It has to be seen if not shooting kids with a camera is a sad thing.
    It is not about going home with an image of a poor child, it is about being willing to do something about the situation.

  • Iwona Frydryszak on 04th June 2010:

    @Johan - but usually the only solution tourists see it just giving money or something. This is the most easy thing. I meet all those tourists on the tour in Tanzania I assisted with. They were prepered to give kids so many things - watch, ring, pens, candies… and then kids are used that you can shoot the photo of them only when you will pay…

  • Johan Knols on 04th June 2010:


    I am very much aware of the situation you describe. I even wrote a post about it:

  • Johan Knols on 17th July 2010:


    Since you think that the video is inappropriate for this article, does this mean that you deny the fact that flying adds to global warming? Flying which is done (also) by tourists?

  • Johan Knols on 20th July 2010:

    Hi @Emily,

    Yes, as Andy says, you are right. The post is indeed not about global warming. The author is only saying (in my humble opinion) that one of the negative aspects about tourism (flying)ADDS to global warming. So when you say that the video is ‘slightly’ out of place, does this imply that you actually do see the connection somehow?
    In my opinion is the statement that flying CONTRIBUTES to the death of polar bears 100% correct. The author did not say that flying kills polar bears. As a last commend I would like to say that we need a lot more shocking videos since it gets more and more difficult to wake up the public. I do understand that videos like this are not nice to watch, as somewhere deep we understand the connection but do not want to be confronted with it. Especially not in relation to our well deserved, twice a year, holiday.

    Hi @Andy,

    Also you are correct. The livestock sector does indeed produce a lot more CO2 than the transport industry. So we should get rid of our food-source (cattle) before we start to work on our CO2 emission while traveling? It seems to me that you have your priorities somewhat wrong…But I do agree that it would be better to eat less meat!
    You are not the only one that battles with what a ton of CO2 emission is, so do I.
    In this article: you can get a visual in the form of a picture. If you would like to measure your own CO2 output, you can use this very handy little tool called Carbon Footprint Calculator:

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 20th July 2010:

    @Johan, indeed, that was the message. Brilliant explanation, thank you!

    @Emily, thank you for reading and participating in the discussion. I see your point on the ugliness of the video I chose. When I saw it for the first time I was shocked too, but then again, only because it was so, let’s say, in-your-face. And here I agree with Johan - we can’t have flowers and butterflies all the time, if we are to change something we need to wake up.

    @Andy, we had an interesting discussion on this platform about the use of statistics. I cannot give you evidence for the numbers in the video, but it’s very easy to lose the main track when picking on some kgs, tonnes, kms or whatever. I don’t think Plane Stupid are saying that if you fly, you kill a polar bear and it falls onto your street. They’re making a clear connection between you, your flight, CO2 emissions, climate change, melting ice, and dying polar bears. And even if transport is not as bad a polluter as a meadow full of cows, that doesn’t mean that we should just forget it. It’s not a race of who pollutes more, or if climate change is a theory or reality.

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