Travel as Development

Tourism can be presented as a force for good, but is it really helping to develop its host nations? Is the idea of development itself flawed? David Jobanputra looks at the history of aid to help understand the role modern travellers are playing in the world around them.






In last week’s piece I looked at the idea that travel ‘damages’ cultures, and showed how, perhaps counter-intuitively, this is in fact a meaningless assertion; culture is not some ancient and fragile ornament in danger of destruction, but rather a heady flux of thoughts and things, ever-flowing, ever-changing. To argue that the tourist ‘damages’ their host culture is to presuppose an essence where none really exists. What we damage, if anything, is a chimera – our own idealised image of the world we inhabit.

But let’s make one thing clear: while it may be nonsense to claim that travel ‘damages’ other cultures, this is not to say that tourism is wholly without effect for its host communities. Clearly, international travel has countless consequences, some of which, depending on who you ask, will be perceived as negative. Thus, ecologists might highlight habitat destruction, economists might warn of dependency and clerics might mourn for morality. It’s not difficult to think of ways that the global travel industry (or any modern enterprise for that matter) can be seen as dysfunctional; indeed, such social pathologising is for many a popular pastime. But what about travel’s positives? Can tourism help as well as hinder, and if so, how?

The belief that travel brings development is arguably its raison d’être. Nations invest in tourism for the same sake they invest in other industries – to boost employment and GDP – and it is this economic contribution that is most often cited as beneficial. However, there is no reason to suppose that economic development is necessarily equitable. Mass tourism, for example, may source both work and income, but the vast majority of its profits are siphoned off by ‘big businesses’ (tour operators, hotel groups, etc.) with next to nothing remaining in the host communities. This begs the question: if tourism brings development, what sort of development is it? In order to address this issue, we must first embark on a whistle-stop tour through the history of this curious concept…

‘Development’, you see, is a strange idea. It presupposes that some parts of the world are inherently inferior or ‘underdeveloped’ (i.e. economically, technologically, culturally), while other parts, by virtue of some arbitrary disparities, are self-defined as ‘developed’ and thus qualified to instruct. (This is the transnational equivalent of a kind of “when I was your age…” reasoning.) There is no standard definition of ‘development’; it is simply what we have (prosperity, equality, obesity, etc.) and the rest lack. Herein lies the logic of international aid. 

The history of development can be divided into three eras. When the idea came into being shortly after World War II, the onus was on economic change in the former colonies. The Western nations invested heavily in these fledgling states, often restructuring entire economies, but things rarely got any better; quite the opposite in fact. Loss of livelihoods, urban overcrowding and environmental catastrophes were among the many bleak consequences of rapid industrialisation, just as they had been in Europe a century before. Unlike their predecessors, though, these newly industrialised states had no overseas empires to help balance the books. All they had, or so it seemed, was poverty, lots and lots of poverty.

In the 1970s, the international development community, faced with the problems it had all but created, shifted its emphasis from economic development to ‘basic needs’ such as sanitation, water provision, food security and poverty alleviation. (This was the era of Band Aid, Comic Relief and news footage of babies with flies in their eyes, a time when Europe and the States, in a bilious discharge of hypocrisy, dug deep into their pockets and into their hearts to help avert disasters in which they themselves were complicit.) The basic needs approach was intended to help the world’s poorest and most marginalised peoples, thereby promoting more equitable development. Again, though, the results have been somewhat mixed; the new approach casts the world’s poor as needy infants whose woes will be abated with a little spoon-feeding, forgetting, of course, that poverty, hunger and the like (i.e. ‘underdevelopment’) are human-made (i.e. social, political) problems. Put another way, basic needs development can only tackle the symptoms of poverty, not its causes. And more worryingly, it may leave beneficiaries dependent on aid, with little scope for self-actualisation.

Since the 1990s, the failings of both state-directed and basic needs development have led policy-makers to seek new ways of tackling global inequality. Recent years have seen a surge in ‘grassroots’ approaches that aim to foster sustainable, people-led development. Often, these are associated with ideas about human rights: the right to land, the right to resources, the right to self-reliance. Development now must be bottom-up and empowering; ‘give a man a fish…’ and so on…

The forms of development offered by travel reflect these three stages. As mentioned above, mass tourism may bolster a country’s GDP, but it does so at the cost of widening the wealth gap, levelling livelihoods and damaging the environment; in this sense, it is much like the heavy-handed (and ill-fated) economic development of the post-war period. The basic needs approaches of the 70s and 80s, meanwhile, have their parallels in Lonely Planet-style ‘independent travel’, which sees tourists frequent family-run hotels and restaurants, employ local tour operators and use public transportation. Here, tourism may serve to engender more equitable economic development, but it does little to undermine the structures of inequality and may in fact reinforce them.

When we come to development’s most recent guise, that of sustainable, bottom-up action, we once again find a convergence with the modern tourism industry. Specifically, it is so-called ‘responsible travel’ that mirrors the grassroots turn; now, tourism must be planned and produced by the people themselves, with profits feeding back into the community. In this way, tourism, like development, can be rendered sustainable; travel becomes ‘ethical’. ‘Teach a man to fish…’

Now there are several ways we could go from here. We could question the integrity of these ‘ethical’ credentials. We could look at the marketing of morality in the Age of Green. We could speculate whether grassroots development, like its precursors, is destined for debacle, and ask what this might
mean for its travel-based twin. These are all interesting issues. But in the next set of articles I want to take the discussion in a different direction. Putting aside all the polemics, the simple question remains: given that tourism exists, given that it has countless consequences that may be perceived as good or bad (depending on who you ask), how, then, should we travel? In next week’s piece we will begin to reflect on this matter.

About David Jobanputra

David Jobanputra is a writer and anthropologist specialising in development, cultural change and environmental ethics. He recently completed a PhD in Social Anthropology at University College London, which looked at grassroots advocacy and eco-development in the Aravalli mountains of Rajasthan, India. In addition to living and working in the subcontinent, David has travelled extensively throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, including overland trips from Tibet to Scotland and Beijing to Java. David recently returned from 18 months living with a tribe in the Rajasthani desert.

Photo by Oxfam International


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