The Ethics of Tourism: Considering A Small Place in the Traveller’s Era

Is it immoral to be a tourist?

A few weeks ago we returned from spending a week long vacation in Cuba. You may have even read my last post with suggestions for anyone else who might be interested in traveling there.

So, why, out of the blue, am I asking you about the morality of tourism?

Well, it’s probably because of Jamaica Kincaid and her book, A Small Place.

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Kincaid’s short book, A Small Place, was the first reading I was given as I dove directly back into my classes. If you haven’t read it, I definitely suggest you do. It was incredibly thought-provoking, and written in the kind of conversational tone that made it an easy-read. In case you don’t have the time to run to the library and pick up a copy before finishing this article, let me save you the trouble and share one of my favourite quotes:

“…every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go – so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself. (pg 18-19 of the 1988 New American Library edition)”

So, why did Kincaid write a book that so thoroughly demonizes tourists and the tourism industry in her place of birth? Tourism directly or indirectly makes up half of Antigua and Barbuda’s GDP. Given the importance of tourism to the economy, does she really want all foreigners to stop traveling there?

I think it’s more complicated than that.

Throughout her book, Jamaica Kincaid demonstrates how tourism is a small part of a much more complex issue. There is a reason why most North Americans and Europeans can afford to take a vacation while most Antiguans cannot. We all know it wasn’t just luck of the draw, but sometimes we try to forget about the less pleasant parts of history… especially when we are trying to get our tan on at the beach.

Kincaid mentions this way of stifling history when she talks about Western books on the history of economics. According to Kincaid, these books say that

“the West got rich not from the free […] and then undervalued labour, for generations, of the people like me you see walking around you in Antigua, but from the ingenuity of small shopkeepers in Sheffield and Yorkshire and Lancashire, or wherever; and what a great part the invention of the wristwatch played in it…” (pg 9-10)

If you are privileged (like me) then it’s very likely that at one point in history some of your ancestors did something really terrible in order to get ahead in life. “But hey,” you might say, “we didn’t do any of that stuff, so what does any of it have to do with us?”

A lot of Kincaid’s book can probably be boiled down to the internet-popular phrase “check your privilege”. Most people who use this phrase are just asking for awareness: be aware of how your circumstances compare to someone else who may have been born into a different family, country, culture, race, sexual orientation, etc. This idea is hotly debated by anyone who feels like they reached their position in life purely through merit [which I wrote a strong rebuttal against -Evan] and in some areas of the internet it has been so overused that it has almost lost all meaning. It is still, however, one of the most concise ways of saying what Jamaica Kincaid hints at over and over again in A Small Place.

So what does it mean to “check your privilege” when it comes to tourism? Does it only mean forcing ourselves to treat the individuals serving us like the real human beings that they are? Or does it go beyond that?

In A Small Place many of Kincaid’s frustrations with tourism are rooted in the way it reinforces social classes and takes advantage of the corruption left behind by colonialism. As tourism becomes more and more important in the economy of countries still suffering from the repercussion of colonialism, is it possible to promote a way to travel that is ethical?

I had never really thought about this question until reading this book, but a quick internet search for ethical tourism brings up a variety of websites aimed at making tourism more ethical. For example, the Ethical Traveler website, says that they aim to “use the economic clout of tourism to protect human rights and the environment.” Meanwhile the Tourism Concern website features an interactive map so you can explore issues of concern in various tourist destinations.

So, what do you think? Will tourism always just be another way for those who have money/opportunity/etc. to lord it over those who don’t? Or is it possible for tourism to be mutually beneficial in the social sense, as well as the financial?

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