Feature – Is the Tourist Trail Killing World Culture?

Are travel and tourism two separate entities? Don’t we all have the right to travel the world whether package tourists or lone travellers? Aren’t we all on different parts of the same scale or does travelling by motorcycles not only take us to places coach tours and the like can’t reach but somehow make us more noble? Seasoned traveller and photographer Rob Armstrong voices his take on the very broad and contentious subject…

I’m sitting in front of a hostel in Penang, Malaysia, killing time while I wait for my motorcycle to arrive which is currently bobbing along out in the straits of Malacca, strapped to the wooden deck of a small ship that transports onions from Medan, a city on the east coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. I’m not the only one here travelling by motorcycle. A Canadian man sitting next to me pauses mid sentence as he nervously watches one of the islands taxis squeeze past his BMW R80GS Dakar parked in the narrow laneway that the hostel is situated on. While he is still deciding whether or not to ship to Indonesia from here, a French couple have just left us to get the paperwork sorted out to ship their 125cc Yamahas to Medan. Round the world riders seem to be everywhere these days.

While I was surprised to see so many overlanders in the one place together after weeks without seeing any other foreigners, I was even more surprised to notice that the throngs of backpackers filling the laneways of Georgetown, despite arriving individually, all seemed to know at least one other person or group from their previous port of call. Over the next week or so I couldn’t help but notice the same pattern repeat itself as hordes of tourists, rolling in on the overnight busses, seemed genuinely shocked to meet people they already knew, from a party up north in Thailand or a hostel down south in Singapore. Their conversations would then centre around their next destination, which seemed to be limited to about 5 places by some unseen, silent force. That’s when I realised I’d stumbled back onto the Tourist Trail.

This series of articles is designed to shed some light on what the Tourist Trail is, how it came about and some of the damage that is inadvertently done to communities visited by mass tourism. It will also provide suggestions on how travellers can escape the tourist trail, focusing on the effectiveness of motorcycles as the chosen form of transport to achieve genuine and authentic interactions. Finally, the role of the travellers’ attitude and way in which we interact with our hosts will be discussed in the context of maximising the benefits while reducing any potential negative aspects, to both traveller and host.

Most travellers are aware that the Tourist Trail exists, but very few have any idea of how well worn and narrow it is. In some parts of the world, it has become somewhat of a proverbial chasm, making it rather difficult for the average tourist to see beyond it, or find a way out. A combination of travel guides, government tourism departments and narrow-minded tourists the world over have all conspired either intentionally (for the purpose of profiteering) or unintentionally (through a lack of curiosity) to confine the average traveller to the Tourist Trail. The problem with this is that every country in the world is infinitely wider, both physically and culturally, than the Tourist Trail will ever present to us.

The Tourist Trial didn’t always exist; it has evolved over centuries as travellers find new and cheaper means of travel presented to them, lifestyle changes that allow for more extensive leisure time and a greater variety of destinations are made available through guidebooks and travel and tourism agencies. The first major leap forward was the advent of steam power, which brought travel by sea and rail within the economic reach of the middle-class in the late 18th century while removing the monopoly that aristocrats had traditionally held over travel. Guidebooks soon followed, with standardised formats appearing in the early 19th century that contained the first tourist information as to which destinations were worth visiting, quickly turning tourist attractions into tourist obligations. Not long after, an English entrepreneur by the name of Thomas Cook developed the first group holidays that offered all-inclusive pricing and birthed commercialised mass tourism.

During the early 20th century, Nazi Germany promoted mass tourism as part of its National Socialist ideology, providing employees of the Third Reich with paid leave and access to heavily discounted group travel packages arranged by the ministry of Reisen, Wandern, Urlaub (Travelling, Hiking, Holiday). But it wasn’t until the 1960s that mass tourism really caught on, as the post war boom brought with it rising affluence, urbanisation and unprecedented construction of transport and communication networks, which new commercial tour operators and travel companies used to their advantage, transforming the nature of the travel industry forever.

With the advent of modern air travel and the increasingly relative wealth of developed countries, travel is now a cheaper and more accessible commodity than ever before, contributing to almost 10% of the global economy. There are now more than 1 billion international trips made every year with one out every ten people employed by the travel and hospitality industry worldwide which generates $3 billion in business every day. To say that travel has been industrialised on a mass scale is an understatement. Gone are the days when travel to a different land and into unique cultures was a privilege reserved for the wealthy; enter the age of mass tourism and all the benefits and damage that it has brought with it.

Few things are more amusing than tourists that come away from a pre-booked holidays, complaining about the constant badgering from locals to buy things, rude officials that are “just looking for a bribe”, and how beautiful and modern countries like Malaysia are. Chances are, they’ve been unwittingly trapped in the twilight zone known as the ‘tourist hotspot’. These areas are designed to dazzle you with tall buildings and shiny trinkets, while at the same time extract as much money from you as possible. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to most tourists, there are locals living in bamboo huts on the outskirts of Malaysia’s capital who would be more than happy to share what little they have with tourists willing to show them a little respect.

The unfortunate truth is, that all along the Tourist Trail these hotspots spawn micro-economies that are almost solely reliant on the thousands of tourists that pass through each and every day. These areas are full of local people that, if not for the tourist trade, would otherwise be largely living subsistence lifestyles instead of peddling fridge magnets and postcards. While a lot is often written about the benefits that tourism can bring to these communities (often by tourism operators and government tourism boards in a vain attempt at giving themselves a self-serving pat on the back for ‘a job well done’) not much light is ever shed on the damage that mass tourism can bring.

The tourism industry would have everyone believe that the tourist trail is like a giant river of money, available for anyone who lives along its banks to scoop out buckets of cash that will instantly bring impoverished communities into the developed world. The reality however, is that as much as 95% of the money spent by foreign tourists is siphoned away from the host communities, ending up in the pockets of international hotel chains and tour companies, or taken by the local government for future development projects. What’s left is a trickle of economic development; supposed compensation for what often becomes the environmental, economic and socio-cultural destruction of the host community.

As tourist numbers increase, revenue from tourism does contribute to increased household incomes and a reduction in poverty rates, but this benefit is often offset by an increase in the cost of living for locals. As the numbers of tourists increases, demand for commodities, including property, increases proportionally. Combined with the ability of tourists to pay far more for the same goods or services than locals, prices are often driven beyond the reach of many of the residents, as is the case with the xe om (motorcycle taxis) in Hoi An, Vietnam. Nowadays, drivers are unwilling to take local residents at a reduced rate when a tourist is willing to pay more. In the same vein, low-income families have been disempowered by rising property taxes, leading to forced sales of their properties to outside investors from Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi who sell the property on for a profit or convert them into tourist shops.

Slightly more difficult to quantify, is the impact of mass tourism on the socio-cultural landscape of the host nation. Cultural impacts range from loss of traditional land and practices to alteration and debasement of the host culture as it tries to make itself more acceptable to visitors, commercialisation of the local culture to entertain visitors and a decline in traditional arts and crafts as they are replaced with low quality, mass-produced reproductions in order to satisfy the increased demand that mass tourism brings. Only 40 years have passed since Kuta in Bali was a small village, rice paddy fields stretching out towards the ocean, where Balinese women regularly went about their daily chores topless, only a sarong wrapped around their waists. These days there is little to no evidence of a village, the rice paddy fields have been filled in, replaced by a maze of small alleys, tightly packed with gift shops selling mass produced trinkets, boutique hotels, massage parlours and restaurants and bars serving up ‘western’ food at prices 10 times that of the local cuisine. This commodification of religious symbols, cultural goods and practices to make tourists feel at home while abroad not only devalues the significance of Balinese traditional cultural beliefs and identity, but has physically changed the area until its now unrecognisable from other parts of the country that are, as yet, untouched by the tourist trade.

A common complaint from tourists plying the Tourist Trail and its hotspots is being regularly cheated and generally disrespected by locals and authorities alike. This can largely be attributed to friction between host and tourist, usually caused by a lack of sufficient cross-cultural knowledge and understanding of the host country or communities’ culture. If tourists want to be respected, they need to earn it, but watching groups of loud, rude, half-naked, drunk, violent, obnoxious tourists, draped in Bintang singlets wandering along the main street of Kuta, it’s difficult to see how they might achieve that in the near future. These kinds of culturally unacceptable behaviors increase the level of irritation of a host community towards tourists, which can be measured using the strange sounding Doxey’s Irridex (irritation index). Doxey’s Irridex ranges from euphoria at the prospect of new money flowing in, to apathy, when tourists become targets for money making, eventually giving way to annoyance and antagonism as tourist numbers reach saturation levels. The final stage is acceptance, by which time the area has changed beyond recognition, the hosts having long forgotten what life was like before tourism arrived. Ironically, by this stage the original reason for tourists being there has been destroyed. Additionally, this type of behavior also leads to the negative stereotypes such as the Stupid Australian, the Rude Chinese or the Arrogant American.

In other parts of the world local communities have become so disenchanted with the hordes of tourists that come flooding in to take a quick snapshot and leave, that they have started pushing back, demanding that the number of tourists admitted to their part of the world be limited. In 2009 residents of Easter Island blockaded the airport by moving tents and trucks onto the runway, demanding the number of tourists visiting the island be capped, while Venice is discussing similar measures, including the banning of cruise ships to the area.

Fortunately, not every host country is allowing mass tourism to destroy the reasons tourists want to visit in the first place. In Egypt, the tombs of the boy king Tutankhamun and of Queen Nefertiti and Seti have had limitations placed on the number of tourists allowed in after elevated levels of humidity from the breath of visitors led to fungus growing on the walls, damaging both the colour of the murals and the engravings. Meanwhile, Bhutan, a country infamous for its policy of Gross National Happiness in place of Gross Domestic Product, has gone one step further by adopting a policy of ‘high-value, low-volume’ tourism. They not only limit the number tourists allowed into the country annually, but have also made deliberate efforts to spread tourists out over larger areas in an attempt to minimise the negative impacts of tourism, while at the same time aiming for a more equitable distribution of the benefits, such as increased employment.

Tourism doesn’t need to be heavily regulated and controlled for it to produce positive net outcomes though. Benefits such as increased knowledge of the host culture, improved reputation and proliferation of traditional entertainment, arts, crafts, music, cuisine and language are all possible and can all lead to renewed cultural pride within host communities. Additionally, the presence of tourists also has the potential to provide greater facilities to the host communities, such as improved transport and sanitation, as well as boosting heritage protection for ancient architectural and environmental features. With an increasing number of people choosing to travel both locally and internationally by motorcycle, its time we started taking more responsibility for the way in which we interact with local communities too in order to ensure that when the next people roll into town, they will be as welcomed as we are.

Motorcycles offer the opportunity to get as far off the tourist trail as possible which can result in culturally immersive experiences as raw as they are authentic and, with the right attitude, much of the damage caused by mass tourism can be avoided. That’s what this series of articles aims to show; how we as motorcyclists can not only gain a deeper understanding of the people we visit, but also to offer the opportunity to improve the lives of the people whose communities we pass through, which is far more important than getting a photo taken in front of a famous landmark.

Crafted By

Rob Armstrong
Travel Contributor

Australian born, Rob takes a very thoughtful, insightful look at the world. After setting out on a trip to Iceland from his homeland, Rob has, several years on, not yet made it across Asia. His desire to involve himself and engage provides an incredible open view of the world that is rarely presented by mainstream media. He writes the truth he sees with brutal honesty, eloquent words and provides us with beautiful, thought provoking travel literature.

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