Does Tourism Bring People Together?
It is often said that tourism has the power or maybe the possibility to bring people together. Amongst its supposed positive attributes are visitors learning about and learning to accept, even embrace, other cultures. Tourism often prides itself, at least in New Zealand, in showcasing indigenous culture, in our case Maori, as wells as natural wonders and often contributing to the enhancement or protection of those natural ecosystems.
But is the effect of tourism clearly positive in any of these areas?
I think it is clear that the effect of tourism on natural environments, local communities and publicly funded infrastructure in New Zealand is a fairly mixed bag. The effects on communities, ecosystems, and infrastructure in many overseas countries, those with a less robust consenting and monitoring framework, are much worse.
The welcoming and embracing of visitors – manaakitanga – in its purest form is a wonderful thing. In my experience, it can lead to increased understanding between people of different cultures and backgrounds. It can open our eyes to new possibilities and ways of seeing things. It is a positive force for change and understanding.
This same positiveness can be said for time spent in natural ecosystems – the great outdoors. A keen appreciation can be gained of the effects of human activity on fragile natural areas, and the wonders those places hold. Not only that, but a great deal of research now says that time spent in nature is good for our health.
These types of highly appreciative experiences can be deeply personal, and even life-changing. I am doubtful however that this type of deep insight is possible in a mass type situation.
Massive Impacts from Cruise Ships
For instance, what do our fragile natural ecosystems gain from visiting cruise ships? According to some recent research, these behemoths of the sea each have an environmental footprint greater than 1 million cars. I need to repeat that. An environmental footprint greater than 1 million cars!
The short time they spend in each port gives some employment to locals and sales to retailers, but the sheer number of people on each ship can overwhelm small communities. Take Akaroa for instance where locals no longer visit the town when a cruise ship is docked in port. Also, cruise ship companies are now buying retail outlets in ports of call so they can maximise the take from their passengers. Where is the positive change, the learning about and embracing of other cultures, the respect for natural ecosystems in this type of mass tourism?
And yet many in our tourism industry views this type of mass tourism as in some way desirable. Even to the extent of spending millions on more infrastructure so we can have more of the same. Is this really what New Zealanders want?
Talking to New Zealanders
We recently had some guests, New Zealanders, staying a few days ago. They brought up the subject of Queenstown which they had visited just a few weeks before. It had been a few years since they had last stayed there, and they would never stay there again. The reason?
The reason they said was that the resort town no longer felt as if you were in New Zealand. You could spend all day there and not meet a fellow New Zealander. Other than the scenery there was little there that said you were in this country. So much for experiencing another culture.
An article was in a recent Stuff news feed. Three New Zealand journalists had been arrested for trying to obtain information about a new resort in Fiji’s tourism jewel, the Mamanucas. Environmentalists and local villagers were aghast at the dumped waste, the blocking of access to local landowners and disturbance to fisheries. The Chinese owned development company also had blasted a channel through the reef. All this without even bothering to get consents!
What possible benefit will this type of resort, once completed, offer to the local community other than a few low paid jobs?
These types of developments are happening throughout the Pacific and South East Asia.
The Trajectory Bodes Ill
Tourism can be a force for positive change, but it seems to me that the trajectory the industry is currently on will only lead to increasing environmental degradation and alienation of local communities. The profits will inevitably end up with some large offshore corporate with little remaining, even in the form of tax collected, in the host country.
The story of tourism is like most things in economics and life — neither positive nor negative, rather some shade of grey. Potentially a force for good, but on present trends of mass tourism, more likely a force for ill.