Who actually benefits?

Backpacking in Mexico; volunteering in India; surfing in South Africa; relaxing in Thailand – the current generation is travelling a lot and preferably in regions far away, on the other side of the globe. You can learn languages, gain “intercultural competence“, meet interesting people. Back at home the travellers draw on the experiences they gained and tell their family and friends of the fantastic beaches and the great hospitality. But isn’t it weird to travel around the world while the majority of the global population isn’t able to get neither a flight ticket nor a visa? Doesn’t tourism in the Global South* rather stand for a neocolonial age than for liberty and borderless mobility?

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

„Travel to Egypt, then you help the economy,“ was the general consensus in the last year at the International Tourism Fair (ITB) in Berlin. After the mass demonstrations at Cairo’s Tahrir square tourism in Egypt has fallen by around 80 %. After one year the loss lies at around 30 %. With the fall of President Mohammed Mursi and the current conflicts the number of visitors declined once again. The former minister of tourism, Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, commented in a press statement that the government has to give work to 800,000 young people: “It cannot give up on holidaymakers”. The tourism industry is one of the biggest economic sectors in the world and produces 9 % of the global GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Almost 9 % of the world population is employed in this branch. For countries in the Global South, which are struggling with high unemployment and a weak economy, tourism especially is often the most important pillar of the local economy. So far so good. Wouldn’t that mean that travelling is a good thing? Travellers boost the economy. Yet this is not the whole story. International tourism also triggers strong dependencies between usually poor countries hosting tourists from the wealthy Global North. In such a system of interdependency, political changes and natural disasters can quickly cause a catastrophy: When tourists suddenly stay at home, the touristic infrastructure is no longer used and people are losing their jobs.

And the ecological footprint?

What is a benefit for some might be harmful for others. Cheap flight tickets and economic wealth make distances appear shorter and remote places more accessible. 9 hours from London to New Delhi. 13 hours from Paris to Johannesburg. 14 hours from Berlin to Mexico City. Thanks to the progress in aviation it is worth travelling to countries on the other side of the globe for just two weeks of vacation. But while global air traffic is increasing every year, only 5 % of the worldwide population has ever seen a plane from the inside. And the mobile elite who are jetting around usually come from the Global North.

Besides this unequal use of air transport the ecological impact of the highly mobile lifestyle of a minority is huge: Of all transport vehicles, the plane is the one with the highest emission of CO2. But it is mainly the population of the Global South that bears the consequences of the resultant changes in climate and shoulders the subsequent negative environmental impacts. In these so-called “emerging and developing countries” a significant part of the population make their living through agriculture and are therefore particularly vulnerable to changes in climate conditions. Due to the rise of the sea level, the increasing aridity and droughts the living environment of many people is threatened. In addition to air travel, tourism produces many other negative side effects. One of them is the higher water consumption and the destruction of nature through the construction of big hotel complexes and leisure areas such as golf courses.

But why does the number of people who are travelling the world by plane remain so low? Being mobile is also linked to the availability of financial resources and questions of citizenship. With a passport from an EU member state you get access to almost every country in the world. At the same time, the European Union is toughening its borders –  especially towards migrants from African states. Depending on the country of origin, one person may move freely around the world while another is immobile in the face of restrictive border regimes and migration policies.

Long-distance tourism as „postcolonial travelling“

Most of those countries of the Global South usually toured today were colonized for centuries. The invasion of the Europeans in the contemporary America at the end of the 15th century was the beginning of occupation and exploitation. At the beginning of the 19th century, 85 % of the world was occupied by Europeans. The influence on politics, the economy and the colonized societies was immense. Today, most of these countries are officially independent. But the old power relations are still visible: they are inscribed in economic, legal and administrative links to the former colonial powers as well as in official languages, education systems and religious orientations. This is why long-distance tourism is a sort of „postcolonial travelling“, says Karlheinz Wöhler, a tourism researcher at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg, in one of his articles. According to him, long-distance tourism is the “occupation” of spaces that have been colonialized before and where tourists regard the population as people who are still living in past times. This means that when people of the Global North travel, they often search for the exotic other, the different, the contrast, in order to escape their everyday life, but also to discover themselves. They are searching for a new perspective on life. In this moment it is convenient to divide the globus in a progressive, modern and a non-developed, culturally outdated world.

When tourists move, for example, through the impressive old medinas of Moroccos’ royal cities they meet craftsmen, musicians and covered women; tourists often see them through the lens of an “Orient”. They discover a traditional, ancient, and colourful country recalling pictures of “1001 nights”. The Moroccan middle class families where both parents work, where the kids speak several languages and go to private schools in preparation for their studies abroad do not exist on such an “oriental” journey. Neither do the students and activists who are fighting for better education, for equality between women and men, or freedom of expression. Such success often remains unseen. These people do not fit into the image of a country that should be different and reactionary in comparison to their own life world.

At a conference in Tangier in Morocco in February of this year the political scientist Hamed Abdel-Samad said that Egypt really needs tourism. But not the tourists who keep driving the highway of prejudices, needed were those who get into real exchange with people. Global tourism offers a unique opportunity to bring people from different regions and backgrounds together. To make use of it, realizing the own privilege and responsibility is a first step. Watching further over the own footprint is even better. There is often an alternative to the long-haul journey. Is it really necessary to travel around the globe to have some nice moments and to relax? A trip in the mountains or to the sea just next to you might serve the same purpose. Perhaps at the end a lot of more people could benefit.


* The term Global South describes a position which is socially, politically and economically disadvantaged in the global system. Global North means a privileged position. The division refers to different experiences with colonialism and exploitation. This concept is not just used on a geographical level,  but also in the sense of hierarchies within a country (e.g. Aborigenes in Australie or illegalized people in Europe). Thereby judgemental terms like „non-developed countries“ or „Third World“ can be avoided (see further: glokal e.V.).


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