Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tourism in the developing world- beneficial or exploitative OR both?

Response to Josh Ruxin

It is quite an interesting article. However, I have several qualms and reservations.

Unfortunately, Ruxin makes a very common mistake we see over and over again with people who do development and international work. He is quick to generalize the Mayange experience and success story. If one looks hard enough, one can always find exceptional examples of success cases to illustrate whatever opinions one has, however deeply flawed those opinions are.

It is true that the Mayange people may have experienced a dramatic improvement in their lives as a direct result of opening up their village to tourism; this outcome is perfect and very welcome. But, can we 'learn' from the Mayange example and open up all villages to tourism? Are there some villages that would have very similar improvements as the Mayange? Certainly! But will all villages have such an outcome? What about the myriad of other things that are intrinsic to the Mayange that may have contributed to their success?

Ruxin rightly (wittingly or not) mentioned several elements that led to the Mayange success-- formation of cooperative, grass-root involvement of the villagers, good organizational structure, and reputable and transparent partners (Millennium Villages Project) to name a few. From my travels on the African continent, I think the Mayange example is a rarity and an exception. Many-a-villages in Africa are open to tourism, but with little to none of the crucial elements I listed above. The lodges and tours are routinely run by African elites and foreigners, not by the villagers. The villagers rarely have much of a say in any of the process, and very little of the money trickles down to the actual villagers, whose lives are being paraded. The story I hear numerous times is that the local chieftain gets a cut of the revenue, while the rest of the village remains in squalor. A documentary from a couple of years ago, Milking the Rhino, shows a contrast of different extremes of approaches to tourism.

I think tourism in villages is permissible under the right circumstances. Unfortunately, the ‘right circumstances’ are rare. Many visitors do not take the time or effort to seek out places like Mayange. Too many western visitors simply want to check off the “visited an African village” and “experienced the naked bush men” boxes on their ‘bucket-list’. On average, I think much of the tourism revenue makes a fraction of the impact in other villages as it has in Mayange.

Another fallacy Ruxin’s article propagates is that the presence of benefits obviates the possibility of exploitation. I will cite a few examples. A child laborer may be paid some money for their work (monetary and economic benefits to the child and family), but child labor is deemed exploitative. Trafficked sex workers may be given money or promised citizenship by their handlers, but we consider them as being exploited. In the same way, the improved economic standing of Mayange does not equate to the absence of exploitation. The more relevant questions are- “What is the cost to the Mayange people?” “Are they fully aware of the costs and benefits?” “Are they willing (without coercion) to trade these costs for the benefits?” Limiting the discussion merely to economic benefits misses the point.

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