Sun, sand…and saving the world?

Jim Butcher's new book urges the New Moral Tourist to take a break.

Josie Appleton

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The American-based Partners in Responsible Tourism has the following advice for would-be travellers:

‘Interact with residents in a culturally appropriate manner…Reflect daily on your experiences and keep a journal…Support the local economy by using locally owned restaurants and hotels, buying local products made by locals from renewable resources…Get permission before photographing people, homes and other sites of importance.’ (1)

A new book, The Moralisation of Tourism: sun, sand…and saving the world?, by Jim Butcher, examines how tourism has become stifled by a moral etiquette. The book is a welcome and thorough critique of the contemporary debate about tourism, exploring how travel – that arena of freedom that is supposed to be about broadening the mind and exploring possibilities – has become weighed down with the cares of the world.

Tourists are derided for destroying the environment and corrupting ‘host cultures’. They are depicted as beer-swilling and sex-seeking masses, trampling over countries and leaving destruction in their wake.

The Spanish Costas are seen as the worst example – where tourism transformed rustic villages into a concrete megalith of nightclubs, hotels and bars. South-East Asian hideaways are now deemed to be suffering the same fate, as paradise islands are colonised by backpacking hordes.

Butcher argues that a new kind of tourist, the ‘New Moral Tourist’, seeks to define him or herself against the mass tourist experience. While the mass tourist sees travel as a consumable product, the New Moral Tourist wants to experience cultural and environmental difference; while the mass tourist is hedonistic and unrestrained, the new tourists are sensitive and self-aware; while mass tourists destroy the environment and unique cultures, moral tourists make an effort to build them up.

Butcher’s aim is to knock this New Moral Tourism off its pedestal. He argues that the new tourism has become ‘a recipe for wariness and personal guilt in an arena traditionally associated with innocence, fun and a footloose and fancy-free attitude’ (p139). He calls for a return of the travelling spirit. ‘Tourism need only be about enjoyment’, he argues. ‘It requires no other justification.’

But rather than just making a call for hedonism and care-freedom, Butcher also analyses the underpinnings of the debate about moral tourism. He traces the long and dishonourable precedent for this kind of sneering at mass tourism. In 1870, Reverend Francis Kilvert commented in his diaries: ‘Of all the noxious animals, the most noxious is a tourist; and of all tourists the most vulgar, ill-bred, offensive and loathsome is the British tourist.’ (p36)

Even Thomas Cook, the Victorian pioneer of travel for the working classes, kept a paternal eye on the behaviour of his charges. On one occasion he complained: ‘To the shame of some rude folk from Lincolnshire, there have been just causes of complaint at Belvoir Castle: some large parties have behaved indecorously…conduct of this sort is abominable, and cannot be too strongly reprobated.’ (p36)

Today’s criticism of tourism contains the same anti-mass prejudice, argues Butcher – but it is very different. While Victorian snobbery was grounded in the self-assurance of the cultured classes, and was clear about the ‘correct’ way that one should behave, today’s moral tourism is vaguer and more self-critical. It is concerned, less with fixed moral codes, than with being anxious and self-aware. The more fraught and reflexive you are about the way you are behaving abroad, the more ‘moral’ you are.

So the New Moral Tourist stands on shifting sands, ready at any moment to be relegated to the unthinking mass. Backpackers to Indonesia and Thailand, who had seen themselves as more sensitive than regular tourists, are now also criticised for being destructive of local environments and cultures.

Butcher unpicks these assumptions about the destructive impact of tourism. The worry about impinging upon nature is often unfounded, he argues – man has always interacted with and changed the natural world. Sure, tourist development of the Spanish Costas cemented over greenery, but it also funded many wide-open spaces, and built up sandy beaches. In practice, there are few real natural limits to development.

And the idea that traditional cultures are contaminated by contact and change locks them into a fixed, pristine state. Cultural exchange between tourists and their hosts becomes a minefield, as the tourist struggles to communicate with people considered to be fundamentally different. But if tourists would just lighten up, says Butcher, they would discover commonalties with their hosts – one of which would be their hosts’ aspiration for travel and Western-style development.

In actual fact, argues Butcher, mass tourism has had many beneficial effects on developing countries. For example, it generates a much-needed $2.5billion in revenue in the Dominican Republic, and 140,000 direct jobs (p133). Of course, the Dominican Republic is not a rich country, but this is less the fault of tourism than of broader problems with the economy. Tourism is neither the cause of third world nations’ problems, nor is it the solution to them.

Even in its own terms, New Moral Tourism is contradictory and unconvincing. So one advocate of culturally sensitive tourism says that it can help to build community pride, enhance a sense of identity and encourage the revival or maintenance of crafts among traditional societies.

But the idea that tourists can help preserve traditional culture is absurd: once ceremonies are performed for Westerners, or crafts are made for sale, it ceases to be ‘traditional culture’. It may look traditional, but it is really culture performed for an audience. Andean peasants and Indonesian highlanders do their versions of tourist kitsch, too.

And because moral tourists are so self-obsessed and self-critical, they haven’t got a chance of really being able to delve deeper into other cultures or appreciate the wilderness of nature.

You cannot learn very much from ‘interacting with residents in a culturally appropriate manner’, as Partners in Responsible Tourism advise: you would be too concerned with your own behaviour to work out what makes a particular culture tick. And the new moral tourists would be far too worried about where they are putting their feet to feel awe at the mountains above them.

Buy The Moralisation of Tourism: sun, sand…and saving the world? by Jim Butcher, Routledge, 2002 from Amazon (UK)

(1) Quoted in The Moralisation of Tourism: sun, sand…and saving the world?, Jim Butcher, Routledge, 2002

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