No, tourism is not an act of ‘white privilege’

Why identity miserabilists hate holidaymaking.

Jim Butcher

Topics Politics

During their first week of university, freshers are bombarded with opportunities to travel to try to make the world a better place. Adverts for ‘volunteer tourism’ can be seen across campuses. Numerous companies and NGOs offer holidays with a mission: the chance to build schools, teach children and conserve nature, all while getting to see a new country and culture.

However, this trend for combining travelling with caring is increasingly looked upon as a new kind of colonial arrogance. Earlier this year, the Scottish actress Louise Linton faced great criticism when she published her memoir In Congo’s Shadow, in which she recounted her experiences as a 19-year-old volunteer tourist ‘helping some of the world’s poorest people’. She claims to have fled armed rebels in Zambia: a claim contested by her detractors. They accuse her of placing herself and her privilege at the centre of her memoir, and in the process falling back on and reinforcing colonial assumptions about Africa.

It is hard to disagree that the memoir relies on cliché and is devoid of serious analysis of central Africa. Linton recalls: ‘I try to remember a smiling, gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola.’ When the memoir was published she was subject to a vicious trial by Twitter, accompanied by hashtags such as #LintonLies and #WhitePrivilege. The story snowballed globally. Linton eventually apologised, had the book removed from sale, and deleted her online accounts.

Volunteer tourism is continually catching flak. Earlier this year, a satirical Instagram account, Barbie Saviour, was set up, featuring posed Barbie dolls alongside the objects of their care – usually African children. Accompanying captions present such ‘white saviour’ tourists as naive, self-obsessed and indulging in neo-colonial fantasies. The account says: ‘It’s not about me… but it kind of is.’ Barbie Saviour gained international notoriety; BBC News referred to it as ‘a modern version of Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”’.

In the past, it was package holidaymakers whose tourism was said to constitute a new kind of colonialism. Now the misanthropy of that charge has caught up with those who once have made it – people who partake in ethical, niche tourism, which has traditionally contrasted itself against damaging and thoughtless ‘mass’ holidays. Today, all leisure travel, from a week bronzing on a beach to a holiday with a mission, finds itself in the frame.

It feels tempting to go along with the criticism of volunteer tourism, especially given the way some of its marketing sneers at other holidaymakers for apparently being unthinking and unethical. There is certainly a critique to be made of the ethical tourist’s elevation of Western benevolence over the capacity of people in the developing world to build their own schools and dig their own latrines. The idea that such tourism contributes to development is untenable, to say the least.

However, any accusation that tourism is colonialism, or even imperialism, is simply wrong, and often carries with it some patronising and limiting assumptions of its own. Jost Krippendorf’s influential book The Holiday Makers: The Impact of Leisure Travel says tourism always has a colonial character, ‘everywhere and without exception’. Dennison Nash, grandee of the anthropology of tourism, says the ‘North American vacationer who insists on fast-food hamburgers, coffee with his meal, hot running water in his bedroom and the use of the English language’ is part of a systematic Western domination of the Third World. Another analysis argues that independent travel is ‘embedded in the implicit hierarchies of colonialism’.

In The Final Call: Investigating Who Really Pays for Our Holidays, Leo Hickman likens Tallinn’s budget airline tourists to the Nazi and Soviet invaders of Estonia. The popular university text Tourism: A Modern Synthesis suggests tourists have ‘superseded the armies of the colonial powers’.

Today, the critique of tourism has become bound up with the idea of ‘white privilege’ – a lingering white outlook that is apparently having a destructive impact on Western society and the world. Brooklyn-based travel writer Bani Amor champions the new identity politics behind the critique of tourism on her popular blog, ‘Everywhere All The Time’. She says tourism fits into an old colonial narrative: ‘The sad state of the savage Other necessitates civilising via white/Western intervention, which maintains dominion over resources that sometimes trickle down to the needy via acts of charity.’

Amor continues: ‘All-inclusive resorts, slum tours, and white-saviour cruise ships (yes, this is a thing) are just some examples of practices with noted records of colonial fuckery.’ She rejects the idea that holidays are about fun and freedom: ‘When we deny [tourism’s] political implications, we re-establish it as a tool of coloniality and become complicit in its oppressive chain.’

So for Amor, the traveller and his hosts are defined by their identities. Not by political identities, by their take on the world and its problems. No, they are defined by their allegedly fixed cultural identities, which are apparently firmly rooted in blood (‘white’) and soil (‘Western’). Assigning people these qualities is far from radical. In fact, the anti-tourism brigade’s obsession with cultures – always plural, rooted in tradition – has far more in common with past justifications for colonialism than any clichéd memoir or package holiday does.

The politics of ‘white privilege’ presents human freedom as a zero sum game. The freedom of the tourist is the unfreedom of the host. For Amor, tourism ‘grants some of us the privilege of leisure, but it does so at the expense of other, more vulnerable communities, cultures and environments.’ This implicitly calls into question the possibility of expanding the freedoms of some to all: the very aspiration that informed anti-colonialism in the past.

Attempts to ‘decolonise’ travel are really about promoting a new etiquette, one which seeks to police the cultural and imaginative boundaries between individuals and nations. But the very thrill of travel is to confront new cultures, people and situations, openly and frankly, and to judge and think for yourself about what you encounter, and to make friends and mistakes. Experiencing other cultures and societies is valuable precisely because it allows people to explore, judge and adopt or reject ideas and ways of life. To regard yourself as a walking expression of ‘white privilege’, and others as automatically and forever ‘vulnerable’, creates barriers that inhibit the free interaction between peoples that makes travel such an enlightening and, yes, fun experience.

Tourism does not need to be decolonised because tourists never colonised anything. Decrying volunteers or sun-seekers as purveyors of a new cultural colonialism betrays a nasty view of tourists and a dim view of host societies. Strip away the oversensitivity to colour and tradition, strip away the etiquette, trust your instincts, and rediscover the thrill of travelling without a mission. And if you’re contemplating tourism, then remember, to paraphrase Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums, that the world is a big glowing page, and you can do anything you want.

Jim Butcher is a lecturer and the author of a number of books and articles on the sociology of travel, most recently Volunteer Tourism: The Lifestyle Politics of International Development, co-authored with Pete Smith. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Politics


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