Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tourism: For Better or For Worse

Like all engaging polemics, it´s a toughy!

Personally, I love travelling, to weave on and off the beaten track - there´s nothing like a tourist hell hole to remind you how lucky you are to discover little visited places! I am sure that I spend more on tourism than any other non-essential luxury, without doubt. Afterall, I have to admit at this point that in a month´s time we´re going to the other side of the world for a quantity of money that could easily buy a second hand car. But having said that, when we bought our car three years ago I was thinking how many times around the world that money could have taken us instead!

How did I get on to this one? Well as we were cyber travelling via google earth, trying to find the long awaited (nearly 7 years!) intercontinental destination, we flitted from one amazing place to another... the choice apparently endless. Personal recommendation is always a winner, and many of our friends in the UK and France are big travellers. One recommendation came from closer to home, a colleague here in Spain: Birmania. My response was ¿where? It turns out to be the Spanish for Burma. My second response was, "no way, you must be joking!" Antoine´s response "why on earth not?"...

Irresistibly for: practically untouched by tourism, preserved from development, the valley of a thousand temples, on top of all the typical beauty of Southeast Asia (it lies next to Thailand and Laos).
Unquestioningly against: military dictatorship, repression of peaceful political dissidents (who can be held in jail for up to 65 years) .
Not to forget: Burma suffered a terrible natural disaster in May this year when Cyclone Nargis hit, a human disaster with 80,000-100,000,000 dead and 1.5-3 million displaced and a political disaster as the government refused to allow aid workers into the areas worst hit (jailing a Burmese comedian for 45 years for raising funds to help victims).

Being in a phase of activism I tracked back to a facebook group supporting the Burmese Monks which a friend had sent me, and I started to do a little more research. The main sites are The Burma Campaign UK and the US Campaign for Burma and the Avaaz campaign (directing Aid through monks instead of barred aid organisations). There has been a call to boycott Total oil company whose business with the military Junta brings in significant revenues, $450 million a year, and also a call to put pressure on Lloyds of London to reveal which companies provide insurance to Burma. Additionally, the Nobel Laureate and democratically elected leader of Burma, Aun Sang Suu Kyi, has requested tourists boycott Burma. Why tourism? There´s a 10% tax that goes straight to the Junta and the airport and many government controlled hotels have been built on forced labour (minimum working age 13 years old).

Here I thought as a potential tourist, I could make my point. On the Burma Campaign UK site they have a clean list (of companies who have withdrawn their supply chain from Burma) and a dirty list (of companies that continue to operate and profit from these operations, thereby financially supporting the Military Junta). My action was to take the email addresses of tourism operators in Burma and write them an email explaining my position as an ethical consumer. It was the start of some interesting correspondence, some of the responses were extremely rapid (I´m certainly not the first to write to them on this subject), some were detailed, some well thought out and another rude!

The most carefully considered responses claimed that a consequence of tourism is grass roots investment when money goes straight from the hands of the generally wealthy tourist (it´s not typically a budget traveller destination) into the hands of the really poor, and very grateful Burmese. I also had a conversation with a friend here in Spain. He felt that the relationship between tourism and positive change was no small thing and there was something to be said in defence. Under Franco´s dictatorship Spain had been gradually opened up to tourism, the Costa Brava being one of the early package tour destinations. He claimed that this increased political pressure on Spain as tourism brought a cultural concern for the country and people by outsiders who had visited as tourists. Clearly here in Spain tourism has become a major source of employment and income, Barcelona being no exception over the last 15 years!

Later on, reflecting on this it reminded me how my grandad (who had wanted to join the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, but didn´t have enough money to get to Paris to enlist) always said he wouldn´t visit Spain until Franco had gone (which he did, visiting Granada, and Benidorm!). Maybe it´s a family thing!

So I left this conundrum to settle a little while, until a showdown in a book shop.

to be continued....

So, where does this conundrum leave us?

1 comment:

oliviaharis said...

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