TCS Daily

The New Moral Tourism

By Alex Standish - August 18, 2004 12:00 AM

A new book by Jim Butcher, The Moralisation of Tourism: Sun, Sand and ...Saving the World, illustrates how a pervasive culture of moral restraint has risen to dominate travel. The book argues that the Mass Tourist seeking sun, sand, sea and sex and is being shunned by the New Moral Tourist who prefers traveling, trekking, and trucking. The New Moral Tourist, writes Butcher, is viewed as a thinking being in search of a deeper travel experience than his/her more frivolous counterpart, perhaps a connection with authentic cultures and a desire to be closer to nature. In contrast, the mass tourist is portrayed as seeking hedonism, isolating himself from local inhabitants behind hotel walls or the lens of a camera. The New Moral Tourist views mass tourism as exploitative of both the natural environment and indigenous culture. There is a growing industry catering for New Moral Tourists under the headings of ecotourism, agrotourism, community tourism and sustainable tourism.

First appearance might suggest that New Moral Tourism is a minority pursuit and therefore why not leave them to it? However, as Butcher aptly notes, the moralization of tourism affects us all. The book illustrates how New Moral Tourism is driven by governments, non-governmental organizations, companies, and reflected in academic and non-academic debates. As such it is a pervasive agenda that finds us all guilty of trashing the planet and trampling over other peoples way of life.

My wife and I had personal experience of this new agenda on an organized tour in Thailand a couple of years back. From the moment we met our western tour leader I sensed that this was not going to be all sightseeing and pleasure. In her schoolmistress demeanor (even though she was barely old enough to be a teacher!) she set about instructing us how we should dress, spend our money, when we could take photographs and how to talk to the local people. This brought conflict on several occasions such as the visit to a tribal village in northern Thailand where I took photographs of women weaving fabrics by hand. Even though the women had indicated that they didn't mind being photographed, this standard was not good enough for our tour leader who considered the act offensive and demeaning. But why should she have a problem with this when the interaction between the host and ourselves was friendly, welcome and enabled us to make a connection with each other?

It is not only high minded western travelers who are suspicious of the freedom of travelers. Tour companies have taken it upon themselves to 'educate' travelers about the need for restraint, to be respectful of local cultures and have a minimal impact upon the local environment and economy. This approach is enshrined in codes of conduct that encourage self-restraint on behalf of the tourist. However, not only are these codes belittling of the intelligence of tourists, they are also disrespectful to their hosts. The presumption behind codes is that tourists cannot deduce for themselves how to act in a foreign country and that hosts cannot communicate to tourists when they are acting out of place. This formalization of what should be an informal relationship creates distance between the tourist and the host as it assumes they cannot interact naturally.

The assumptions of a fragile environment and sensitive cultures are also problematic in and of themselves. It may be true that many primitive cultures have a closer and hence more fragile relationship to nature. But this is because of their limited, or lack of, development. New Moral Tourism, notes Butcher, presents development as detrimental to both indigenous people and their environment, when in fact meaningful economic and social development offers them the potential to transform their relationship with nature into a more stable one improving their quality of life. New Moral Tourism is seeking to preserve these cultures in their traditional and past states. In doing so it presents culture as something static and unchanging denying hosts the creative potential to advance their culture. Ultimately, New Moral Tourism seeks to turn developing world destinations into a museum for westerners who reject their own way of life, instead searching for an elusive authenticity in non-western cultures. However, relativizing the concept of culture into 'cultures' masks inequality between the First and Third World's acquiescing all to the non-development of the latter. New Moral Tourism is thus imposing its own agenda on the South denying them the fruits of First World living in the process.

Ultimately, concludes the book, New Moral Tourism fails to achieve that which it is seeking: a connection with people from distant cultures. If one searches for difference, then that is what one finds. New Moral Tourism is looking for cultures rather than people. So which is the more people-centered approach to travel? One that views tourists as the problem and so seeks to restrain their movement and regulate their behavior or one that celebrates the ability of so many people to move around the planet, to have interactions with people from distant places and have a transformative impact upon less developed countries? I know which one I would prefer and so would our hosts in Thailand, who also thought our tour leader's attitude rather strange.

Alex Standish is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University, New Jersey.


TCS Daily Archives