It is time to end extractive tourism

The pandemic presents us with a great opportunity to do away with the destructive mass tourism industry.

In 2018, Thailand closed Maya Bay to tourists indefinitely until its ecosystem returns to its full condition [AP/Sakchai Lalit]

As we draw closer to the anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, many are hopeful that the vaccine roll-out will help us return to our pre-pandemic “normal”. For a certain privileged group of people, this would mean getting back the “freedom” to travel anywhere they want.

Indeed, their perceived “right” to holiday in far-away places where tourists are provided with all comforts and freedoms to do as they please has become almost sacrosanct. This has as much to do with privilege, as it has with the way capitalism exploits labour.

As wages remain stagnant, productivity demands increase and working hours get longer, capitalist societies are creating a middle class that sees tourism as a form of momentary escape from its stressful reality.

Capitalist forces have convinced the increasingly overworked middle-class labour force in the West and elsewhere that to “relax”, it needs a vacation abroad with all comforts provided. As a result, it is willing to pay significant sums of money to be mass transported south and east to enjoy a week of leisure at the expense of local communities who suffer from the abuse of their land and resources by tourism corporations and their local partners.

Quite literally, whole relationships between people, and between people and nature are shaped by the need to allow the paying tourist customer to do and be whatever they desire. It is a vicious circle where capitalist labour exploitation, consumerism and wealth extraction work to produce an incredibly destructive kind of mass tourism.

If there was ever a time to reconsider the tourism industry, it would be now. The COVID-19 pandemic offers us the unique opportunity to reflect on the ugly reality behind our exotic vacations and break the cycle of exploitation. This would take not only reforming the tourist industry but also overhauling our labour systems.

The many harms of extractive tourism

The tourism industry, and the governments that welcome foreign revenue, thrive on the argument that local livelihoods depend on tourism and insinuate that millions of people will be reduced to abject poverty without it. But a closer examination of how large-scale tourism clusters function reveals who the true winners and losers of mass tourism are.

Like a gold rush to the latest discovery of untapped ores, a panoply of hotel chains, foreign tour operators, online booking agencies, airlines, real estate speculators and multinational construction companies quickly rush to capitalise on any curiosity that a visitor might have towards any site of historical or natural value.

Examples of attraction sites becoming mining pits for an extractive tourism industry abound. The historical centres of cities like Amsterdam, Marrakech, Barcelona, Krakow, Yogyakarta, Cusco and Kyoto have turned into giant open-air museums, overwhelmed by crowds of tourists flocking to kitsch souvenir shops, cheap hotels and fast-food restaurants. Many long-time residents of these cities have been forced out of their homes and urban communities due to rising property values and tourism-induced gentrification. Those who remain suffer from the enormous strain that the crowds of tourists put on the local infrastructure.

Elsewhere, rare and beautiful landscapes of natural or cultural heritage like the beaches of Thailand, wildlife hotspots like the Maasai Mara in Kenya, or the historical site of Machu Picchu in Peru are depopulated, fenced off through preservation laws, and repopulated with a globalised architecture of tour agencies, airline companies, and agribusiness-controlled supply chains and their local subsidiaries required to funnel people to the valued sites as quickly and as comfortably as possible.

Government officials acquiesce to mega-tourism projects due to large kickbacks and pass regulations to facilitate them under the promises of economic growth. These actions all too often supersede the sovereignty of communities in terms of their traditions and historical relations to sites of historical or natural significance. As a result, local people often lose control of their land and community development and see little benefit from employment in exploitative low-paying jobs with long hours and minimal or no provision of social benefits.

Instead, most of the wealth extracted from the tourist “mine site” flows into multinational conglomerates which own travel agencies, hotels, airlines, cruise ships and even local commercial retail shops and whose tentacles extend to major tourist hotspots across the world.

Pandemic inequality

The more wealth and power large multinationals amass, the less accountability they face not only for labour exploitation, but also for the massive environmental damage they cause in the form of a high carbon footprint, water contamination and overuse, deforestation and coastal destruction. Tourism accounts for eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions or around 4.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.

The pandemic has already triggered wide-ranging public conversation about Green New Deals, divestment from fossil fuels and just green transitions. It offers a rare and profound opportunity for rethinking whole sectors of the economy, from healthcare to education and agriculture, to undo and rechart how they operate given the perverse inequalities that the pandemic has exposed.

But for the tourism industry, as one of the world’s largest economic sectors, time is running short to make such profound changes. As wealthy Westerners get vaccinated first and are convinced by flawed “win-win” narratives of relieving their “travel itch” and at the same time supporting struggling tourism enterprises, old and new forms of inequality will quickly get entrenched.

In countries that will likely receive and distribute vaccines much later, a new form of “vaccine apartheid” is set to emerge. Privileged vaccinated tourists will feel safe enough to travel to these countries but will still pose a risk to local people, as vaccines are not known to prevent inoculated individuals from transmitting the virus. Unvaccinated local workers would be forced by financial need to take up exploitative jobs in the tourism sector to service foreigners and thus face the risk of contracting COVID-19, continuing to circulate the virus within working-class communities in the South.

Until a significant proportion of the global population is vaccinated, considerable precautionary measures are required to protect the labour force in tourist hotspots. However, governments eager to restart the engines of the tourism industry and cash-strapped families may not see this as a priority.

Thus, the return to “normal” in the tourism sector does not only mean a return to the old exploitative and extractive practices but also poses a deadly prospect for the struggling host communities.

Labour and cultural sovereignty

So what can we do to stop the extractive tourism industry from worsening the effects of the pandemic? We can act to curb the demand for escapist mass tourism and give control over historical and natural sites back to the communities they belong to.

We should follow the example of social movements like La Vía Campesina, which are calling for food sovereignty, demanding that food production be controlled through democratic processes by those who directly work the land. Likewise, we should call for sovereignty in labour and leisure.

We have to break the vicious cycle of labour exploitation that forces the middle classes of more privileged countries to seek relief through cheap, mass tourism. For that to happen, workers have to collectively determine what level of productivity is deemed humane and acceptable. Labour sovereignty implies that workers take control over their own productivity, which has to be a fundamental part of an economy that prioritises regeneration and repair over growth.

The current pandemic is a great opportunity to translate increased efficiencies from transitions to virtual working environments in certain sectors into more leisure time for workers. It is also the time to challenge abusive practices in the tourist industry to ensure someone’s leisure does not translate into someone else’s exploitation.

To protect workers from host communities, we also have to advocate for cultural sovereignty in the tourism sector. This requires that the communities adjacent to sites of cultural heritage or natural beauty have the autonomy to collectively and democratically determine how to manage these special places. Tourism can remain an important source of revenue for these communities, but control over how it is developed and regulated has to remain in their hands.

Cultural sovereignty implies a tourism industry that does not sell tradition, heritage or natural beauty to the highest bidding multinational conglomerate, regardless of whether they masquerade as promoting “ecotourism” or not. Instead, it prioritises equitable and just distribution of benefits from tourism and minimises negative impacts of tourist activity.

The labour and cultural sovereignties have to go hand in hand with shifting the global culture of consumption towards a recognition of sufficiency or “enoughness” that helps avoid the destructive trajectory of pre-pandemic life.

Ultimately, addressing the damage of global mass tourism requires taking stricter climate action against the aviation industry and encouraging more domestic and regional leisure travel. Introducing more fuel-efficient aeroplanes would simply reduce costs and increase demand. The urgency required to scale back emissions before 2030 means flying has to be phased out. The pandemic grounded flights; responding to climate change demands the same.

The post-pandemic world must continue to keep air travel reserved for essential purposes, such as family reunification and repatriation. This is the only way to transition to a post-pandemic tourism sector that makes a serious effort to meet commitments to the Paris Agreement’s goals.

These different forms of affording sovereignty around the tourism sector offer a clear strategy to rethink travel in a post-pandemic world and to prevent the reproduction of new injustices in light of the coming “vaccine apartheid”. They build upon the unique moment that the pandemic has offered to structurally transform the tourism industry in a way that puts the autonomy of all workers first in demanding culturally sensitive, climate responsible, and equitable and manageable working conditions.

Together these strategies disincentivise the “work hard, play hard” mantra of capital that is ultimately a zero-sum game, generating enormous inequality and leading us to a destructive future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.