The forces of globalization in the 21st century have led to vastly improved and increased opportunities for the economic environment and tourist industries of poor countries worldwide. For many, conventional wisdom holds that tourism is the silver bullet that helps poor countries slay the scourge of poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment. Others, less sanguine and optimistic, contend that tourism is at best of marginal help to poor countries and at worst, an aggravating factor to the problems faced by poor countries. The latter view is generally the more salient one, considering that unmet basic needs in poorer countries seldom improve – and may indeed worsen – when their governments erroneously develop the tourist industry despite the huge and unsustainable costs incurred by such moves.

For the proponents of tourism, the sector offers an attractive and lucrative ticket out of poverty for poorer countries struggling to generate employment – the most basic need – for their citizens. Tourism, in the view of its supporters, provides needed jobs in a whole range of service-related industries catering to the needs and consumption of visitors. In economic parlance, tourism also provides means for poorer nations to leverage on their comparative advantages in pristine, unspoilt wilderness and exotic cultural experiences for the highly discerning global traveler. This certainly seems to be the case for poor countries blessed with the appropriate resources, such as Kenya and Chile, known globally for their respective strengths in eco-tourism and cultural tourism. The former attracts thousands of visitors annually to its safaris and the latter, to its wealth of cultural artifacts and world heritage sites such as Macchu Picchu. In turn, these attractions generate employment for Kenyan and Chilean tour guides, hotel staff and domestic flights service providers. Thus, tourism fulfils that most basic need which might otherwise be unfulfilled: income and a means of honest livelihood for the citizens of poorer nations.

Tourism, in the view of its supporters, provides needed jobs in a whole range of service-related industries catering to the needs and consumption of visitors.

Furthermore, the tourist industry also serves to promote a poor country’s potential for economic development and untapped markets to global investors. Here, the argument rests on the fairly sound principle of business profitability and returns on investment. Visitors to a poorer nation, especially the well-heeled ones, will presumably carry news of their enriching experiences in previously unknown countries to their friends, families and multinational corporations in their home countries. In our age of instant connectivity, weblogs and personalized travel reviews on the internet and Facebook, this hope appears to be a distinct rather than far-fetched possibility. Thus, the wonders of being a tourist in far-flung and previously unknown [and undeveloped] nations such as Vietnam, Mauritius and Bali Island in Indonesia have made their rounds worldwide, sparking investors interest in collaborating with the governments of these nations to build the hotels, roads and telecommunications facilities that serve as the lifeblood of the tourist industry. In this way, tourism again provides poorer nations a means of developing the economy. In many cases, the infrastructure and facilities built with foreign currency will also serve the locals’ needs in transportation and communication.

Nevertheless, the arguments for prioritizing tourism over basic needs in poorer nations – or as a means to meeting them – fail to gain traction and fall apart when we consider the many basic needs which remain unfulfilled or are delayed when countries spend unwisely or ineffectively on developing tourism. This is especially the case when governments squander precious and limited resources – natural, financial and human – on tourism. Such resources can arguably be expended more profitably in fulfilling the country’s most basic needs. The land put aside to develop hotels, casinos and strip malls catering to tourists for instance, could arguably be spent on meeting the housing needs of the impoverished population. Situations like this are fairly common in poorer nations run by governments with misplaced priorities and many of us would be familiar with the Dickensian irony found in cities such as Manila and Rio De Janeiro – well known for their skylines and urban landscapes juxtaposing expensive five-star hotels alongside the poverty and residents of Smokey Mountain and crime-ridden favelas. Hence, it appears that governments which develop tourism while blatantly ignoring their citizens’ immediate and existential needs are engaged in the worst form of moral duplicity, as their poor are subjected to the indignity and injustice of observing but never participating in the rich and free-spending lives of consumption that the tourists next door engage in.

The land put aside to develop hotels, casinos and strip malls catering to tourists for instance, could arguably be spent on meeting the housing needs of the impoverished population.

An additional complication that the tourist industry brings to poor and undeveloped countries is the distinct possibility of exploitation of the poor, the indigent and the vulnerable. Contrary to our rose-tinted and oft-times naïve picture of the industry, tourism is often the source of many illicit and illegal activities in poor countries. The issue of the sex-tourist industry in undeveloped countries such as Cambodia, Burma and the Philippines is particularly tragic. Studies by the United Nations, international human-rights groups and criminologists estimate that the sex tourism industry in these three countries alone is responsible for the trafficking, bondage and sexual exploitation of over 20,000 young girls and women annually. Paedophiles and sex-tourists from the more developed countries of the West – and in recent years Asian countries – routinely visit such countries to procure sexual services – often of the coerced nature – from Cambodian, Burmese and Filipino girls tricked and trapped into lives of sexual bondage and slavery in brothels. Furthermore, the lax and often corrupt law enforcement agencies of these sex-trafficking hubs often mean that the victimizers are seldom caught, hence perpetuating the cycle of exploitation for future generations of vulnerable citizens. Again, while the governments of poor countries may not be fully responsible for such exploitation, we can see that a failure to regulate the tourist industry is often the basis for its subversion by the criminal organizations and trafficking syndicates that circle perpetually like vultures around the sick and weakened legal landscapes of poorer nations. Such countries would arguably be better off if they devote resources first and foremost to combating crime and the perpetrators of exploitation.

Thus, the tourist industry, for all its vaunted potential and glamour, may unfortunately be an unaffordable developmental luxury for poorer nations faced with more pressing economic and internal law-and-order challenges. The eternal optimist in us may be inclined towards developing tourism as an antidote to the poison of unmet developmental needs in poor countries. The vigilant realist in us will however consider the many unacceptable trade-offs and social and human costs incurred in prioritizing tourism over basic needs. In a world driven increasingly by the imperatives of equitability and justice for the poor, poor nations must first and foremost meet the pressing and immediate needs of their citizens and resist the temptation to develop the tourist industry heedlessly. It is only by doing so that tourism can fulfill its role as an enhancer of culture and human experience rather than being degraded into a byword for injustice and infamy.   

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