Australian surfers used to visit Bali before it emerged on the tourist trail; if anyone asked them where they were going they would just say ‘away’. They knew that it was a slice of paradise that needed to be protected, an Eden that must be kept free of snakes, because the secret escaping would represent opening a Pandora’s box of bulldozers, high-rises and cultural subsumption. Travelling around South East Asia, and in fact most of the world, you can’t help but feel that they were on to something.
Tourist development should be a financial boon for a country, a monetary shot in the arm that allows the indigenous culture and custom to grow homogeneously. It should function as a catalyst for positive growth and development and the expansion of the host culture, an extension built on the house in the fashion that it has always been styled in. But invariably, it is not. All too often it is an almighty Intercontinental or Nag’s Head thrown onto hallowed ground that desecrates the landscape, stealing its light and resources and altering it irrevocably. And there is not even a pay-off for this macabre evolution; all the wealth and prosperity are siphoned off and away from those who should receive it, and end up in the pockets of people who wouldn’t care less if the indigenous population were ethnically cleansed as long as they continued to receive their pound of flesh.
There is a biting irony to the paradox of rampant tourist development. Developers and investors take what attracted people to a country in the first place, and then mutilate it, subvert it, and sanitise it. They put linguistic, culinary and literal walls up between visitors and locals and transplant a virulent outside culture onto a host that is incapable of fighting the virus. Like a plague, it spreads. Coastlines are eaten up by multinational chains who parasitically consume the goodness of their hosts whilst slowly destroying them. Traditional recipes, often the product of intricate and complex histories, get watered down, or worse, sneered at and replaced with fast food and chain restaurants. Like the cuckoo’s egg that hatches in the nest despite having no place there, the tourist traps are bigger, louder and hungrier than the existing cultures, who buckle under the pressure of satisfying the bastard children who ultimately don’t belong there.
People who have been attracted to a country because of say, its landscape, then become complicit in that landscape’s destruction. They take what they saw as potential in the country and then slaughter it, pluck it, reconstitute it and flush it with ammonia. Now it’s ready for outside consumption. Those who were looking for adventure off the beaten path, and in untrodden wildernesses bemoan the lack of paved roads or the basicness of transportation and accommodation. Wouldn’t it be really nice here if everybody lived exactly like us? The arrogance of Western tourists who believe that they have gotten it all right is both patronising and short-sighted. To plant autobahns through unspoilt mountain ranges, to build a five-star hotel where it will ruin the view for everyone but hotel guests, to open restaurants that offer bastardised versions of Western favourites, these are the cancers that distort and warp the fragile body that was perfect as it was.
More often than not, rapacious development acts like botched cosmetic surgery. The face of the country is altered irretrievably in order to concur with external perceptions of beauty; the recipient of the surgery is left hollow and soulless, palatable to the strangers gawking at them but a nightmarish visage to both those who knew and loved them, and of course to themselves. For it is rarely locals who benefit from the arrival of development.
Take Siem Reap as an example. The gateway to Angkor Wat – one of the greatest relics of the ancient world – has become a nightmarish circus. Korean and Chinese tourists, afraid of local food, afraid of an alien culture, suspicious of outsiders, have built gigantic hotels that house only their own kind. Apart from the unavoidable inconvenience of the premises being on Cambodian soil, there is nothing Cambodian about them in any way. The owners are foreign, the staff are foreign, the food is foreign, the guides are foreign, even the bus companies that ferry them around Angkor are Korean or Chinese. The only money that gets pumped back into the community is through the mandatory entry fees to the site itself. The Chinese and Korean developers and tour operators are little more than wealthy pimps whoring out a body that doesn’t belong to them, possessing it in its entirety and taking every penny made from its exploitation. The vast majority of the locals despise them, having only slightly more time for the Westerners because at least they drink at their bars, eat their food and use Khmer guides.
The upshot of this is desperation, resentment and a growing cynicism within the recipient culture. A white, or far-eastern tourist becomes no longer a person to talk to, a gateway to understanding a different part of the world, a friendship or interesting conversation waiting to happen; they are a walking dollar sign. Nobody who visits gets behind the curtain of the local culture, because every interaction is merely a precursor to a business transaction. And in a cycle of reciprocal mistrust the tourists then become cynical, perceiving any warmness, friendliness or helpfulness as insincere and duplicitous facades masking the avaricious truth of hunger – or more likely desperation – for money.
In Tanzania, or more specifically Arusha, crushing poverty lives alongside immense wealth. Many Tanzanians in Arusha live in squalor and have to resort to scams and crime just in order to make ends meet. In the meantime, safari companies, run and owned by an array of Germans, Dutch, Britons and South Africans charge $1000-$10,000 for four day safari trips to the Serengeti. While the people in town get poorer, the foreign company owners are upgrading their 4x4s, finding new ways to cut corners and paying higher salaries to attract Western and European guides so that white tourists have ‘a face they can trust’ when they come on safari. Like the hotels in Siem Reap, these companies operate as satellites who steal away the potential and attraction of the land from the indigenous culture and claim it for themselves. It is legalised, twenty-first century colonising – armies arriving on foreign shores armed with chequebooks and permits instead of tanks and rifles.
Of course, there are some places that get it right, and the experience of visiting them is so less tiring and soul destroying than going away and finding Britain recapitulated in Greece and the Costa Del Sol. Places like Oman employ a predominantly local work force in the tourist industry, and the Sultan has instigated tight laws on the architectural aesthetics of any potential development. Even high-end hotels are predominantly built with pure, minimalistic styles that integrate them with the landscape without compromising what made it beautiful in the first place. Ownership is chiefly Omani, and even in cases where it is not, your driver, your guide, your bell boy, your concierge, your restaurateur, your dive master, are all more likely to be Omani than not. The coastline is unspoilt and welcomes anyone who would like to visit it, regardless of their socioeconomic situation, and because wealth and opportunities are redistributed equally, you will not find a single hawker, vendor or tout in the entire country. It may not have ruins like Angkor or Java, but the absence of the tourist circus is an attraction in itself.
Only time will tell if a country like Oman comes to accept the same insipid cultural heterogeneity that so many other countries have, if they will abandon their identity to try and ensnare Americans who trust Big Macs over Biriyanis, Europeans who will go only where they can eat Schnitzels and not Schwarmas, and Far Eastern Orientals who want 5-Star bunkers of seclusion built upon unspoilt land to protect them from the otherness of the locals.
A short drive over the border of Oman and into the UAE will show you what can happen when external cultures and their values and traditions arrive like alien species introduced into delicate ecosystems. The miles and miles of previously untouched coastline – perfect for 7-8 months of the year – are now owned by the Marriott, Moevenpick, Jumeirah, Hilton, Crowne Plaza, One and Only, Royal Meridian and countless others. Take a three hundred and sixty degree look around and you’ll see that the quiet perfection of a desert slowly evolving into a stretch of beach is extinct, now more closely resembling a crowded monopoly board on steroids. Only tiny swathes of uninterrupted sand remain, and for the most part they are the exclusive domains of the super rich. Public beaches do exist, but every year they get eaten further and further into, gaudy makeup being carelessly painted on a face of natural beauty.
And these are but a handful of examples.
The era of hidden gems, getting off the beaten track and genuinely intrepid travel feels like it is heading inexorably to an early grave. Cultural immersion is rapidly becoming a carcass picked apart by the vultures of heterogeneity, and your only hope is to arrive before the remnants of the meat have been unceremoniously torn away. In a world where even Mecca is ringed by five star chain hotels, KFCs, Burger Kings and Subways, how long will it be before catching a fifteen hour flight is little more than the equivalent of stepping off the plane to take a stroll down your town’s high street?
The hope is that more places display the fortitude and resolve of people like the Hawaiians (outside of Waikiki) – and Australians and New Zealanders in certain parts of their countries – to aggressively defend their shores from unsustainable development and eyesores that will destroy what makes the endemic cultures great in the first place. Maybe if we want everywhere else to be like home but with better weather, it would be best off for the world if we just spent our holiday money on tanning beds in our living rooms. Or even better, if we don’t want to eat foreign food, don’t want to meet foreign people, don’t want to stay in local accommodation, then maybe we shouldn’t bother leaving in the first place.