Tourism: Not always authentic, not always economical

Travelling through Eastern Europe and elsewhere, I became aware of the tourism discrepancy between this region and Western Europe. I even talked with other travellers who stated that this region was their prioritized destination in order to experience it before it converts to the rest of the continent by appealing to hordes of tourists. But the transition is coming and visible in the wealthier countries who have adopted tourist traps like sex and brewery museums. The tourist catering has had mal-implications as countries’ cultures become marketized; and while the economy might benefit overall from tourism, vulnerable individuals can suffer.

Experiences for Sale

As countries open more foreigner-catering restaurants/bars, hotels/hostels, and activities, the tourism experience has become an isolated show-and-tell where you’re filed into the tourist places, interact with locals only in service contexts, and go through an experience tailored to show you what you’re told to see at prices you’re told to pay. Travelling in Western Europe has never been so easy between Hostelworld, TripAdvisor, and FlixBus (and their competitors) telling you what travellers should do in any given location.

Now some tourists or travellers might be crying out, ‘No! We want to experience everything, we want to interact with locals authentically, we want to experience the nitty-gritty, the rough and tumble–stop appealing to the masses!’ (At least this is for what I yearned). But this is unjust and contradictory. Not only are you asking a country not to appeal to tourists so you can have a more authentic tourist experience, but you are asking that country to miss a great financial opportunity by not appealing to a broader market.

A fellow traveller mentioned that he was disappointed by the American music ubiquitous in bars in Vietnam, and further, how he would have preferred if the locals didn’t speak English. He said this would have made his travelling experience more of an expedition as it was before internet and globalization made travelling available to the masses. If the service providers did not speak English, then a whole segment of the market (mainly wealthy older people) would be disinclined to travel to these regions and the country’s economy wouldn’t prosper as wholly.

I too was disappointed when my interactions while travelling were more with other foreigners than locals or even when I just witnessed masses of tourists. The hassling by local merchants or cab drivers were more ubiquitous and stressing when travelling in more touristy places as the people spoke English and were vying to inject foreign money into their economy. Honestly, it was frustrating, and I too preferred locations where I didn’t see most of my own kind (not to mention these locations were cheaper). Locals were friendlier in less touristy places too.

Of course, we as travellers can venture further away from the tourist hotspots and visit isolated communities where we can challenge our traveller instincts. But if too many of us have this mindset, then those isolated areas will become touritized, especially if these areas have the opportunity to reap economic benefits by appealing to our adventurous desires. With that said, tourism doesn’t benefit the economy as holistically as it may appear.

Tourism and Economy–a mixed bag

Many of the upcoming tourist destinations are relying on the tourism and hospitality industries as major contributors to their economy, even depending on these industries to develop the country while bypassing the middle step in the traditional transitions of dominant economic sectors–primary (raw materials) to secondary (manufactured goods) and finally to tertiary (services). Instead, former agriculturally-dependent countries are becoming dependent on tourism. However, this dependence makes them externally dependent and susceptible to fluctuations in the global market. Egypt’s primary economic sector is tourism, but after the revolutions in 2011 and 2014, their economy has been affected significantly. Only recently have they started to recover. When a country is dependent on tourism, locals view tourists as ATMs and not people, and that is hard to experience.

Further, the cost of living increases in tourism-heavy locations while not everyone’s standard of living increases. In Budapest, Hungary, I encountered a homeless woman who attributed her current predicament to the increased housing prices due to Airbnb hosts sitting on empty properties waiting for high-paying tourists. Not to mention the prices within the hospitality sector are also significantly higher, which can affect locals who wish to dine at restaurants or domestic tourists who may not have comparable incomes to foreigners (some places, however, work to have separate pricings for locals and foreigners).

Further, in Dubrovnik, Croatia, thousands of workers migrate each year to work during the season for as many hours as possible before returning home during the off-season and staying stagnant due to no employment opportunities. A similar occurrence happens in Portugal. In these instances, it felt that interactions with locals were solely market transactions as well. While this model works for an individual to make it through the year, this isn’t a model for long-term financial stability.  

As I travelled, there were times I felt guilty for raising the cost of living, or angry at my limited and distant interactions with locals, or confused to whether I was even wanted in a country in the first place. There is no straightforward solution to address adverse economic impacts, and the marketization of tourism isn’t necessarily negative for people who don’t mind the tailored tourist experience. I pushed myself by straying further from the tourist hotspots and befriending locals outside of the tourism industry through online meet-up platforms, but with all issues/impacts/etc., there is no black and white.

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