Happy new year! We've been busy playing tourist in Thailand, while learning about the Tourism Industrial Complex from an inspiring researcher. We took the bus from Sihanoukville, Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand, where we ran into a huge celebration of the king's 82nd birthday, the city in lights, with thousands wearing matching pink t-shirts in his honor. We explored temples, wandered through markets, and watched Thai movies. Then on to Ayutthaya, littered with every kind of Buddha figure we could imagine and north to Sukhothai, where we biked around lovely ruins. Finally, back in Bangkok, where we ran errands, watched free--and occasionally bloody--Thai boxing matches, hung out at the mall, and celebrated Christmas with new friends from Focus on the Global South.
We capped off our trip meeting Anita Pleumarom, a researcher studying the economic and ecological impacts of tourism. She's a German geographer, living in Thailand for 22 years. We were deeply inspired by her decades of work on tourism-oriented development, trying to pose a critical counterpoint. In her latest publication, Change Tourism, Not Climate!, she discusses the role of tourism (including air travel) as a major source of greenhouse gases, while often failing to provide promised economic benefits.
As a landscape architect, Barnali's privy to the intensive internal debate in her profession about golf course design: it's well-paid work, but often entirely at odds with the profession's mission to create environmentally and socially sustainable spaces. Anita completed the story for us, telling us about her involvement with the "Golf Wars" of the early 1990s. Golf's popularity in wealthy nations like Japan generated led to a huge golf course construction boom, stretching from Southeast Asia to Hawaii. Courses were being built on fertile, ecologically sensitive, or indigenous lands, while encroaching on forests, guzzling local water supplies. A Global Anti-Golf Movement was formed in response, sharing information, and using media and shaming tactics to take on the golf tourism juggernaut. The US Golf Association went the defensive, making noises about "sustainable" golf courses. The Asian economic crisis finally cut demand for golf tourism, leaving Asia littered with underused golf courses.
We've seen tour operators across Asia tout eco-tourism and cultural tourism products, targeting nice western liberals like us. Anita took us behind the scenes, telling us about communities forced to continuously "stage authenticity" for outsiders, mass-scale home-stays becoming an immense intrusion on locals' privacy, tour operators creating sex and drug trades by providing women and opium to tourists. She argues that tourism can be a self-destructive force -- the initial wave of benefits from new tourism end as mass operators move into the market, mass community economic benefits decrease, and the destination becomes "too touristy," leading travelers to look elsewhere for new "undiscovered" spots.
Anita's work focuses on the failure of tourism-oriented development in developing nations, which she describes as "sheer economic exploitation," with most of the money going to corporations (airlines, tour operators, hotels) only trickling down to local communities. We were struck by the role of aviation in this -- as airlines can be the biggest beneficiaries of overseas travel, including "responsible" tourism, "eco" tourism," and "voluntourism." Anita and her allies around the world are engaged both in local community planning debates, as well as international campaigns like fighting for civil society participation in the UN's World Tourism
And what about aviation? "Air travel is an elitist activity", she begins, enjoyed by only a few percent of the world's inhabitants. "At the end of the day, it's about an equal distribution of resources, including the atmosphere....Aviation and tourism don't reflect the real price, which includes exploitation of third world communities." And maybe that means "the industry needs to shrink." Anita's been working to limit her own personal air travel, including canceling her frequent flyer miles, but quickly points out that "as individual consumers, we can't do much--we need to change the system." This means better transportation policy, but reducing unsustainable discretionary travel will also mean changing the way we feel about our jobs, our lives, and our communities, to address what it is that makes so many people in developed nations feel like they so desperately need to escape their everyday lives with that overseas resort holiday.
On our trip, we've been doing a lot of thinking about what a world with less unsustainable aviation would look like; it almost invariably means less travel, less
tourism, less contact with the wider world--the very experiences that we're enjoying right now. Though Anita's far too polite to bring it up, aviation's part of a larger system, and we can't pretend that we're not implicated, even with our year of no flying. Travel has its temptations and enormous power to shape our views about the world, but we will all need to hunker down and think twice before jumping on that plane--the new regulations are certainly one reason to not want to. And maybe we will look closer when we need that break, look deeper at the places we live in and learn how to develop love and empathy for places and people without having to go there. The new year seems to be the perfect time to make that resolution.