Traveling To Poor Countries Doesn’t Make You A Better Person

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travel doesn't make you a better person

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.”

— Marcel Proust

In 2018, I’ve traveled more than I have any other year of my life that I can remember. I traveled to Barbados twice, visited different cities and towns all across the East Coast of the United States from New York to Washington, DC. My travels were to both rural destinations, fully gentrified cities and cities enduring the destructive transformation of gentrification street by street.

Traveling has opened my eyes. I don’t mean this in the corny way white girls do when they take a picture with an exuberant (or more hilariously, totally uninterested) mahogany colored child. Opening my eyes to my internal journey throughout my 2018 travels has cracked open a major myth about traveling that is all too easy to believe when you’re fantasizing about Santorini from a bed.

Travel is not inherently transformative. Travel doesn’t break down the barriers between visitors and tourists. Traveling doesn’t make you a better person.

Can traveling have a positive impact? Absolutely. But the myth that change, transformation and a better understanding of social inequalities erupt inherently from travel serves only to perpetuate the capitalistic myth that our consumption is equivalent to activism.

The relation between a tourist and a travel destination is, through the inherent nature of our economy, a consumptive exchange. The tourist is the consumer and the travel destination is the product. For this relationship to exist, every aspect of the travel destination must be dehumanized, distilled and objectified into a product. This is a part of the reason why hotel workers in the Caribbean experience such high rates of harassment and sexual exploitation.* As I mentioned in my previous blog post, this relationship between tourist and destination is why we have the term “vacation packages”. Experiences and services are represented by physical, grounding terms which influence the visitor’s expectations surrounding the interaction.

Most people who travel throughout the Caribbean (although not all) come from positions of significantly greater privilege than the people they are visiting. Most American citizens and English citizens can travel to Saint Lucia without visas, yet Saint Lucians cannot set foot in the United States without enduring the lengthy, expensive and unpredictable process of visa application. Wages in the United States are higher, and the greater opportunities in the country lead to most people from first world countries who visit being wealthier than the average Saint Lucian they will interact with. I’m not arguing “why” this is the case here, merely observing the power imbalance.

People from wealthier countries also arrive in Saint Lucia with a currency that has an increased value when they arrive. Combining this with the greater earnings, and the difference in economic power is probably one of the most unequal dynamics that a tourist could experiences first hard. Most tourists are insulated from ever having to regard the people that inhabit the place they’re visiting as people due to a combination of segregation and the nature of the resort design. 

Such power imbalances don’t only occur in the Caribbean. Many of the currently popular travel destinations like Bali or Malaysia are hailed for how “cheap” they are. The fact that someone’s income is “good for where they are” doesn’t mean that it’s fair, nor does it eliminate the massive power differential between a first world and third world resident. For example, people who visit Bali tout the low cost and are quick to assert that they are all but saving the economy because ‘it’s good money there’. I wonder how many people who claim that their pithy offerings are “good money” would leave their first world lives behind to live and work for the same wages of the workers they are helping with their gracious acts of consumption.

The expectation that tourist destinations cater to your personal growth and exploration indulges in this dynamic of exploitation that is very nearly inherent in the relationship between a tourist and a travel destination. This dynamic of exploitation exists between the tourist and the local as well as the tourist and the physical land itself. When the same relationship is phrased differently, sometimes the exploitation becomes easier for people to see. The white married woman who travels to the Caribbean for the purpose of having a sexual relationship with an underage (or near underage) black child can be clearly identified as exploitative and fetishistic. Strip the dynamic of the overtly sexual aspects and the exploitation remains, but there is plausible deniability that allows the powerful to pretend their power doesn’t exist. Sexual abuse and verbal abuse are not the only ways to exploit people and interpersonal exploitation is not always overt. Objectification can exist in another common situation where a tourist snaps a picture with a black child after visiting Africa, or Haiti, for example. In this instance, the child is dehumanized as their presence isn’t about who they are as a person but rather the purpose they serve in providing the tourist with the appearance of worldliness, open-mindedness, and adventure — perspectives that are also associated with both “goodness” and wealth.

The physical representation (photograph) of a tourist’s foray into the heart of darkness, represents a tremendous amount of social capital in a world where acts of consumption are marked with the same value as activism. In these situations and similar exploitative yet non-sexual situations, locals are objectified and dehumanized to become a part of the “vacation package”.  Their struggles are made invisible to exalt the appearance of “goodness” that the tourist desires to feel as if they are “helping” or making a change somewhere. Within a few months, if I’m generous, the local is forgotten and memorialized as a part of that “crazy” vacation that the tourist will “always remember”. 

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Resort owners, colluding governments and policymakers — elite members of the upper class — collude to manufacture the “package” that tourists expect. Foreign expectations don’t exist in a vacuum away from social issues. Racist people (whether consciously racist or not) will bring their prejudices with them when they travel and the experience of visiting is not enough to undo implicit racism. Since implicit racism can exist beneath the surface of awareness, it’s nearly impossible for it to be “cured” on its own. And certainly, the cure would not be sitting at a resort while under-paid black workers clean up after you and serve you. 

The myth that traveling (and being near black Caribbean people) is enough to instigate an internal paradigm shift invokes a negative (and false) belief regarding diversity that black people’s mere existence is enough to subvert decades of anti-black programming from schools, family and media, not to mention the legacy of imperialism and entitlement that tourists from most first world countries feel with regards to the Commonwealth nations and other formerly colonized countries. This simply isn’t the case and prejudice cannot be wished away. The consumptive nature of the tropical vacation devoids the interaction between tourist and local of any real chance at empathy, meaning, and understanding. For the vacation package to maintain its integrity it must “entertain” and thusly render the local’s struggles invisible. 

Tourism provides an avenue for practitioners of modern manifest destiny to enact their fantasies of domination and control under the guise of moral superiority for their dedication to being “free spirits” or “explorers”.  The globe is seen as virtually uninhabited. The “locals” exist merely as tools for their personal enjoyment — as part of the package and experience of travel. Locals are not perceived with the same depth and dimension as visitors due to the transactional nature of tourism, every local becomes a pseudo-customer service provider.

Claims that our society “needs to do better” after a tourist is robbed in the Castries market, for example, indicate that we see it as the responsibility of individual citizens to act as customer service providers who do nothing to tarnish the experience of the hallowed tourists who have deigned to visit us and consume.

This exploitation need not be an intentional act of individuals, but those individuals exploit dynamics established from the days of colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean. The current relationship between the major first world countries where tourists hail from and the Caribbean are relationships fraught with abuse, where Caribbean nations are forced or encouraged on an international stage to make concessions for these first world countries, without receiving any benefits in return aside from the mythological “wealth” we gain from hotels — yet to be seen in the form of filled roads or high-quality public services.

Our tax code favors large breaks and tax incentives for foreign developers that may enable them to pay either nothing at all or a fraction of what they truly owe. These hotels and resorts hire black locals for the lowest paying jobs and prefer to keep the highest ranking members of their staff foreign. Even if locals do attain these jobs, the number of high paying jobs provided by these hotels is significantly lower than what their tax breaks might suggest. Many of the hotels exist as parts of multi-billion dollar conglomerates, yet we are supposed to believe that a contribution of a few jobs well under $100,000 USD a year is considered a generous boost to the economy and accept that this gives foreigners and hotel owners the rights to do whatever they please.

Our nations become playgrounds for the rich and we are supposed to be grateful that we get the chance to clean up after them once they’re through playing.

Tourists do not think about this. If they did, I doubt they would feel comfortable in their segregated first world enclaves in a country with crumbling public works. Their perspective insulates them from the larger issues and implications of the tourism industry’s grip on our economy and the exploitative dynamic is purposefully invisible to them, allowing their consciences to remain unencumbered as they traipse freely through whichever nations they please.

A tourist’s experience exists largely in fantasy. Popular travel blogs will often make claims of there being a difference between a tourist and a ‘traveler’, a claim intended to imbue moral superiority amongst the various shades of exploitation — both the oblivious and self-righteous. Yet, the act of visiting a place or even in a rare case, extending empathy (gasp!) to the people that live there, doesn’t remove the dynamic of exploitation. Travel in itself is not enough to remove prejudice and even extensive travel does not either.

Christopher Columbus was a traveler and that didn’t stop him from being a rapist and a murderer.

I’m not entirely cynical, and I do think that travel can have the potential to change an individual’s perspective. Often times, that “change” is a lot shallower and more temporary than tourists and the travel-obsessed are willing to admit. Yet, it’s possible. This change cannot come however from wishful thinking, nor from pretending that tourism and travel exist in a vacuum unencumbered by the forces of white supremacist hetero-patriarchy (to quote bell hooks). It will take more than messy buns, luxurious resorts and $1,000 plane tickets for significant internal change to occur… But I’ll leave that discussion for another month.

 

*Regardless of individuals opinions, the unequal power dynamic of guest vs. Hotel worker renders all sexual encounters inherently exploitative. Add racial fetishism and elitist entitlement to the mix and this sexual exploitation becomes more clear.

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