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Tourism in poor places – who gets what?


Is there something wrong with rich people choosing to go on holiday to places full of poor people? Many anthropologists, Guardian readers and fair-minded individuals would think so. Are not affluent (often white) tourists in African game parks simply conforming to an out-dated colonial stereotype (see Guardian debate about modern Livingstone) and rich American cruise passengers visiting Haiti representing the unacceptable face of international tourism?

At the personal level, you do need to wonder. How lacking in empathy do tourists have to be in order to steadfastly enjoy themselves in such a context?

However, economics does give us a different lens to look at this issue. Economics does not focus on the attitudes, colour or waistline of international tourists (or their hosts) – the focus is on the money and, specifically, who gets what from international tourism? At the Overseas Development Institute, we have spent the last four years or so examining how international tourism to developing countries works (or doesn’t) as a way of transferring resources from affluent tourists to poor households around tourist destinations (as outlined in my recent book on tourism and poverty reduction). We have worked in a dozen places across Africa and Asia and have surprised many people with what we have found. When it works, international tourism is actually a very good way of transferring resources from rich to poor. In places as diverse as hiking on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, business tourism in Vietnam and cultural tourism in Ethiopia – between one-quarter and one-third of all tourist spending accrues to poor houses around the destination. This does not mean that wages paid to hotel workers and guides and farmers growing food for tourists are good enough, it just means that tourism as an economic activity works as a progressive way of transferring resources.

However, sometimes tourism works much less well as a Robin Hood strategy and the poor get a much lower share of tourist spending at the destination. The sad thing is that tourism tends to work less progressively exactly in the places that need it most – like around the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia, gorilla tourism in Central Africa and beach tourism in The Gambia. Because these destinations have some of the most fragile economies in the world, they are not great at linking local communities with the tourist dollar through jobs like guides and hotel managers and also indirect links like craft making and agriculture.

So, knowing this, what choices can the tourist make?

One option is to avoid going on holiday to poor places and head for Cornwall. This will certainly benefit the destination area and people within it and will also have environmental benefits. It does, however, deny developing countries a critical credit line which could help them emerge from poverty. Like banning air-freighted green beans from Kenya, it’s another example of the affluent looking after themselves – and being able to feel smug about it.

Another option is to choose your holiday like a development nerd. Surround yourself with socio-economic indicators and target places which, although poor, have a sufficiently developed labour market and supply network to really make your spending work for the local economy and people.

I don’t think either option sounds very attractive for most people. An alternative is to visit the places you want to see. If these happen to be low income countries, then don’t feel guilty about the poverty of your hosts but do make sure that your hosts benefit from your stay. Use tour operators and hotels with responsible business practices and spend as much money in the local area on craft, guides and meals in local restaurants as possible. What we have found is that these small decisions make a big difference to the benefits which your hosts will get from your stay.