The Weight of Tourism

(This is a response I did for my class based of Elizabeth Becker’s essay titled Don’t Go There: The Whole World Has the Travel Bug. And It’s Ravaging the Planet.)

I circumnavigated the world before I turned one. Rather than crossing the Pacific to return back home to America after visiting Korea, my parents decided to go through scenic Europe. I got to crawl through the L’Ouvre and explore Switzerland, even if I don’t remember any of it. And my traveling grew from there; after this, I ended up living in five different countries, two different continents, and visiting every continent except Africa and South America (and Antarctica, if we want to be really legalistic).

I’ve had a fair share of being a tourist. I’ve visited lots of the tourist hot spots and taken pictures by the stereotypical Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square. I’ve bought souvenirs for friends back home, trinkets of different cultures, pieces of the foreign lands I’ve seen. But I’ve also seen the darker side of tourism.

On a mission trip in Panama, my group was lucky to spend two nights in an indigenous village. I braced myself for something awful, but instead I was humbled by the simply life the villagers lived. They weren’t, in fact, always wearing traditional garb; some had television and they all wore clothes like ours. They too enjoyed soccer and movies and their children also played hand games and laughed at simple things. Their mothers were all kind and fed us amazing home cooked meals, much like back home.

But when canoes pulled up to the shore filled with tourists with no interest in their personal lives, they put away their authentic relatable lives for colorful garb, clothes expected by the outside world. My heart broke when I saw the children I played with change into uncomfortable clothes to dance and entertain the tourists. And of course, the tourists knew no better, just like I knew no better before I spent time with the villagers. For them, these people were simply exotic, there to make the next cool souvenir to bring back home for family and friends. They didn’t know the process it took to make the smooth ivory-like hand held structure. They didn’t see the old grandfather carefully coax a turtle from the dull seed. Their intention was a mission from home, not a mission to invest.

Becker in her essay titled Don’t Go There: The Whole World Has the Travel Bug. And It’s Ravaging the Planet. Addresses the issue of tourism and puts it on a bigger scale, saying that in fact “Global tourism today is not only a major industry-it’s nothing short of a planet-threatening plague.” It undermines local culture, wrecks the lifestyle of the locals there as prices soar to accommodate the tourists, is a breeding ground for sex tourism, and drains natural resources. And yet, so many people continue to travel the world, ignorant of the effect they have.

In Cambodia, a land where many visited for its majestic temples, everything changed rapidly with the wave of tourists. Siem Reap and its great hall temple of Angkor was crowded, to the point that it was impossible to find calm as monks used to before. Everywhere the magic found in the life abroad was shrinking in the face of tourism.

Whenever I travel, I try to always be aware of the fact that I am a visitor to the land. I must respect and work within the cultural bounds. I am not superior, just different. But still, I can sense the tension when I visit tourist hot spots, especially when I see other tourists blatantly ignorant of the culture they are privileged to visit. So easily, in the heat of adventure and exploration, we can forget that everyone, from the waiter to the girl selling melons to the grandfather running a photo booth, is in fact human and the same as us. So then, what is the solution? To stop traveling all together?

But we can’t, and we shouldn’t. In fact, “tourism, the United Nations believes, is easily the best way for a poor nation to earn foreign currency.” What better way to attract with visitors than with something beautiful and special? But the danger, then, is making sure that countries preserve their treasures and not pawn them away for foreign currency. It’s hard to do this, because we want to share more beauty with the world and yet don’t want to break it. And that is perhaps what is happening today in tourism; we are losing the beauty as places become more commercialized and busy. How can we return to the beautiful peace of the temple in Angkor? And how can we do so to still insure the flow of foreign cash?

I can’t answer this question myself. There’s many angles to take into consideration, and this issue of tourism is far from binary. There’s the effect it has on the environment, the culture, and the psychology of the people. This is a question demanding interdisciplinary work and research. I hope that one day, we’ll be able to come with a better solution to the prickly subject of tourism, so that people can travel the world and still maintain its beauty.

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