These ships bring in lots of money...but at what cost?

Immediately following my graduation from McGill University, my family and I took a cruise to Alaska. For one week, we traveled to several cities in the largest state in the U.S. via a large ship, and it was a unique opportunity for us to explore places that were otherwise very difficult to access because of the state’s sprawl. On one hand, it was both convenient and incredible to get to see so many places in so short a time. On the other hand…everywhere we went, the ports were crowded with chintzy shops selling the same pseudo-Athabaskan, “true Alaskan” merchandise designed to attract as much of our money as possible. Besides cheapening the artefacts and diversity of Alaskan culture, it got me thinking about the politics of tourism in a way I never had before.

Tourism means money. Growing up in New Hampshire, tourism was the primary source of my state’s revenue. It was so lucrative, in fact, that we put up with hordes of leaf-peepers, stop-and-go traffic in many towns, and a Nascar track so loud at night that we could hear the crowds and announcers from inside my house. My family hated the track in particular because of its noise pollution, but in a state with no sales tax and no income tax, most of the citizens (who don’t hear that noise at night) were unwilling to curb its hours or shut it down for fear of losing the state’s only real income. Tourism means money, and money often overpowers the voices of locals.

Extending this principle beyond my own sphere of experience, I imagine what it must be like to live somewhere where tourism isn’t simply the largest source of revenue, but is essentially the only source of revenue. Jamaica Kincaid, talking about self-ruled Antigua in A Small Place (1988), lays bare the exploitative circumstances that can arise:

“[A]n institution that is often celebrated in Antigua is the Hotel Training School, a school that teaches Antiguans how to be good servants, how to be a good nobody, which is what a servant is. In Antigua, people cannot see a relationship between their obsession with slavery and emancipation and their celebration of the Hotel Training School…; people cannot see a relationship between their obsession with slavery and emancipation and the fact that they are governed by corrupt men, or that these corrupt men have given their country away to corrupt foreigners.”

Throughout her text, she points out small but important signs of the way relying on tourism in a post-colonial country has essentially denied its citizens the luxuries that its guests are offered: a run-down library, a building damaged fourteen years prior and never repaired, segregation between the resorts and the locals. As she puts it, “every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives- most natives in the world- cannot go anywhere. They are too poor…They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go…they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

We, as Go Girls, represent an enormous amount of privilege and wealth wherever we go. We might be traveling on a budget, and we might not have a mansion to return to, but simply the fact that we’re able to go to so many places speaks volumes about the opportunities we’ve been offered throughout our lives. Even when we travel as part of an organization, without whose guidance and financial support we’d be stuck, we still have the skill sets, the medical background (innoculations, anyone?), and the time that make us attractive as program participants. Every time we spend money to visit a location- either on the plane ticket, the hostel room, or the souvenir- that privilege is reflected by bringing an income to a place that might not have it otherwise. Imagine some of the world’s top tourist destinations without the tourists. What would Hawaii’s economy be like? Thailand’s? What about the Bahamas? What are the opportunities for their residents when they’re not busy meeting the needs of foreigners with money to burn?

When Heather wrote recently about creating our own maps, all of this came to mind. We’re Go Girls, but we spend and use like any other tourist on occasion. Creating our own maps isn’t simply about adventure, although that’s one of the more rewarding aspects of being a Go Girl. Those maps, highlighting where tourists tend to congregate, also indicate where money and attention gets directed. Straying from that beaten path means paying attention to the sights that tourists aren’t always interested in seeing- and sometimes aren’t intended to see at all. It also means bringing money to venues that might not otherwise receive any. By creating original maps of these places, we can have an impact on the power that tourism has over many of the countries and cities we like to take our wandering selves. Who knows what changes we can make in the world? Consider an example: if you visit Montréal and spend all your time in the Old Port, you miss out on some of the best restaurants in the city. One of them, Lola Rosa, is an incredibly active participant in fundraising and awareness-raising events that target gender-based violence in and around the city. A ten-dollar meal there goes a lot further than simply covering overhead, as it does in Old Port.

Don’t get me wrong- there’s a reason certain places around the world attract so much attention from foreign visitors, and I don’t mean to discourage us from bringing our unique perspectives to these trips. I do mean, however, to draw attention to the fact that we, as such active travelers, are well-situated to change things such that the opportunity to travel, relax, and see the world is extended to everyone.