Tickets, money, passports! We all know what to check for during that last minute packing panic. But preparing for your holidays is about more than what you squeeze into your suitcase. It is about making a political choice.
Tourism is an industry tied up with national and international politics like no other. Tourists are a source of foreign exchange, governments promote themselves through visitors, and politicians quite often worry about the social freedom that tourism can nurture. For these reasons tourists are both courted and scapegoated.
At the most basic level tourism counts as an export industry. It is a source of foreign currency and can help to prop up a nation financially.
However, local people often see few of the benefits of hosting tourists. Large organisations tend to control much of the tourism industry. These frequently pay little in the way of local taxes. Meanwhile local people shoulder much of the burden of sharing their space and facilities with visitors.
Some indigenous people have asked foreign tourists to stay away. They have argued that tourism is threatening their culture, damaging their land’s ecosystems, and is a form of colonialism. In Hawaii, attempts are being made to reconcile some of the issues arising from the tourism industry over-exploiting an open and hospitable native culture.
Where you spend your holiday money therefore contributes to legitimising particular politicians and their policies. However, tourists don’t just bring money into a destination. They also bring social and cultural inputs.
Tourism has been associated with liberalising social values, empowering minorities, and even spreading democracy. In Spain, for example, the growth of tourism, initiated under the dictator, Francisco Franco, as a means of propping up an ailing economy, has been suggested as helping to usher in democratic change.
Hosts and guests exchange observations and ideas. They form relationships. And they stimulate mutual creativity. It is only in the past 20 years that China began to allow its people to freely travel abroad after decades of forced isolation. Politicians are frequently fearful of the subversive ideas and awkward questions that travellers might bring back with them.
A residual mistrust of tourists can see them scapegoated by politicians looking to place convenient blame. In Barcelona, a city dependent on tourism for its late 20th-century revival, tourists are being made increasingly unwelcome. They are blamed for increasing costs of living for residents, rather than the broader challenges of inequality and financial stagnation that raise uncomfortable questions about local political capacity.
Tourism is also a way for governments to assert their ideologies – internally and externally. Visitors to Cuba for example, can visit the Museum of the Revolution, reportedly one of the top things to do in Havana.
Research has shown that the exhibits sold as heritage to tourists prioritise certain specific stories and can silence others. Over time the official narrative becomes established and other perspectives may be forgotten. Historic England has, for example, recently begun to try and include the often overlooked queer history of many heritage sites.
Meanwhile tourism can be a means of raising and modifying a country’s image on the world stage. Israel has for many years used gay tourism to soften its international image by making the country seem progressive in a part of the world which generally is not. Dubai has established itself in the same region as a deluxe playground filled with sights and indulgence like nowhere else.
However, the commitments of both of these destination’s governments to the touristic image they sell is debateable. LGBTQ people in Israel recently had restrictions placed upon their right to surrogacy by their parliament. Meanwhile Dubai is well known for its cases of people facing severe judicial sentences for acts as innocuous as accidentally brushing another man’s bum.
Having a better holiday
On the one hand the image sold to tourists is often not the same as the reality faced by like-minded people living within a country. On the other, tourists may themselves be expected to conform to regulations they would not agree with or accept back home.
The power of tourism is not lost on political actors. Recently the Chinese government successfully put pressure on international airlines to stop referring to Taiwan as a country or face retaliation.
Tourists should not leave it up to politicians to exploit their desire for exploration for self-interested purposes. We need to appreciate our power as consumers; supporting destinations that celebrate tourism as a means of mutually rewarding host-guest exchanges and boycotting those which do not. Tourists have a lot of potential influence. They should use it to hold politicians to account.
So there are a few things to consider when planning your holiday. Find out whether your travel provider committed to investing in local taxes, jobs and suppliers. Research the attitudes of local residents towards tourism beforehand in order that you can be a better guest. Bring back more than a nice tan by swapping ideas, stories and phone numbers. Check the public image of a destination matches its private one and don’t support hypocrites. And finally, be aware of politicians using tourism to bully those with whom they don’t agree – and be prepared to call them out.