Thursday, 13 November 2014

Getting the right kind of traveller

I've just been reading Mike Harding's Footloose in the Himalayas. It's an interesting book, and both livelier and more observant than I'd expected - Harding has a great eye for detail and a feel for the mot juste. (He also knows how to operate a running gag over twenty or thirty pages, which enlivens things no end.)

Meeting local people half way up the road to the Shingo La, he mentions his uneasiness about taking photographs; treating people as 'sights' feels wrong. That leads to thoughts about the difference between travellers and tourists, which, in the end, he puts down to this; the traveller lives with the people he meets, for however long he's there, while the tourist surrounds himself with comfort and privilege. (Of course Harding, though wanting to be a 'traveller', does have certain comforts and privileges, a cook and a ponyman, for instance... but his point is a valid one.)

Mass tourism can be a curse. It puts pressure on local resources, it falsifies human relationships, it poisons everything. It can remodel entire villages as Backpacker Central, where nothing is available but the 'planned experience' and the generic hippy market selling sandalwood incense, Shiva shirts and leggings with elephants on.

Some countries and cities deal with this by a financial bar. Most overt is Bhutan's spending barrier of $200 or more a day. That's meant to discourange "the wrong kind of tourist". Other countries develop only higher-class accommodation, barring anyone who can't afford to stay in a four star hotel for two weeks.

Actually, they haven't necessarily got the right kind of tourist. They've just made sure they make more money out of the ones they get.

Let me suggest another option. Have a special class of visa for long term travellers: a compulsory three month visa. In other words, a visa only for travellers who are going to stay a full three months. (Obviously you'd need get-out clauses for such events as a death in the family, or serious illness.)

That gets rid of all the 'Spring Break' element. It gets rid of most of the package-tour people who only do day trips. The people who are going to spend three months in a single country (okay, with the exception of India, which is half a world in itself) are those who will become a temporary part of the local scene: people who are going to settle in a bit. People who may not be wealthy, but who have time.

People who aren't going to rush from World Heritage Site to World Heritage Site, but are going to spend some time staying in small towns, looking at out-of-the-way temples, doing the little hikes that most people don't bother with. People who are going to learn how to play karrom, or help cook in a Buddhist monastery, or spend six hours on the back of a motorbike to get somewhere they really want to go.

And probably, over those three months, they'll spend about what your $200 a day tourist does in a couple of weeks. But that isn't really the point.

No comments:

Post a Comment