A Walk in Our Global Neighbourhood: Rethinking Tourism as a Humanist

A Walk in Our Global Neighbourhood: Rethinking Tourism as a Humanist May 26, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. A few weeks ago, I visited for the first time a local community living humbly on the opposite side of the city. Their homes were hand-made from brick and corrugated metal, heaped three or four storeys high between narrow concrete pathways all up a steep incline. They bore splashes of brightly coloured paint and street art, phrases like “FELIZ NAVIDAD” and “TE AMO” leaping from the sides of certain buildings. Though they sat near a well-maintained city park, many weren’t connected to the power grid. Many had no running water, no functioning toilets. A nearby viaduct ran dry for most of the day and night, but when it was unstoppered halfway up the mountain children would play in the sudden profusion of cool water. Laughter, music, the crow of chickens, and the bark of stray beloved dogs filled the barrio at all hours.

That first time, I was with a tour group of local paisas, but all the tour-leader’s emphatic speeches about the need for caution struck me as curious, so I returned later with just a friend, and solo the third time, trying to get a fuller sense of the tension between community leaders regarding their barrio’s first forays into tourism. And as it turned out, the people who had first brought even tours of local paisas into the region were going against the majority-will of the barrio’s collective. As it turned out, there was a massive restructuring of that collective underway because of this divided approach.

So, last night, honoured by an invitation into one of those humble homes, I listened to a group of men–displaced and marginalized; indigenous, venezolano, and paisa; street performers and craftspersons; men struggling with drug addiction; terrifically young men with daughters in their laps–discuss the future of their barrio. I listened, specifically, to how they were going to try to protect their fellow citizens, and indigenous heritage, and local flora and fauna, from the touristic exploitation that a new transportation system might allow for. And I shared how I hoped to contribute, by producing work for English-speaking audiences that introduced their community’s strengths to the world, and advanced more ethical approaches to travel.

The meeting itself was remarkable for someone used to Canadian notions of power-sharing and discourse. Even the indigenous meetings I had attended while studying at the University of Waterloo and Laurier were fettered by the sterility and compartmentalization of the institutions in which they took place. Here, though, in a tiny room packed with human beings and a clutter of familial items, everyone listened to each other with respect, but neither was anyone’s ego affected by the natural fact of disruption. A person would continue speaking at normal volume, at normal pace, even if a side conversation had started. When little children wandered into the room, everyone took the time to greet them warmly. Their chatter, and that of local street dogs, affected no one’s ability to focus on the serious matters at hand.

As for me, I might have been the biggest disruption–a very pale-skinned feminized person with a nice satchel walking alone on their humble streets, then taking out a very fancy phone to get the numbers of everyone in the meeting who had a phone with which to be reached. Teenaged boys on the way had indeed propositioned me. Prepubescent boys calmly asked if I’d money to give them. But I was carrying a plate of muffins and looked like I knew where I was going, what I was doing in their barrio. I greeted everyone who spoke to me. I didn’t show any sense of revulsion for or apprehension about their curious attention. And that attitude goes a long way to naturalizing everyone even to a very strange stranger’s presence.

I’d also brought with me a formal introduction in Spanish, a paper in which I laid out who I was, what my native country’s problems were (especially with regard to indigenous exploitation, to illustrate that I understood what needed protecting), and what my intentions were in their community. I’d had the paper reviewed by a friend, so I knew the Spanish was correct, but… I’d forgotten to take into account literacy rates. The leader of the group got one of the younger men to read it–knowing full well that the young man wasn’t the strongest reader, but certainly stronger than some of the others present that night. And that man fumbled at certain words–words that made me realize just how much skill I could offer this community–but everyone waited all the same, eager to hear it read in full, and articulated genuine interest and thoughtful questions throughout.

There are… times when I feel keenly how much North American discourse does a disservice to lived experience. How much our desire to put names and factions and value judgments upon one another, to break us all down by our distinct identities so as to build us up again as a more united whole, distances us from that which we all share.

This was one of those times.

And as a global humanist, this was also my call to arms.

The Dangers of Tourism

Here’s the narrative that had my hosts so reluctant about tourism in their home:

The city develops better transportation infrastructure, so more people start arriving in their remote, high-altitude barrio. Some to take photos of “poverty”. Some to make a spectacle of how the locals live. Some to take photos of their children.

The tour-group faction wants to redirect this a touch, by creating an intriguing path for outsiders through the local community. They want to highlight the barrio’s history of violence and tremendous displacement pressures, so as to spin narratives of resistance and resilience. They go so far as to take outsiders to look-out points where they can direct their attention to another barrio at a distance, a barrio constructed by Medellín’s most infamous son, because they know that’s what the tourists expect from Colombia. They play into those stories of danger, thinking that’s what it takes to get cashflow, and they want local artisans to put on shows at schedules that suit the visiting outsiders, to give outsiders further reason to come up and ogle at their homes.

In consequence, many locals feel like puppets on strings, compelled to perform on command for outsiders’ amusement, “for the future”. For money.

Moreover, many locals resent that their stories are being presented solely in light of past violence and instability. They want to be known as artisans in their own right, full stop. Not for survival narratives, but for creative skill and exceptionalism.

But most of all, the local men’s and women’s groups fear the natural consequences of encouraging more blatantly affluent persons to wander through their streets taking photos and flashing money. They fear for daughters being pressured by sudden offers of material goods by men from afar. They fear for the violence that will ensue when a proud local has had enough of someone snapping photos of their “poor” home.

They fear that this tour-group faction is going to present their community with a whirlwind of strange new faces arriving with full touristic entitlement, without respect for the natural environment and the people living with it, who will then reap the consequences for their behaviour in myriad forms of local lashback… and then return to the rest of the world, the rest of their comfortable lives, disseminating stories of how “wild” and “dangerous” this humble community still is.

Travelling in Your Global Neighbourhood

Now, I haven’t travelled much. I’ve been all over Canada in childhood car trips (thanks to having family in the Yukon, Quebec, and New Brunswick). I was incredibly fortunate to join my grade-10 IB class trip to France. And I’ve visited specific U.S. cities–New York, San Francisco, small-town Ohio, Austin–to be present with friends, not as a tourist. My closest touristic excursion, before coming to Colombia, was an academic conference in Chicago, where I walked the streets solo for a couple days, and shared my per diem with street persons for lunch. Then I took a two-week immersion trip to Bogotá and Medellín in January 2018, to prepare for my move the next month. Then, within Colombia, I followed the vacation schedule of my first hosts for Semana Santa, visiting Monteria to spend a week with one’s family, then Cartagena and Santa Marta for another week, specifically for the local spectacles they wished to see.

I want to be careful, though, in suggesting that I am “above” resort vacations to other parts of the world–because I’d bet dollars to doughnuts I’d say differently if I’d been raised in a family naturalized to that practice. And for most of my friends who partake in cruises and resort-hotel vacations, I can honestly say they are hard-working people who simply want the ability to rest once in a while from their labours. Why shouldn’t travel be a time for luxury? Does one always have to live with perfect contrition for one’s relative affluence, especially when it seems so tenuous an affluence in a culture constantly embroiled in debt and feelings of failure? Must one wear a figurative hair shirt whenever travelling in the rest of the world?

So if anyone’s feeling defensive already, let’s be clear that there is a spectrum of exploitative tourism. Within Colombia, for instance, I’ve already discussed how little I enjoy being around other North Americans, precisely because the ones who travel and live here generally do display a great deal of affluence and entitlement. Even those who probably see themselves as worldly in their approach to visiting other countries nevertheless seek out the highest-status tourist items, the sensational and the salacious, the edgy and elite; and are conscious, always, about how best to frame their visits on social media to maximum the “cool” factor. And they do pose with children to show how enlightened and generous they’ve been in their travels.

Even more frustratingly, I have yet to encounter people willing to do the hard work of self-reflection when an experience with the locals leaves them with a bad taste in their mouths. I have listened to white estadounidenses talk furiously about how unfair it is that in tourist districts they’re asked to pay more than the locals might pay for the same goods elsewhere in the city, even as they refuse to go to cheaper parts of the city because they’re “dirty” or “dangerous” or generally unappealing. “You know, I never thought that reverse racism was a thing before, but now that I’ve travelled the world as much as I have…” one in particular had the gall to tell me, apparently forgetting how many locals in preceding weeks had bent over backwards making them feel welcome. Apparently forgetting that mobility like theirs, to be able to jet-set from country to country, is not a universal good.

Suffice it to say, then, it’s a jarring thing, after spending the majority of one’s time speaking in a second language with kindred spirits, to then be in conversation with other people who speak the same native language, but see the world through a different lens.

Towards a Creed of Ethical Tourism

So let me speak plainly, then, to the people who share both a language and a lens–however many luxury vacations you’ve taken to date. My fellow global humanists, aspiring and actively practising alike:

Vacations are luxuries, and most emulate in their escapism the class-status to which we aspire. We talk about “living” like royalty, “living” like the uber-rich, if only for a few days. And in so doing we reinforce that class-strata. We continue to let affluence dictate what does and does not make life worthwhile. Buying expensive toys. Travelling to exotic lands. Meanwhile–

Nowhere on Earth is exotic.

Everywhere there are people, there are homes.

And if you have the incredible opportunity to visit someone else’s home, treating is as a home needn’t make the experience less fun, or restful, or enlightening.

After all, how do you treat the homes of people you already know? What activities do you do with the people dwelling there? What do you bring with you to their doorsteps? What do you take with you when you go? Would you consider these activities and behaviours the equivalent of wearing a hair shirt of contrition?

Now how much of a difference in travel perspective would it require to think of other communities on those same, more neighbourly terms?

There will be more on this theme from me in the months to come, but for now I want to be perfectly clear: secular humanism, global humanism, 21st century compassionate humanism… it all requires a dismantling of many social narratives–not just religion and spiritual belief. Because there are many myths we cling to out of comfort, even when that comfort comes at the expense of other human beings–exploited human beings, for instance, in thousands of tourist-hubs the marginalized-world over.

And in the bitterest of ironies? It’s our Western cleaving to comfort in so many other discursive realms that often makes those same marginalized communities more vulnerable to religion in the first place.

So what grand aims of secular life are we really advancing, when we target religious discourse in isolation, instead of as part of a whole web of precarious human ideologies?

We can do better, folks.

And we will.


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  • Major Major

    I’ve traveled a bit more, partially because I was in the Navy. We wouldn’t be in a port for more than a couple of weeks, but we would always be debriefed on how to behave in port. I was fortunate because I was on a sub, so it was less likely for someone to do something stupid and piss off the hosts. I didn’t really like the framing though, as there was a lot of condescension, like it was a matter of liberty being curtailed/secured as opposed to hey, these are fellow human beings, let’s not be a bunch of jerks to them.

  • Major Major

    This also plays into the larger discussion that is going on about philanthropy. These rich people feel like they can come in and take resources for as little money as possible and give a pittance back in “philanthropy” to disaffected communities. They balk when they are asked to support higher taxes to support democratically proposed fixes to problems when they feel like they should be the ones with the power to make such decisions of which problems are worth fixing. You have guys like Bono lecturing developing countries about corruption and not taking care of their citizens. It’s really disgusting.

  • This reminds me of recent news about cities in Italy that are selling houses for a few hundred US dollars plus an administrative fee, requiring buyers to live in an renovate the house within two years. They’re looking for retirees from the US and elsewhere to be an income stream. It’s attractive because those retirement dollars go further there, making a certain standard of living possible when it might not be if they were to stay in their own country. Although the towns are inviting it, I wonder whether they’ll regret it. Different situation than tourism, but there may be similarities as well.

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Oof, you make a good point, and one with wider resonance than just travel/tourism. Is that behaviour any different even on a local level, where billionaires exploit a given workforce or natural-resource pool, then get accolades for high-publicity donation stunts on the same turf? You have to give them points for consistency, at least. Our problem is system-wide and needs a great deal of concerted effort to reform. Thanks for sharing!

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    I wonder what loopholes exist, that will quickly be exploited by those who do purchase these buildings. (I think I recall the same involving moldering European castles, too?) But one needn’t look further to the way that Airbnb has priced quite a few local communities /out/ of their communities, even as the program purports the ability to give local persons the agency to make side-income for themselves. Exploitation can happen in many forms–some, I’m sure, entirely unintentional at the outset–which is why I suspect we need to be willing to walk with humility not just at the outset, but all throughout our dealings with other persons in other cultures. If we can’t muster the self-awareness to accept criticism when it turns out that our good intentions have in fact created ruinous results, then not a one of us can be trusted with longterm engagement in other communal milieus.

    Thanks for sharing, Lerk! Happy Sunday!