Dozens of tourists swarm a young monk as his master looks on and reminds him to remain mindful and undistracted
Throughout our lives as travellers we often bask in how amazing the experiences are, and how travel can make people more open-minded, worldly and tolerant. But recent conversations in Cambodia got us thinking about what travel really means for the world. In Cambodia, as in many other countries, foreign powers are buying land, squeezing out the locals and exploiting the area for tourism or resources. Remote islands are turning into resorts, ‘pub streets’ are replacing local cuisines and tourists are coming in their thousands. Is this kind of foreign intervention and travel just modern-day imperialism? Are the happy Instagram posts and passport stamps just a pretty façade for something less pleasant?
For many centuries, wealthy nations such as the UK, the US, France, China, Russia, Germany, Spain and Japan (to name a few) claimed new lands to prosper and gain from. It is an uncomfortable reality for many, but it happened. In the monolithic modern day tourism industry, most tourists also originate from such countries. These are rich countries and, consequently, people are often travelling to poorer countries. Countries where money will go further, where you can “feel like a king”.
With these proportionately wealthy travellers going to less fortunate countries, local economies begin to stop relying on traditional income methods and instead build their lives around the money coming in from tourism. The shift moves from agriculture and other forms of income, and often moves to subservience for the wealthy foreigners in the form of drivers, hotels, and restaurants. It is not imperialism in the traditional sense of invasion and take-over, but perhaps it is a more subtle version? A version where places become so entwined in money from visitors from other nations, that it becomes heavily reliant on these greater powers. As people from one of these wealthier nations with a powerful passport, perhaps without realising it, are we guilty of this ‘travel takeover’ too?
Koh Rong in Cambodia is one of the islands that has changed drastically due to tourism
Increasingly, it is noticed that it is hard to find a restaurant that does not serve ketchup, or a person who does not speak English. It is interesting to hear some conversations from people worrying that regions in their own city heavily reflect a culture different to theirs, but seem to revel in the fact that their trip to Bali comes with McDonalds or their visit to Cambodia will be accompanied by Irish pubs. Is this fair?
A possible example of travel as imperialism is the growing use of the English language as a lingua franca. This language is expected to be the medium of communication internationally. Perhaps it is a matter of convenience, or perhaps it is a remnant of an imperialistic past that continues to push its way into modern travel culture under the name of convenience. Throughout the world (and many of us are guilty of this) you visit a place and automatically say “hello”, or many people do not think to learn local phrases and instead opt for communicating in English. Why is it like this? Shouldn’t the onus be on the traveller to learn to communicate with the locals, not the other way around?
Looking at travel is complex and it is hard to be free from bias and perspective. Some say that travel is born from inequality. It can be argued that often travel is treated as some kind of spectacle where other cultures are there to be benefitted from, and the idea of travel originates from a deep history of conquering rather than learning. The concept that some passports are more ‘powerful’ than others, that some people are freer to travel than others… is that just imperialism in another name? That some can come and visit, travel and become expats in countries, but it is harder the other way around?
Thousands of people cram into the temples of Angkor in Cambodia
The other side of the coin is that travel expands mindsets and helps people become more open-minded. The more people travel, the more they understand the diversity of the world and this eventuates into a more tolerant society. Ideas are shared, globalisation increases and more opportunities for interconnection are possible. The job market for tourism can also not be laughed at either, providing many much needed jobs and income for people all around the world. Tourism can be seen as a developmental gold mine, increasing the standard of living for many people around the world. Are the losses of language, culture and natural beauty worth it for the increased development?
For us, the jury is still out. Travel is a difficult subject to understand when you look at it deeply and examine further than the feeling of the sand between your toes, street food and the excitement of the new. Asking questions about why we travel and why only some people can have the privilege turns up many varying opinions. I honestly wish everybody had the privilege because I have seen the amazing experiences that can be born from travel, but the reality is that everybody does not. Perhaps this is imperialism under a different name? That large movements of certain groups of people can come to countries and impact upon the culture, but it does not happen as much in reverse? That foreign powers can buy land and build hotels to house their own travelling citizens, is this just dollar imperialism? The colonies instead of coming by boat in the past, now come by plane with a camera in hand and are called tourists. Perhaps the companies from superpower nations are the modern-day Emperors, and the vulnerable countries are now trapped in subservience.
We do not know.
Maybe we will never understand.
For now, we will just try our hardest to move through countries and landscapes without leaving our own footprints. To observe, listen and share, but not force our own culture, business models and ideals upon others just trying to live theirs. The world is a wonderful thing, and it’s here to be enjoyed, not taken.
The beginning of the onslaught at Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, as thousands of tourists and speedboats come every day and end up producing 40 tonnes of waste