Is Travel Just Modern-Day Imperialism?

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Travel Imperialism

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?


Travel Imperialism

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?


Travel Imperialism

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.


Travel Imperialism

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


Volunteering Abroad

Asian Reflections

Cambodian Island

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16 Responses

  1. Meg

    I love to travel but this has got me thinking. Do you actually think it is so bad?

  2. Backpacker's Guide To The Galaxy

    Hi Meg,

    Thanks for your comment! We definitely don’t think travel is “bad” – we have made it our passion and a huge part of our lives. We love to go out and see the world, and firmly believe that in many ways it improves the way people think of each other. For us, we just think it is important to be aware that it is not all as rosy as it seems.

  3. Conny

    Hey guys,
    I really liked this article as it addresses some of the downsides and more serious issues related to travelling, and you do have some good points. In my opinion, tourism itself isn’t bad. In Austria, it is one of the major economy sectors, yielding about 10% of the gross domestic product, providing countless jobs etc., whereas in other countries people are exploited by wealthier foreigners for sure. So I think it comes down to who owns the businesses and how they are run (sustainable tourism).
    Concerning the language issue: using a lingua franca is not a recent phenomenon. As a translator I have spend countless hours researching these sort of developments (think eg. Latin and Greek that played a major role in disseminating knowledge, especially in sciences – and still do today). And although I am a big advocate of learning at least basic phrases in the local language, a lingua franca is also a means of connecting people. Think of all the amazing conversations you would have missed, had you and the other person(s) not been able to communicate in a common language. Also, using English as a global language may feel a bit different for native speakers as opposed to those who use it as a second language.
    Keep up the great work, looking forward to seeing what you will be up to next! Conny

  4. Backpacker's Guide To The Galaxy

    Hi Conny! Thanks for your comment 🙂 Yeah you’re right, tourism definitely contributes a lot to economies and does a huge amount of good. Using a lingua franca truly is a powerful tool for communication and connection, and rather than questioning the use of a lingua franca itself, we are pondering the realities behind why it is not a neutral language and is a language from a former empire. It’s all such interesting stuff and we definitely have not made our minds up yet!

    Hope you’re well,

    Lucy and Pat

  5. Mark

    Seriously great article guys. While a tough question to pose, you sum it up perfectly in your conclusion. We are fortunate to travel, to learn different cultures and understand the vast corners of the earth; but we should do so with the ultimate levels of respect.

  6. Voyager

    Travel should not upset the equilibrium of a place, and that is the responsibility of every traveler.

  7. Rob Taylor

    This is so well stated and something I struggle with when talking about visiting Asia or South America. I want to go exploring and take my kids to these places, but where is the line of invading vs passing through.

  8. melody pittman

    You’ve certainly raised some awesome questions which are definitely to be a concern to local customs and cultures. My take is that regardless of the negative, many of those poorer countries are thrilled to have the patronage and visitors, many of them probably say travel/tourism is their greatest method of making money and if that brings food to their tables, then so be it. It will never be a perfect world but at least travelers can shed light to the rest of the world on how that country truly is and maybe it will result in helping to promote improvements for a better way of life.

  9. Archana Kapoor

    That’s a very interesting perspective! I guess there are pros and cons of every action, we win some we lose some. But one cannot stop progress thinking about what one may lose.
    Great food for thought!

  10. nonsoloamore

    I think one of the most important think while you are traveling is – to respect culture and people. This is what some forget.

  11. Jennifer St Louis

    Thought provoking post. Thank you

  12. Carlie

    Wow, what an amazing post! Very honest, thought-provoking and sensitive to the needs of others. Thoughts and issues like these are the reasons I started blogging. I’ve subscribed and can’t wait to hear more from you guys.

  13. Lies

    Great article, and some great comments here as well. It’s sad when a place has become so touristy, it has lost all its charm and authenticity.

  14. samiya selim

    Very well written and I completely agree with your sentiments, I guess the flipside of it – that if sustainable tourism/ecotourism is done in the right way – it can benefit locals, add value to nature e.go forests which might normally be cut down for wood, or find incentive for keeping marine environment pristine. But it does seem to be hard to define or find a balance of how much tourism is actually good for the local people and environment. As you said “For now, we will just try our hardest to move through countries and landscapes without leaving our own footprints” that pretty much sums up what we tourists should try and do 🙂

  15. Tom

    Really interesting article, I always enjoy reading other bloggers trying to grapple with issues around responsible tourism. I’m not sure I’d go as far as calling it ‘imperialism’, but there’s certainly plenty of exploitation that goes on within the tourist industry. Partly that’s exploitation by foreign-owned businesses, but also plenty of local government officials, local business owners etc who see the dollar signs flashing before their eyes and don’t manage tourism development in a sustainable way – e.g. rampant overdevelopment of certain coastlines with high rise hotels, not restricting visitor numbers to fragile archaeological sites, or allowing towns to be taken over by businesses catering uniquely to western tourists. There’s a responsibility that lies with travellers, but also with those who’re in charge of managing tourism locally – though I can appreciate that for governments in poorer countries, the lure of the tourist dollar can be hard to resist.

  16. Dan

    This is a really great read and is something I often debate myself. In the most basic form, tourism should be great but exploitation sadly is everywhere these days, from the clothes we buy to the food we eat and this usually comes at the expense of many of these countries and we are a part of it before we even arrive.

    If everyone travelled well, learnt the local language and spent their money on a grassroots local level whilst expanding their mind and wanting to change things for the better then through job creation, opportunities and respect tourism can be great.

    The main issue I think is people, Tourist (and travellers – same thing here) who ignore all this and just use it for thier own gain/’to live like a king’ – sadly, some of these people will never change and as travel is glamourised more and more and we continue in the ‘we can do what the hell we want’ generation out look I can only see it getting worse, however there is also a lot of people starting to realise and lean the other way – as you said, tough call.

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