Benefits and Dangers of North-South Tourism

9-28-09, 9:35 am

As a source of foreign currency, international tourism is thirty times bigger than it was 60 years ago, with more than 700 million tourists hopping from one country to another every year. 

Several rich and highly industrialized nations are among the destinations most favored by foreign visitors. Some of them also happen to be top senders of tourists not only to other no less developed countries but also, and increasingly, to poor countries where they can enjoy a better climate, a cleaner environment and greater cultural diversity. 

International tourism should be used by the richest countries as a vehicle to repay the poorest ones for the plundering of resources they suffered for centuries as a result of colonialism, neocolonialism, unequal exchange and other forms of sacking and exploitation leading to the dramatic disparity facing humanity today. 

However, capitalism has its own set of rules, imposed by big business even to the practice of North-South tourism. Given that the conditions to be met by international tourism are more and more sophisticated, the poor nations find it harder and harder to fulfill them by themselves.

Placing the building and management of your hotels and the rest of the tourism infrastructure in the hands of foreign investors is no longer enough to be as competitive as the industry demands nowadays. 

For instance, the cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts give the target markets very little chance to make a profit, as the foreign visitors have already paid to the tour operators back home all their travel expenses, including meals, drinks, local transport and leisure activities. In the case of the former, the tourists sleep, eat and enjoy various amenities on board. “All they do when they put into port is damage the environment and get rid of the waste generated during the trip,” grumble those who are critical of this major part of the tourism industry in poor countries. 

On the other hand, travelers who choose all-inclusive results pay for almost everything in advance: accommodation, meals, soft and alcoholic drinks, sports, entertainment, even the tips. Critics in the recipient countries argue this form of tourism barely helps the local economy and damages the environment to boot. Indeed, most of these resorts are in relatively distant locations far from any major urban center, which prevents tourists from shopping around or enjoying local attractions, mainly because they have paid beforehand for everything their lodgings have to offer. These resorts are owned and/or managed by big corporations that leave the local small or medium-sized enterprises hardly any room to breathe. 

At first they offered three daily meals and the clientele would pay for the drinks, but the common practice in the Caribbean made it more comprehensive as a function of developing tourism and making it more social. 

In the late 1970s Canada saw the birth of a new mass tourism industry generally aimed at skilled workers who were not as well-paid as the traditional tourists from rich countries –which suited the all-inclusive system down to the ground – that provided charter flights, more economical hotel operations and affordable prices that made demand hit the roof. 

These all-inclusive resorts promise a vacation without surprises, as the tourists who buy a value pack know that at checkout time they won’t be handed a bill in excess of their calculations. 

By the mid-1990s the all-inclusive resorts had become popular throughout the Caribbean and thus forced the big beach hotel chains to jump on the bandwagon. 

Nonetheless, the mass tourist operations run by the top corporations in recipient countries have also brought with them serious social damages that the clientele’s few collateral and almost accidental expenses can hardly compensate for. There’s over-exploitation of the local workforce, whose employment insecurity virtually turns them into the foreign company’s slave labor. Consequently, poor areas spring up rapidly around the tourist parks where there are no hospitals or health care centers and corruption and tax evasion, among other scourges, are rampant. 

Cuba, on the contrary, has managed to make the most of this economy of scale and stay clear of the social effects that countries like, for example, the Dominican Republic and Mexico have suffered, thanks to the high level of social organization on the Island, the scope of its socialist project, and the fact that the state and its public bodies have full control over foreign investment issues. 

Our tourist industry workers are protected and their rights and social benefits guaranteed –a utopian goal everywhere else across the region– and our mass tourism revenues are reinvested in the development and welfare of the Cuban population.

--A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.