The harmful gaze: The inescapable paradox of travelling

Even the least discerning traveller is aware that a luxurious holiday in an all-inclusive resort, or on a five-star cruise, isn’t the most cultural, let alone the most ethical, way to travel. Here, Connie Fisher raises the possibility that even those who profess to be cultured backpackers may not be aware of the damage they are causing.

At a time when tourism has an industry value of US $1 trillion a year, employs 1 out of every 12 people in advanced and emerging countries, and saw over a billion travellers globetrotting in 2014, we must be more aware than ever of the damage that the presence of a traveller can do. With suitcase or with backpack, it is important we continually question what we are really seeing, or perhaps what we are being shown, when we believe we are harmlessly witnessing new cultures at their best.

©Michael Reed/Creative Commons License

©Michael Reed/Creative Commons License

In the serene highlands of El Salvador, tourists are practically unseen, and those that are make do with basic local transportation and accommodation. A few hundred miles north, however, and you hit Cancun’s Zona Hotelera, an overwhelming, faceless tourist theme park, which bears no resemblance to Mexico except for an excess of oversized sombreros. For most people, from America and beyond, Cancun has now become an Americanised beach ‘paradise’, lacking any vestige of what may have been there before. Tourism has the power to change a place beyond recognition. With the growth of beach resorts in El Salvador such as El Tunco, one wonders how long it will be until this country also is taken over by mass tourism and fundamentally changed as a result.


In Belize, on a boat tour run by locals, you might think you aren’t doing too much damage to the marine life, until you see your tour guides touching and feeding the sharks and rays excessively,. Even here, it is very difficult to witness this beautiful wildlife without feeling as if you are harming it. Such damage is seen on a larger scale in the Galapagos Islands, where tourist overcrowding has resulted in hugely detrimental effects to both the resident people and the wildlife that the tourists arrive in their thousands to see.

One of the archetypal Thai traveller experiences is to ride astride an elephant, or to have a cuddle with a cute little tiger. Tourists are told that to do so is to support conservation efforts, but reports have shown that many such institutions take young animals away from their mothers in the wild, and subject them to serious and harsh punishments in order to subdue them sufficiently for tourist interaction.


A common defense of tourism is that it can help to preserve local culture. However, countries such as Guatemala and Mexico have become so famed for their handicrafts that now the vast majority of products you can buy in local markets are mass produced and stylized for tourist taste – no longer hecho a mano (handmade).

©Wilfred Paulse/Creative Commons License

©Wilfred Paulse/Creative Commons License

In places where local dress has died out in day-to-day use, it is true that the waiters and waitresses uniformed in traditional clothing are keeping the custom alive, but they display a version of that culture which has become falsified and artificial, performed for the amusement of tourists. This is to say nothing of the treks which profess to take you deep into the jungle in order to witness and photograph indigenous peoples ‘untouched’ by the outside world.

Economic Impact

Yet another defence is that tourism supports countries financially, but a UNEP study of ‘leakage’ estimates that from each US $100 spent by tourists from developed countries, only around US $5 actually stays in the developing country destination’s economy. Specifically in Thailand, 70% of all money spent by tourists ultimately leaves the country through externally-owned tour companies, food and drink suppliers, hotels and airlines.

Helping or Harming?

The integral paradox of tourism in less developed countries is that by travelling abroad to widen our minds with the experience of other countries and cultures, we are simultaneously changing, and often damaging those cultures, sometimes beyond recognition. Travelling is an essential life experience, but when travelling to more popular destinations, it is increasingly difficult to see the realities of local culture for all the theme park-like attractions. And do we really travel to see the realities of local culture, or are we drawn in by the theme park?

There is no easy answer to this. We must travel, but we must travel wisely. With each hotel reservation, with each restaurant bill, we must ask who is benefitting from our custom; what we are really supporting with our money. We must question whether the souvenirs we buy provide income for local craftspeople and invest in culture, or help to warp and suppress it. Countries and cultures are dynamic and constantly changing. As tourists we play a part in this change. The answer is not to avoid our role, but to ensure we help rather than harm the culture we travel to see.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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