A billion international tourists in 2010! How excellent is that? Four considerations may lead us to wonder. The first relates to the scale of the phenomenon. With an annual growth rate of 6.5% since 1950, the tourism industry claims 850 million trips across international borders in 2006, as opposed to 200 million in 1975. According to the World Tourism Organization, the number of "pleasure migrants" is set to double in the next fifteen years, having already quadrupled in the past three decades. Revenues for the sector are following the same trend: 300 billion dollars in 1990, 700 billion in 2005. A leading sector in international trade, tourism continues to grow 1.3 times faster than the Gross World Product, and now makes up a tenth of it. Tourism constitutes one of the most powerful forces for globalisation and has taken on a decisive role in the evolution of the international economy, on several grounds: apart from its size and growth, these include its advanced techniques of long-distance marketing, the multi-functional, global, articulated nature of the industry, and the mobility of its clients and its capital.
The second issue is an apparent paradox. While the explosion of tourism essentially results from its democratisation within the middle classes of rich countries, on a world scale it is deeply inegalitarian. While in the West leisure travel is relatively accessible (for 60% of the population), in the rest of the world it is out of reach (for 80 to 99% of the population, depending on the country). Although it has become a mass phenomenon, tourism remains the domain of the well-to-do – the one seventh of humanity which is in an economic, cultural and political position to visit the other six sevenths. In this respect it faithfully reflects the organisation of the planet and its disparities. "Pleasure migration" and the migration of the desperate meet at transnational borders, which are wide open for those from the First World, and closed off with barbed wire for those from the Third.
The next consideration involves a cascade effect that happens with democratisation: "good" tourists constantly seek to escape "bad" ones, who end off by imitating them. The former seek peace or new experiences, while the latter are found in periods and places that have already become popular. This quest for distinction pervades the culturally and socially stratified world of tourism, as seen in industry claims to have "discovered" paths not yet beaten, or to offer more "exotic" and "unforgettable" products. It is apparent everywhere, sometimes in an illusion of separating tourism in practice from the lowly commercial, and always tapping into a desire to be separate from the herd. Depending on how focused the client is on experiences of novelty and difference, the operator will seek either to hide or to emphasise the feeling of immersion in foreign lands, to guarantee the "authenticity" to be visited or else to simplify it and make it more palatable, and to adapt the relationship of experience to reality, or indeed to adapt reality itself, as when the hosts – the human décor – are made to exaggerate their exoticism or smooth away their rough edges.
The final observation will be a disappointment to the champions of tourism, notably the World Tourism Organization, as an "engine of development." While it is true that the sector has become the primary source of income for a third of "developing countries," nonetheless it objectively deepens disparities and aggravates imbalances, through the distribution of its benefits and its impact on social, cultural and environmental realities. More than ever, because of the increasing concentration of the industry within a handful of transnational tour operators, the bulk of financial flows from tourism fail to reach host populations. The jobs it creates, generally precarious or seasonal, are insufficient to compensate for multiple forms of collateral damage: inflationary pressures, damage to ecosystems, business-driven folklorisation of societies and consumption of customs. More fundamentally, the very logic of the expansion of the current "touristic order" is in question. Intimately tied to neoliberal globalisation, in its main forms the explosion of tourism contributes to the generalised commodification of places and behaviours, to the politics of the opening of borders for globalised commerce, and to the privatisation of heritage and public goods.
A wide range of NGOs and networks share these critical observations, and for this reason promote forms of tourism which respect both people and the environment. Nonetheless, this tendency, which has not had a significant impact on the forms of world tourism, must also face up to its own limits – notably elitism, self-labeling, and commercial co-optation. What should be done for the contemporary tourism expansion to become something else than a “ new Western appropriation of the world” ? The response to these issues resides first of all in the capacity that governments (should) have to act as a channel for popular demands and energies, and in the involvement of affected populations in the definition of projects and the sharing of benefits. Under the auspices of democratic international institutions and through constraining regulatory bodies, coordinated policies could contribute to a shift in the current cost-benefit ratio of the sector – and along the way, effectively contribute to the development of the countries of the global South.
(On the same or related themes, we recommend the following article from the same author: Expansion du tourisme international : gagnants et perdants (Expansion of international tourism: winners and losers)).
Translation by Paul Reeve