Avoiding the tourist-centric trap: Considerations for travel in the 21st century

I was blessed with an opportunity to hike in the Karakoram range in Pakistan this summer. My friends and I trekked from Askole to the K2 Base Camp, over Gondogoro La pass, and finally to our last stop – Khaplu. We were a group of six, with a staff of 15—including a guide, cooks, porters and horsemen who accompanied us, or rather, enabled this trip to happen. It was an eye-opening and humbling experience because I was acutely reminded of my own smallness in the face of sublime nature, as well as people who were greater than me in body and heart.

But one thing troubled me during the journey—the realization that I was so dependent on the people who came with us, yet hardly knew them. Desiring to reach the base camp and complete the journey without accident, the other people assisting us—however intimately—blended into oblivion as ‘background characters.’ So immersed in my own thoughts and emotions, admittedly, through the difficulties of the hike, it didn’t even occur to me to find out the names of the porters who carried our bags for the whole trip. It was only after the 11 days of the trip, when I wanted to call out to them for a photograph together, that I realized I didn’t know the name of the assistant cook who had filled up our water bottles every morning and every night. I only knew him as “the cook’s brother” or “the guy who is younger than me”. The moment of realization was also a dawning moment of humiliation. In my pursuit, I had become so narrowly focused on a goal that I failed to consider and see that others were also on the same journey as I was. Actually, do we not all have this experience—especially in our travels—of people becoming a means of our own happiness?

Travel problematics

In A Small Place, Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid throws shade on tourists in her homeland of Antigua, and by extension, to tourists around the world. To Kincaid, tourists are ugly beings who derive pleasure from being plucked from the “banality” of their existence in their own homes, to be transported to a carefully constructed and barricaded land of their fantasies. Their destination is a place where they can escape the responsibilities of the place they come from, as well as to the place they are now. The tourists’ enjoyment lies in their ability to distance themselves from their location—the tourist is blind, ignorant, and willingly so, to the reality of life for the people around them. Enjoyment is contingent on the maintenance of this imagined fantasy land as a place that exists for the tourist and nothing else.

Tensions between tourists and locals in Hawaii are a good case in point for the disconnect between the tourists and their destination. In August 2023, wildfires raged across Maui, one of the main islands of Hawaii, killing over 100 people and destroying over 2,200 structures, a tragedy that is expected to cost $5.5 billion to rebuild. It was the worst natural disaster in Hawaii’s history, and the deadliest US wildfire in over a century. The disaster plunged the islands in mourning, trauma, and anger. A dilemma arose from the conundrum of what to do with the tourists. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Hawaiians took to social media to tell tourists to stay away. There was a public outcry as a snorkeling company continued its snorkeling tours in the name of raising funds for disaster relief, in the same waters where dead bodies were still being retrieved. The problem was the uncomfortable and contrasting picture of tourists blissfully holidaying right by the physical destruction and emotional devastation of the Hawaiians. Yet, the cry to keep tourists away was accompanied by another fear that they cannot keep tourists away—because tourism is Hawaii’s economic driver. Thus creating a situation where the economy is reliant on tourism, but the locals are uncomfortable with it. Such tensions have been long-standing in Hawaii, and the outbursts surrounding the recent disaster were a symptom, not a cause of it.

Is travel all bad?

Horror stories about tourists and scathingly disapproving views on tourism question our own implication in objectification, exploitation and voyeurism. Could the answer to the problematics of tourism—both on an individual and collective scale—be to stay at home at all costs, as Kincaid suggests? Could more good be done, both for the individual and for the world, if people simply stayed at home and did not travel at all? Yet voices from the very tourist destinations suggest otherwise. Just as the disconnect between tourists and the environment is the “problem” in tourism, things may be mended through a connection with the location again. John De Fries, the first Native Hawaiian leading the Tourism Authority of Hawaii, is not looking forward to eradicating tourism. In a 2022 interview with The New York Times (NYT), De Fries argues that Hawaii is not for Hawaiians, or at least, not just for Hawaiians. Rather, he points to the bidirectional relationship between tourists and locals—“local residents have a responsibility to host visitors in a way that is appropriate. Conversely, visitors have a responsibility to be aware that their destination is someone’s home, someone’s neighborhood, someone’s community.” Likewise, in another 2020 interview with the NYT, Kyle Kajihiro, an activist and lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, lays out his intentions for tourists to think about for their stay: “Who are you in relation to this place? Are you bringing something that will be of value to the host, the people who live here? What will be your impact and your legacy be?”

After all, the benefits of tourism cannot be denied as well. Tourism can help to preserve culture and heritage—by attracting traffic and attention to the very cultural sites that need preservation, thereby accumulating the financial resources required for cultural preservation. For the tourist, visiting these places provides a cultural understanding that transcends book knowledge—a moving of the heart that might not have happened if we stuck to our shores. In an article on dark tourism published in the National Geographic, journalist Robert Reid reflects that his most memorable travel experiences were to sites of macabre— concentration camps, sites of massacres, political assassinations, and battlefields. His experience in these places was a way for him to face the reality of the horrors of men which made history more real for him, and drove to the core of his heart an anti-war message that he would have already heard over and over again.

To be harmless: Thoughtful and responsible tourism

Tourism boards and agencies are realizing that tourism, if it continues the way it is now, is not sustainable in the long run. An example is Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Renowned for its historical and cultural heritage and its beautiful waterways, Amsterdam has a strong tourism sector and has never had a shortage of visitors. Yet Amsterdam is the quintessential case of a victim of its own success. Problems of over tourism—including overcrowding, disrespectful behavior, and even the displacement of local people—have been a top concern for the city’s administrators for the past several years. However, Amsterdam sets itself apart for its active, and what could be considered severe, stance on tourism. In June 2021, it developed the “Tourism in Balance in Amsterdam” plan— a model of tourism designed for citizens and travelers to cohabit in symbiotic harmony, rather than an extractive relationship. And this vision has necessitated some boundaries and curbs on tourism, namely a maximum number of visitors. To maintain quality of life for residents, new tourist shops have been banned to maintain ‘shop diversity’. Holiday rentals are banned in 3 neighborhoods and large tour groups are also no longer allowed. The administration is also carrying out investigations on the tourism carrying capacity of the various districts of the city. The city also launched a “Stay Away” campaign to discourage visitors visiting Amsterdam from engaging in activities related to alcohol, drugs and sex. A digital advertisement shows ‘nuisance’ tourists being locked up with regret, with the blunt tagline reading “So coming to Amsterdam for a messy night? Stay Away”. These measures might seem harsh, but they are necessary boundaries to ensure that tourism is not at the expense of the locals, so that tourism can be sustainable in the long run.

What could regulations, like that of Amsterdam to protect their residents from the detrimental effects of tourism, signal to us? Indeed, governments and corporations have the greatest power to enact change, but unlike in Amsterdam, decisions on tourism may not always be aligned to the welfare of local communities. As tourists, and accepting tourists in home countries ourselves, we can recognise that the locations we visit do not exist in a vacuum—existing solely to make us feel good about ourselves. The locations where we seek rest and leisure are homes to communities living their own lives on this earth; individuals and families work to gain a livelihood as we do, raise families as we do, with hopes, dreams and struggles as we do. Recognizing our common humanity would go a long way in making tourism empathic, responsible, and sustainable, because it introduces an attitude of care. Care for the places we visit and the people we meet. This attitude translates to a more thoughtful approach to traveling and more thought-out decisions whilst traveling: reading up on local laws and customs, checking attractions for human-rights records, choosing sustainable travel operators, making sure that the tourism dollar goes to local communities, avoiding contributing to over tourism and being intentional with photographs.

For individuals and communities, it may be short-sighted to say that all globe-trotting is bad and harmful. Travel—even if not leisure travel—has brought benefits to individuals and communities: it can be a viable and sustainable means of income. Overall, cultural exchange has enlightened and broadened perspectives—for the betterness of the individual and the society. The problem could be boiled down to our attitudes and balance. How hosts and guests reap from the exchange depends on how they view each other.

I remember one of my group members talking to our guide regarding the benefits of improving the infrastructure and regulations of the trekking tourism industry in Pakistan. As someone who had believed that tourism is inherently extractive (ironic, I admit), it did not occur to me that tourism could be a honorable and viable means of income to these regions. Measures, even severe ones, would need to be put in place to ensure that tourism does not amount to exploitation. Putting a cap on visitors, outlining trekking seasons, imposing fines and punishment for certain behaviors such as littering, and placing a firmer grip on trekking companies are some of the solutions to resolve harmful tourism practices that are already in place. Expectations of tourist behavior are also needed—just as tourists have expectations of their holiday experience. But if done correctly—through an emphasis on mutual respect and a vision of connectedness, tourism may avoid the tourist-centric trap, and be enriching and beneficial to both the hosts and visitors.