As we near the anniversary of the World Health Organization’s statement declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, many hope that the introduction of the vaccine will help us return to our “normal” prepandemic. For a certain privileged group of people this would mean regaining the “freedom” to travel anywhere they want.
Indeed, their perceived “right” to vacation in distant places, where tourists are given all the comforts and freedoms to do what they want, has become almost inviolable. This has as much to do with privilege as it does with the way capitalism exploits labor.
As wages stagnate, productivity demands rise, and working hours become longer, capitalist societies are creating a middle class that views tourism as a form of temporary escape from its stressful reality.
The capitalist forces have convinced the increasingly overworked bourgeois workforce in the West and elsewhere that to “relax” they need a vacation abroad with all the comforts. As a result, she is willing to pay substantial sums of money for mass transportation south and east to enjoy a week of free time at the expense of local communities suffering from the abuse of their land and resources by tourism companies and their local partners.
In the truest sense of the word, entire relationships between people and between people and nature are shaped by the need to enable paying tourist customers to do and be what they want. It is a vicious circle in which capitalist labor exploitation, consumerism, and wealth creation all help create incredibly destructive mass tourism.
If there was ever a time to rethink the tourism industry, it would be now. The COVID-19 pandemic offers us a unique opportunity to ponder the ugly reality behind our exotic vacations and break the cycle of exploitation. This would not only require reform of the tourism industry, but also a revision of our work systems.
The many damage caused by raw material tourism
The tourism industry and governments, which welcome foreign revenue, thrive on the argument that tourism depends on local livelihoods, and assume that millions of people are being reduced to fight poverty without it. However, a closer examination of how large tourism clusters work reveals who the real winners and losers of mass tourism are.
Like a gold rush to the latest discovery of untapped ore, a multitude of hotel chains, overseas tour operators, online booking agencies, airlines, real estate speculators and multinational construction companies are rushing to capitalize on a visitor’s curiosity about a location of historical or natural value.
There are many examples of attractions that turn into mining pits for a commodity tourism industry. The historical centers of cities like Amsterdam, Marrakech, Barcelona, Krakow, Yogyakarta, Cusco and Kyoto have grown into huge open-air museums that are overwhelmed by tourist crowds flocking to kitschy souvenir shops, cheap hotels and fast food restaurants. Many longtime residents of these cities have been evicted from their homes and urban communities due to rising property values and tourism-related gentrification. Those who stay suffer from the tremendous burden that the tourist crowds place on local infrastructure.
In other places, rare and beautiful landscapes with natural or cultural heritage such as the beaches of Thailand, wildlife hotspots such as the Maasai Mara in Kenya or the historic site Machu Picchu in Peru are being depopulated, fenced in by protective laws and repopulated with a globalized architecture by travel agencies, Airlines and agribusiness controlled supply chains and their local subsidiaries committed to directing people to the valued locations as quickly and conveniently as possible.
Government officials approve megatourism projects due to major setbacks and enact regulations to ease them under promises of economic growth. All too often, these actions replace the sovereignty of communities over their traditions and historical relationships with places of historical or natural importance. As a result, locals often lose control of their land and community development and see little benefit from employment in exploitative, low-paying jobs with long hours and minimal or no benefits.
Instead, most of the wealth extracted from the tourist “minefield” flows into multinational conglomerates that own travel agencies, hotels, airlines, cruise lines and even local commercial retail outlets, and whose tentacles extend to major tourist hotspots around the world.
The more wealth and power large multinational corporations accumulate, the less accountable they are not only for labor exploitation, but also for the massive environmental damage they cause in the form of high carbon footprints, water pollution and overuse, deforestation and coastal destruction . Tourism causes eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions or around 4.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide.
The pandemic has already sparked wide-ranging public talk about green new deals, fossil fuel divestments and just green transitions. It provides a rare and profound opportunity to rethink entire sectors of the economy, from health care to education to agriculture, and to reverse and re-plan how they work in the face of the perverse inequalities that the pandemic has uncovered.
For the tourism industry as one of the largest economic sectors in the world, however, there is not enough time to make such profound changes. If wealthy Westerners are vaccinated first and are convinced of flawed “win-win” narratives to ease their “travel itch” while supporting struggling tourism businesses, old and new forms of inequality will quickly become entrenched.
A new form of “vaccine apartheid” will emerge in countries that are likely to receive and distribute vaccines much later. Privileged vaccinated tourists feel safe enough to travel to these countries, but still pose a risk to local populations as vaccines are not known to prevent the virus from being transmitted by vaccinated individuals. Unvaccinated local workers would be forced by the financial necessity to take up exploitative jobs in the tourism sector to serve foreigners and therefore would be at risk of contracting COVID-19 and continuing to spread the virus in working communities in the south.
Until a significant proportion of the world’s population is vaccinated, significant precautionary measures are required to protect the workforce in tourist hotspots. However, governments looking to restart the engines of the tourism industry and financially troubled families may not see this as a priority.
The return to the “normal” in the tourism sector therefore not only means a return to the old exploitative and extractive practices, but also represents a deadly prospect for the struggling host communities.
Work and cultural sovereignty
So what can we do to prevent the commodities tourism industry from worsening the effects of the pandemic? We can act to curb the demand for volatile mass tourism and return control of historical and natural sites to the communities of which they belong.
We should follow the example of social movements like La Vía Campesina, who demand food sovereignty and demand that food production be controlled through democratic processes by those who work the land directly. We should also demand sovereignty in work and leisure.
We need to break the vicious circle of labor exploitation that forces the middle classes in more privileged countries to seek help through cheap mass tourism. To do this, the workers must jointly determine which productivity is considered humane and acceptable. Labor sovereignty means that workers take control of their own productivity, which must be a fundamental part of an economy where regeneration and repair take precedence over growth.
The current pandemic is a great opportunity to translate the efficiency gains of transitions to virtual work environments in specific sectors into more free time for workers. It is also time to question abusive practices in the tourism industry to ensure that one person’s leisure time does not result in the exploitation of another.
In order to protect workers from host communities, we must also advocate cultural sovereignty in the tourism sector. This requires that the communities adjacent to places of cultural heritage or natural beauty have the autonomy to jointly and democratically determine how these particular places are to be administered. Tourism can remain an important source of income for these communities, but control over how it is developed and regulated must remain in their hands.
Cultural sovereignty implies a tourism industry that does not sell tradition, heritage or natural beauty to the highest bidding multinational conglomerate, whether or not it disguises itself as promoting “ecotourism”. Instead, a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits of tourism is prioritized and the negative effects of tourism activities are minimized.
Labor and cultural sovereignty must go hand in hand with the shift in global consumer culture towards a recognition of sufficiency or “frugality”, which helps to avoid the destructive course of life before the pandemic.
To combat the damage caused by global mass tourism, stricter climate protection measures must be taken against the aviation industry and more domestic and regional vacation travel promoted. The introduction of more fuel-efficient aircraft would simply lower costs and increase demand. The urgency to reduce emissions before 2030 means that flying must cease. The pandemic landed flights; Responding to climate change requires the same.
The post-pandemic world must continue to reserve air travel for essential purposes such as family reunification and repatriation. This is the only way to transition to a post-pandemic tourism sector that is making serious efforts to meet the commitments to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.
These various forms of ensuring sovereignty in the tourism sector provide a clear strategy for rethinking travel in a post-pandemic world and preventing the reproduction of new injustices in the face of the coming “vaccine apartheid”. They are building on the unique moment that the pandemic offered to structurally change the tourism industry in such a way that the autonomy of all employees with demanding, culturally sensitive, climate-friendly, fair and manageable working conditions comes first.
Together, these strategies discourage the “work hard, play hard” mantra of capital, which is ultimately a zero-sum game, creating tremendous inequality, and leading us into a destructive future.
The views expressed in this article are from the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.