Leo Hickman: In Search of the True Cost of Travel

Travel Interviews: Are travelers destroying cultures, economies and the planet? Are they making the world a better place? Frank Bures chats with the author of "The Final Call" about the ethics and consequences of world travel.

07.13.07 | 8:44 AM ET

imageEthical dilemmas for travelers have become as common as peddlers at a port of call. As one of the world’s biggest industries, travel has a huge impact. From the environment, to culture, to plain-old exploitation, you might never leave the house if you waited till it was all sorted out. 

Leo Hickman got sick of treading water in this ocean of moral grayness, and set out to find the answer to his question: What is the true cost of travel? Environmental. Moral. Economic. Hickman was a good man for the job, having previously resolved to spend a year living as ethically as possible. He chronicled that year in the Guardian and for his first book, A Life Stripped Bare. For his new investigation of the morality of travel, The Final Call, he traveled to Thailand, Dubai, Spain, Costa Rica, India and other countries looking at everything from sex tourism to eco-travel to package tourism to party tourism. His findings were not encouraging.

“Tourism generally appears,” he wrote, “to be a one-sided transaction whereby the buyer—the tourist—comes off much better from the deal than the sellers at the destination.” Still, there’s room for hope. Hickman currently lives with his wife and three kids in Cornwall, England, where he is working on a children’s book about climate change. I interviewed him via e-mail.

World Hum: In your book, you paint a pretty bleak picture of the travel industry. Would you say tourism is inherently destructive?

Leo Hickman: I wouldn’t go that far really and wish to write off the whole industry 100 percent, but I do think there are far too many examples of tourism that, in their current form today, do far more damage than good, certainly in terms of environmental impact.

When it comes to economic impact things are a lot more blurred, but I did find plenty of evidence that, particularly in developing countries, tourism predominantly creates “Mcjobs” with little hope of creating the ladders up out of poverty that we, as tourists, might wish to nurture through our patronage. Worse, perhaps, the billions of tourist dollars we collectively spend typically benefit a tiny elite who are often based in countries beyond the destination. I believe it is a largely a myth that tourism creates a form of “trickle-down” wealth for all—the sort that Ronald Reagan famously once espoused.

In your own travels, what did you find are some of the more nefarious effects of tourism?

Sex tourism was obviously a subject that was upsetting for me to investigate, especially as there is evidence of it, to a lesser or greater degree, in virtually every destination in the world. People say that prostitution is as old as the hills and will always be with us, but I found that tourism can provide a convenient excuse (and cover) for people to engage in often illegal activities that they would never dream of doing at home. It also creates a veneer of acceptability to things such as people trafficking and child prostitution.

Beyond this, I would say that all-inclusive hotels—and I include cruise ships in this—are perhaps one of the most damaging forms of tourism in the fact that they offer the destination so little.

Can you explain Dr. Stanley Plog’s bell curve showing the rise and fall of destinations?

You can read Dr. Plog’s own explanation. But, in short, he is arguing that destinations tend to go through a very predictable cycle of development, then decline. Unless those managing a destination spot that it is reaching the peak of the bell curve of development and make every effort to avert the inevitable decline, then it is very often a fast ride down the other side as less and less tourists choose to go there because they see the place as being too over-developed. I think everyone can probably think of their own examples of destinations where this has already happened.

Fundamentally, Plog argues that it doesn’t have to be that way, but it requires much, much greater planning and discipline by those managing the destinations—the hotel owners, the local planners, the regional government, etc.—if they are to “save themselves.” His writings show just how short-term in its thinking tourism can be. Destinations go from backpacker havens to mainstream resort areas in often a period of a decade or so—during this time everything seems rosy amongst the “locals” as the flow of tourists just seems to keep increasing and the dollars keep on coming, but Plog argues that the tell-tale signs of over-development are rarely spotted in time to avert the destination’s decline.

I thought the part about tourist’s “venturers” and “dependables” was interesting. Can you say a little about that, and what their significance is?

In essence, the venturers are the first people to “discover” a place—the backpackers, the adventure seekers, etc. The dependables come later as the destinations develop—these are the people who like to know what they’re getting before they arrive and are risk averse. They want to know that the destination has certain facilities that they can often find at home—the malls, the branded restaurants, air-conditioning, golf courses, etc. Examples Plog cited in 2001 included Tibet and Nepal for venturers and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina and Orlando for dependables. According to Plog, rarely will a destination cater to both venturers and dependables and by analyzing which group is in residence, it can be predicted where on his bell curve the destination might be. He has other, more subtle categories, too, but these are the two polar opposites.

Surely there has to be some good that comes out of tourism?

Yes, of course, but what I discovered whilst researching my book is that this “good” is sadly a rare commodity today. Tourism is a very lop-sided deal in its current form whereby the buyers—us tourists—get by far a better deal than the sellers—the people living in the destinations. I saw very few examples whereby the people in the destinations said they felt they were getting an equitable deal—of the dozen or so destinations I visited, I can only think of three examples off the top of my head, two in Costa Rica and one in Kerala, India.

Just out of curiosity, do you think humans are inherently good or evil?

Wow, now there’s a question! I’ve written a book about tourism, not philosophy or theology. I wouldn’t put it in such stark terms as that, but I do probably feel that humans instinctively look for short-term rather than long-term gain—we would rather be given a dollar in our hand today, than two dollars tomorrow. And this attitude invariably leads to problems, particularly environmental ones.

In relation to tourism, it seems we would rather exploit the natural assets today—the mountains, the coral reefs, the rainforests, the tropical islands—for ourselves than also nurture and protect them for others to also enjoy tomorrow. Being a tourist is by its very nature a self-centered act. The challenge as I see it is to quickly move beyond this attitude and introduce a much greater sense of responsibility about the places we are lucky enough to visit.

In your opinion, what’s the worst possible kind of tourism?

As mentioned above, I think it’s hard to beat all-inclusive hotels. And in terms of just emissions, in coming years space tourism is going to be hard to beat. The owning of holiday homes also causes many economic and social problems for the host communities, too.

And the best?

This is much harder to answer, of course, but of the examples I saw—and they still presented some problems—I thought that well-managed homestays provide a sensible win-win way forward. I also think that holidaying in one’s local area needs to be something that we do much more of to help keep carbon emissions down. In the UK, for example, we have fallen out of love with the wonderful islands that we live on. We need to fall back in love with Cornwall, the Lake District, the Highlands, the Black Mountains, etc. if we are ever to reduce our addiction for holidays abroad—a phenomenon greatly fueled, of course, by cheap flights.

Is there any concrete thing you recommend that travelers can do to minimize their impact on cultures and the environment

I found water use to be one of the biggest issues that people raised with me in each destination. Anything we can do to reduce our consumption of all-too-often precious water supplies is to be encouraged. Doing your homework on a destination is key, too—read a local novel, read a local newspaper—anything that helps you understand and respect what makes the destination tick beyond the tourist facade. Talk to people about their lives. Leave generous tips if it’s part of the culture. Try to stay in one place longer, rather than racing through a country ticking off the must-see places.

Every spending decision you make will have a rippling impact—always ask yourself who is likely to benefit from your patronage. Getting off the beaten track is not always the best thing to do—it might feel like the best thing for you, but tourism is a very blunt instrument and you carry a great responsibility with you if you start pushing tourism into areas where it barely exists today. The varied consequences of our visit after we’ve left is something that we rarely ever consider when we’re traveling.

What do you think about carbon offsets?

I have a very low opinion indeed of carbon offsets. At the very best, they could be described as “better than nothing”—and I’m being generous here—but at worse they are verging on being fraudulent in terms of their scientific claims, and worse perhaps they send totally the wrong message to consumers, i.e. that they just have to pay $10 or whatever for them to continue with their polluting habits as normal. They are a sop to our guilty consciences and don’t make us address the real issue—that we all have to greatly reduce our emissions—and sadly things don’t come much more emitting than airplanes.

Just one return trip from Europe to Australia, for example, can represent half our year’s entire lifestyle-related carbon emissions—and I’m not even factoring in the so-called “contrail’s multiplier” which says we need to multiply our flying-related emissions by 2.7 to account for the increased impact this pollution has at 30,000 feet. Bottom line, we need to be flying less, not continuing as normal by paying for a tree to be planted or an eco light bulb to be handed out somewhere.

You say in your introduction that you set out to find answers to the questions rolling around in your head: What is role of the tourist? What are your thoughts on that now?

I’m not sure we really have a role as tourists per se, but we certainly have a duty. A duty to be much more considered and thoughtful in the decisions we take as tourists. A strange psychological process happens when we travel and that is that we largely leave our normal responsibilities behind at home. We see holidaying as “our time” and nothing should get in the way of our enjoyment—that is what partly attracted me to researching this fascinating subject as of all the other areas I have researched when it comes to environmental impacts nothing seems to create as much denial in the room as when asking people to consider the impacts of their holidays.

I’m not saying that tourism should just be stopped and we should instead be spending the time sitting in our deck chairs in the garden. It’s the largest service industry in the world and the biggest employer in the world, too. It’s the proverbial tanker in the sea. But I do think we, as tourists, could greatly help to encourage the industry to revolutionize the way it operates by telling it at every opportunity available that we won’t settle for its current damaging practices.

Any hopeful signs?

Yes, there is some evidence—mostly anecdotal, I admit—from this year that people in the UK are starting to consider holidaying nearer home more and even taking fewer flights. Whether that’s due to a new-found empathy and understanding of climate change, or just that the economy is showing evidence of a down-turn is hard to say, but just judging by how much the impact of aviation on the environment is in the news these days in the UK tells me there is hope yet that we might now be beginning to rethink our decisions and assumptions as tourists and realize that they have a rippling impact—often negative—across the destinations we visit.

There is also some evidence that parts of the industry are slowly starting to consider many of these issues, but sadly I suspect that much of their current suggested remedies—carbon offsetting, for example—is little more than greenwash. Much of the industry seems to be displaying the same sort of willful inaction and denial about its negative impacts as the tobacco industry was displaying three or four decades ago.

Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.

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