Tourism as Colonisation

The Oxford Dictionary defines colonisation as:

The action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area.

The system implicit to the process of colonisation is colonialism, which is defined thus:

The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.

There have been several times when I’ve been travelling where I’ve felt uneasy about the relationship of the tourism industry with the locale in which it operates, especially when it comes to tourism in developing nations who grow dependent on the revenue from the industry. It’s only thanks to my latest trip through South America that I’ve been able to give this feeling a name. Today I’d like to tell you that story:

Valparaíso in Chile is one of the most beautiful seaside villas I’ve ever seen. If you’re a fan of street art, well… this is your villa.

Make your way up one of the remaining funicular railways and you’ll find yourself in a veritable matrix of UNESCO-preserved murals, filling an otherwise archaic-looking set of streets with life and colour.

Valparaíso, Chile

After a little independent exploring, me and my friend joined a free walking tour (there are several companies offering this and I doubt any of them would be less than satisfactory) where our guide filled us in on some of the historical context of the area, as well as the local symbolism and in-jokes of the murals themselves. Definitely worth the “optional” donation to a small crew of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers.

As we were walking down one particular alley between explanation points, however, I noticed this sign on the door to a house:

Valparaíso, Chile

Well-played, Valparaíso; well-played.

The sign made a little more sense to me after one portion of the tour, where the guide led us to this particular spot:

Valparaíso, Chile

I wasn’t able to get a full shot of this building, so just imagine that it is very large, very imposing and very ugly to the eye.

Valparaíso is paid a grant by UNESCO to keep its beautiful world heritage site beautiful. So why are these modern ruins in the middle of the beautiful, colourful murals, taking up space which could easily house locals? Well, apparently this former residential building burned down after the city gained UNESCO status, so the residents (though unharmed) were legally required to leave the property as it was as per UNESCO ruling. So not only does the city now have an eyesore required by law to stain its beauty, but a local family has been driven out of their home because of it. This loophole in UNESCO’s fine print made a family tragedy even worse, all in the name of tourism. That was the first time I ever heard anything negative about receiving UNESCO status. “Tourism is the devil”; with your own city no longer under your control, I can kind of see where they’re coming from.

Fast-forward to Cuzco, Peru, the day before my trip to Machu Picchu. I went on another donation-run walking tour because I’d enjoyed the last one so much and didn’t have so much time in Cuzco to explore at my usual relaxed pace.

Cuzco, Peru

Cuzco in all its mountainous splendour.

We were passing through one of the quieter alleyways on the tourist track when I spotted a stencil out of the corner of my eye. I’ve mentioned before how political stencils and murals in South America fascinate me, so of course I split off from the group to run back and take a snapshot of it:

Cuzco, Peru

There was certainly nothing ambiguous about that, either.

I didn’t ask the tour guide about it at the time, but he did point out casually during our tour that about 50% of Cuzco residents now work in tourism. That’s every second person in Cuzco, a once isolated community, now working purely for the sake of outsiders who come for a few days, look at a few things and leave. God forbid anything happen in Cuzco to stunt the tourist trade – half the population would be out of a job!

I felt a bit uneasy at my complicity in this system of alleged “colonisation”. That feeling stayed with me for the rest of my trip, enjoyable as it was. This dilemma is why I tend to prefer living in a country rather than just stopping by for a week or two, and the stencil plagued me.

Travelling in a taxi on the way to the airport for a flight bound for Lima, I asked the taxi driver his thoughts on the stencil. He agree with me.

“75% of our wages in Cuzco goes straight to the government,” he told me bitterly.

Whether that money actually goes back to Cuzco in the end is not something I’ve looked into so I shouldn’t speculate, but for what it’s worth my taxi driver friend seemed pretty skeptical about it.

So it seems like the “tourism is colonisation” schtick works in several ways. In one example we see the colonisation of Valparaiso, Chile, by an international world heritage conglomerate that places sanctions on how the landscape can or cannot be modified, sometimes at the detriment of those who live there. An outside organisation comes in and offers to make the place wealthy if they’ll only follow the organisation’s rules.

On top of this, in a slightly weirder example, we have the “colonisation” of Cuzco by the Peruvian government in its management of a large percentage of the local wealth for the purpose of tourism. For a city that was once capital of the Inca empire and is now arguably the heart of Peruvian tourism, it is unlikely that Cuzco can change its mind about its tourism industry now and is at the whim of the Peruvian government.

So many questions bubbled up inside me.

Kav Colonisation Questions

On further introspection I remembered a similar system at play in my mother’s home of Fiji the last time I visited, but that’s another story for another day.

For now, I want to say that I hope this is an evolving discussion, as I would love to hear and read more about this. The writings on the wall reached me and made me turn a critical eye inwards to my own complicity in this phenomenon. Whoever made the sign and whoever made the stencil: I salute you.

One thought on “Tourism as Colonisation

  1. evilestmark

    Interesting thoughts. I hadn’t really considered the possibility, largely I guess because I haven’t done much tourism in developing countries. Though I can definitely see how that could be a very real issue in certain places within the countries I’ve been to like Cozumel Mexico and parts of Thailand.

    How negative is it for the communities at large though? Is it worthwhile for them to have that boosted economic power at the expense of some freedoms like developing in UNESCO sites? Are the stenciled messages the voices of a few pissed folks or are they representative of the community’s feelings at large?

Any Remarks?