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Tourism As Charity

Tourism has not helped the poor as feigned.

Dear colleagues and friends,

Following the last Clearinghouse mailing ?World
Tourism Organization: Tourism can tackle poverty? (22
March 2004), colleagues have reminded us that the
contemporary poverty reduction policies and projects,
particularly as related to tourism development,
urgently need to be critiqued.

Indeed, recent research reveals that most of the
programmes for poverty alleviation, endorsed by
international financial institutions like the World
Bank, UN agencies and aid organizations, as
contribution to the United Nations Millenium
Development Goals (MDGs) are narrowly income-based
(e.g. the US$1 a day standard as the international
?poverty line?) and focus on rapid economic growth,
often at the cost of equity and equality. They not
only fail to eliminate poverty but sometimes even
aggravate existing conditions of poverty or create new
forms of poverty. For instance, it has often been
claimed that trade liberalization and privatization of
state assets lead to economic growth and, thus,
poverty reduction. But the sad reality is that in many
developing countries, this economic growth has been
achieved at the cost of well-being of small farmers,
workers, women and children, Indigenous Peoples and
other vulnerable social groups, resulting into
widening gaps between the rich and the poor. (For a
more comprehensive critique, see e.g. ?Anti Poverty or
Anti Poor?: The Millennium Development Goals and the
eradication of extreme poverty and hunger? by the
Bangkok-based research group Focus on the Global
South; this study can be downloaded as a pdf-file at ).

Given the experience that the tourism industry has
played a vital role in perpetuating marginalization,
mal-development, expropriation and exploitation in
many parts of the world, does it make sense when the
World Tourism Organization (WTO-OMT) and other
influential agencies encourage us to rely on tourism
development as a saviour for the world?s poor and
disadvantaged? So far, local people in poor
destination countries have - at best - received a few
crumbs of the revenue from this multi-billion dollar
business. On top of this, they have often been
seriously affected by social, cultural and
environmental impoverishment resulting from misguided
tourism developments in their communities. In the
light of this, is it right for the WTO-OMT to push for
making tourism a primary agenda in ?poverty

?When tourists visit poor countries, the money they
spend goes directly into local economies and
communities,? said the WTO-OMT message delivered to
the UN General Assembly in November 2003. So, it
seems, tourists from rich to poor countries can boast
their activities are an expression of 'concern for the
poor' and 'charity'. Meanwhile, leisure travel to
far-away destinations as a form of conspicuous and
unsustainable consumption remains a non-issue. Other
important questions are also not properly addressed,
such as what actually makes ?poverty?, what are the
root causes of poverty, or how is poverty linked to
unequal power relationships. 

Yet, tourism consultants and managers have begun to
train themselves as ?poverty experts? and to adjust
their project proposals to fit into the new prescribed
frameworks because after all the promotion of
?pro-poor? tourism is likely to drive a new wave of
funding for research and model micro projects. Whether
or to what extent the targeted people and communities
in Third World destinations will actually benefit from
such developments needs to be seen, however.

Today, I?d like to present excerpts from a
thought-provoking book by John Hutnyk, entitled ?The
Rumour of Calcutta: tourism, charity and the poverty
of representation?. The book was already published in
1996, and some of you may remember that I mailed out a
summary at the time when tourism NGOs began to discuss
as to how to apply the ?fair trade? concept in
tourism. I?m now sharing this piece with you again
because I believe it is an excellent and highly
opportune contribution to the current debate on
tourism and poverty alleviation. 

Yours truly,
Anita Pleumarom
Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team)


(Excerpts from the final chapter of John Hutnyk?s
book, London, Zed Books, 1996)

Travellers visiting Calcutta and doing charity work
among destitutes are located in a place through which
ideological and hegemonic effects are played out in
complex yet coordinated ways. This book is an attempt
to understand the complexities of this situation
within the contexts of an international order where
specific practices and technologies of tourism,
representation and experience combine to reinforce and
replicate conditions of contemporary international

Budget travellers can visit the 'Third World' because
it is cheap; because there are developed systems of
transnational transportation and communication; and
because they have the ability - even, perhaps, the
need - to leave their usual domestic circumstances in
order to travel and 'see the world'. These enabling
circumstances are also necessary components of the
world system within which all tourism operates:
travel, as the largest global industry, is not
innocent of capitalism.

There is no way that the 'cultural niceties' and
'alternative' tours or celebrations of difference that
are a part of budget tourism are not wholly integral
to contemporary capitalist relations. Volunteers who
thought their activity was significantly different
from mainstream tourism would seem to be mistaken.

'Alternative' travel, just as much as the alternative
trade promoted by many organized aid groups, works as
a reassuring front for continued extension of the
logistics of the commodity system, even as it
masquerades as a (liberal) project of cultural
concern, and despite the best intentions of its

Charity work also operates within a similarly
expansionary and uneven development zone. It has been
my task to begin to articulate these connections,
starting from the very specific experiences of
travellers to Calcutta?

The tendency to proclaim a local people-oriented style
on the part of Western NGOs is a sham. Instead of
concerning themselves so much with their bowels, and
projecting this on to what they see in Calcutta,
visitors could conceivably strive for something else.

Rather than the Calcutta of rumour and
charity-squalor, there is a Calcutta that is part of
this world, full of people active in all sorts of
projects, works, lives and dreams, alert to problems,
as well as successes (a great many) and, whatever the
problems of the place, not in need of the patronizing
charity of the revolutionary-dancing Patrick Swayze or
the caring Christmassy gestures of volunteers and the
global NGO apparatus.

Photogenic, maybe, but imagine: the Calcutta cinema,
the Bengali literary scene, the ?adda?, the political
to-and-fro, the coffee-houses, the bookshops, the
theatre spaces (the rui, the mishti-doi)?Why does so
little of this enter the touristic text? No doubt
because tourism as charity is self-obsessed; it

It is also clear that the social sciences have
sometimes been complicit in maintaining distinctions
and privileges among different classes of people, and
between First and Third World, by choosing to
investigate the conditions of 'the poor' and the
'disempowered' rather than pursuing research into

In the ways Calcutta is conventionally represented,
there is much more at stake than can be explicated by
any critique of prejudice or of 'the gaze'. The ways
the camera makes poverty photogenic are not only
camera effects to be understood within an economy of
voyeurism, but more besides. Vision has become

Cultural imperialism, ethnocentrism, ideologies of
race, exoticism and romanticism can all be seen in
operation within Western experience and evaluation of
Calcutta, but any understanding of the
interconnections between these things, and of various
examples mentioned throughout this book, is more

Crick's point that 'for all the talk about sacred
journeys, cultural understanding, freedom, play and so
on, we must not forget the fundamental truth that
international tourism feeds off gross political and
economic inequalities' (Crick 1991:9) requires closer
attention to the politics of representation in
tourism, development and aid, since this 'gross
inequality' is too often papered over by brochures and
snapshots that forget.

What is now demanded is an engagement with the varied
and multiple particularities of the contemporary
situation in a way that enables the underlying
coherence of dysfunctional examples to be grasped.
Those who preach good works and non-governmental best
intentions may also be the worst alternatives. The
tenacious grip of the capitalist world-view makes it
difficult to keep any critique from the recuperations
which attend efforts to reveal and expose its
fundamental workings?

?Calcutta is seen as a site amenable to charitable
expenditure, as a site to be worked upon, to be
developed, helped. As a place that is seen as one of
impoverishment and decay by visitors, its
representation as such enables touristic deployment in
an economy of impoverishment, charity and redemption.

The 'intention' of charity workers, those who appeal
to compassion and care, with concern in the face of a
poverty with which they are complicit, is not far
removed from the same logic that calls for cultural
understanding and soft- or low-impact tourism. These
'improvements' are not incompatible with the commodity
system, and cultural exchange is not incompatible with
ongoing exploitation.

Cultural understanding and the 'concern' of charity
cannot pose a challenge to the World
Bank/IMF/comprador elite/hegemonic order, which
perpetuates exploitation and oppression. Calcutta as a
site for concern only extends this reformist logic and
never poses a challenge.

Consumption renders passivity bearable - consuming
charity redeems the giver. It would not be too
far-fetched to imagine charity and redemption as the
accompaniment of travel and the souvenir - I argue
that this allegory is discernible in the scene of
tourist volunteer work in Calcutta with Calcutta
Rescue, and with Mother Teresa?

The charitable tendency has to be understood more
closely within the framework of contemporary
capitalist social hegemony. Charity tends towards a
permanent institutional form, which is manifest in
more or less conveniently transportable (or
transplantable) ways everywhere. Arjun Appadurai has
pointed out in his article on postnationalism that
these 'Philantropies' now 'all constitute one part of
a permanent framework of the emergent postnational
order' (Appadurai 1993:418).

While the italicization of 'permanent' and the use of
the term 'postnational' perhaps gloss over some
specificities, it is clear that a study of these forms
of 'organizations, movements and networks' which 'have
blurred the boundaries between evangelical,
developmental and peace-making functions in many parts
of the world' (ibid.) is well overdue.

This point is explicit by Frank Fueredi: 'Global
charity initiatives have done more than anything to
popularize the view that Third World people need to be
looked after and protected, not least from themselves'
(Fueredi 1994:113). This is a useful elaboration of
Hobson's point that 'Imperialist politicians, soldiers
or company directors' utilize the 'protective colours'
of disinterested charitable movements and
'instinctively attach themselves to any strong,
genuine elevated feeling which is of service' (Hobson
1902/1988:196). In this way, they convince themselves
and their public, to some extent, that their
imperialist activities are for the public good.

It is not enough just to raise questions about the
moral propriety of First World youth taking holidays
among the people of the Third World; it is not enough
to encourage discussion of such contradictions in
cafes along the banana-pancake trail. Nor is it
sufficient to reflect critically upon the politics of
charity, while working - because something must be
done - at a 'sound' street clinic.

An intervention into the institutional context of such
practices would include a critique of cultural
consumption in the schools, colleges and universities
of the West; in the cinema and the media; in the
shopping mall and Christmas catalogue - and much else
besides. Such interventions would still not suffice to
unpack the oppressive structure which belongs to
tourism and charity; without interventions into the
global balance of power, the commercial realities of
the capitalist world system and the cannibalizing
machine that is popular culture - in short, without a
transformation of everything - tourism and aid remain
a running sore.

There are reasons to consider a political activism
among travellers and 'Third Worldist' Western youth
(those into alternative travel, for example) which
would seek to extend an awareness of an
internationalist responsibility to fight for a
redistributive justice that was more than mere

Part of what is required now is a tourists' vigilance,
and organizational forms which will attend to a social
and political transformatory project adequate to
combat the system. This always requires vigilance - of
our Eurocentric representations, of the gaze and of
our inscriptive zeal - and also our complicities in
the hegemonic production and circulation of this code.
Question everything. What this leaves open is the
possibility of actively intervening in an imaginary
Calcutta that would not simply replicate the market
directives of capital. This is the rumour which must
be spread; word needs to get around.

NOTE: The articles introduced in this Clearinghouse do
not necessarily represent the views of the Tourism
Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team).

Copyright 1991 The Akha Heritage Foundation