18 August 2009 ~ 3 Comments

Tourism Development Ethics 101

At university, I took a class called “Medical Ethics”, and it was one of my favorites.  Rather than telling us what he thought was right or wrong, the professor would have us read real medical case studies and then discuss and debate the ethical decisions which had been made in each case.  I would love to teach a class like this on Tourism Development Ethics, not because I have all of the answers, but because I have a lot of questions.

My first real case study to share:  I’m looking for your thoughts and opinions here….. what would YOU do?  What do you think is ethically right in this situation?  What other options or questions can you think of that I have not listed?

Let’s say you found out about a place that is not on any tourist maps, yet is spectacular.  It’s hidden, so it would not easily be found by anyone who did not already know the way.  Based on your visit, here is what you know:

–         Some tourists have been here before, but very few.  It seems that there might be one group taking people here, but they have clearly chosen to keep it secret as even the guesthouses and long-term foreigners in the area do not know where it is

–         When asked, the people who show you around say they would indeed like more tourists to come here “because we never see foreigners.”

–         The area is very close to a school, so there will always be many kids around this site

–         The site is fragile.  Frequent visits, at least in its current state, would indeed cause damage to the location.

–         The area, like most farming areas in Cambodia, is relatively poor

–         Currently, locals guiding through the area do not seem to be charging set fees to visit the site, unlike nearby tourist sites where local “guides” (often children) demand a fee for their services.  They do though recognize that someone who is guiding should or could indeed be paid for this service, but they are still too genuinely interested in the foreign visitors to demand a fee.

Here are some of your options:

#1 Do nothing.  Tell no one.  Smile that you saw it and walk away.

Some questions:

Will everything remain the same with the community still farming and the secret kept?  Will someone else start to develop tourism there which will cause harm?   What if bringing more tourism to the village could actually support them in positive ways?  Is it right to walk away from a situation where your knowledge can help?  If the community really wants the tourism they say they are looking for, shouldn’t they be the ones to go out and market their area?  What if they just don’t know how to?

#2 Take select people there or tours of visiting foreigners, informing them that the location is a secret not to be shared.

Can you really control the number of visitors to a place?  Is it a slipper slope which will cause the tourist numbers to spiral and destroy the natural area?  Is it right for an outsider to control the demand for tourism in the area?  Who are you to pick who should/shouldn’t be allowed to see a beautiful hidden part of the world?  If the site is environmentally damaged even slightly, will the area be worse off than it was before?  Where is the line between “visitors creating friendly cultural exchange” and exploitation of an impoverished area?  If more people find out about the area than those in your immediate control, how can you insure that they follow best development/tourism practices?

#3 Work with the community, ask them what they want, and if they do continue to say that they want tourism developed in the area, tell everyone, put it on a website, and write about it in a book.

If a plethora of new groups know about the area, how can you control the information sharing needed to protect the area from further damage?  Will those who are not traveling with a responsible guide give things away in the community or give dollars to children at the local school?  If parents are making a fraction of a dollar a day farming, how will the community change when the “cutest” kids are able to bring in much more than that from generous tourists?  How will this effect education rates?  Without a formalized locally run system, will those who are making money (perhaps those with the best English skills) be looked at with jealousy by other community members as tourism grows?  Will the competition for tourism dollars destroy other economies in the area?  Will local corruption become worse?  Should a beautiful place be kept hidden or should everyone be allowed and invited to see it?

#4 Work with the community, ask them what they want, and if they do continue to say that they want tourism developed in the area, empower them, with assistance from professionals if needed, to help them to develop it based on community based tourism approach.

Will the community work together to use tourism generated funds to support local development programs or to more evenly distribute the funds among community members?  Will that too only be short term with competition taking over after tourism becomes very successful?  Shouldn’t the community be able to decide if/how much tourism they want, how much they want to charge, and who should benefit from this work in the area?

Let me know YOUR thoughts.  What would YOU do?  What other questions would you have?

  • http://talesfromethehood.wordpress.com J.

    It seems that you yourself may prefer option #4. But as written, I wouldn’t see #s 3 & 4 as mutually exclusive, necessarily. What specifically do you mean by “empowerment”? And maybe more to the point, if we ask a community what they want and they tell us, what would our basis be for not simply taking their answer at face value?

    When you have time you might do a little digging for anthropological research done around a very similar set of questions in Nepal. If I can find the references in my back correspondence I’ll send them to you by email (I was friends with the researcher), but it would have been in the mid-1990s along what since become the heavily over-touristed trekking routes around Pokara.

  • http://www.pepyride.org Daniela Papi

    Thanks, Jeff! Would love to read it….

    I actually have a preference for #1 :-) I feel that numbers 2 through 4 all would end up, in this case, destroying the area, and perhaps the local culture – and surely would harm the local school in some ways (even if it was able to generate income in #4). I don’t like the feeling of holding power to change which I am not using, but I also would not want to be involved in the negative impacts which would surely result. If #3, or #4 happens on their own down the line, I would be more inclined to get involved and help bring in community based tourism professionals to work to mitigate negative impacts.

    I do though want to see what others think or what other questions/outcomes I had not thought of. Looking forward to reading the Nepal research.

  • Eric

    Hmmm… I know it’s a hypothetical, but I’d guess that one big reason the community hasn’t done more to publicize the area is that they don’t know how. In that case, once they do figure it out, things will get ruined, unless someone else there first and helps them put a better system in place. Call me a cynic, but I think that development tends to happen, and often the best thing to do is to make sure it’s done in the most humane, tolerable way possible…
    After all, you could end up with a scenario like this one: