Paradise Found… And Exploited

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WORDS Regina Featherstone

We weren’t even a hundred metres away from our resort before we started to see some multi-coloured tin sheds with people sitting outside. As my friends and I continued walking along the beach we saw signs for manicures, massages and hair plaiting handwritten on cardboard. My friend encouraged me to get a massage because we were on schoolies and they were much cheaper than the resort.

We were greeted with several ‘Bulas’ before entering the shed, which I would describe as having severely lacked structural integrity. As soon as we stepped inside, a feeling of unease stirred inside of me. Two middle-aged ladies with neat Afros asked us to lay down on the massage bed. I did as instructed and found myself staring down at the dirt. It took me a moment to realise that we were in someone’s home and that the floor was dirt… not carpet, tiling or timber, but dirt. This was the first time of my then 18 years experience as a white Australian female that I had seen anything like that.

I felt the coconut oil being poured onto my back for what felt like minutes, and was overcome by the smell. I could feel her fingers deep in my shoulders and began to feel more tense than I had walking in. The more she rubbed the sicker I felt. I had to ask her to stop. I gave her the money and walked back towards the beach. I felt guilty about this sense of entitlement I had.

On the beach I could see the inequality in the Fijian economy. To my right I saw the resort filled with people sipping expensive cocktails, and to my left I saw children playing soccer with a ratty old ball in front of dilapidated houses. I felt undeserving and spoilt. I could not rid myself of guilt, yet I couldn’t explain why I felt like this.

In later discussions with my friends they made valid points that tourism is a huge part of developing nations’ economies and that if people didn’t visit they would suffer further. This seems to be the mantra of most people staying at five-star resorts in Bali, Thailand, Fiji or Vanuatu, where flights and accomodation are becoming more competitive. It makes sense. You have worked hard and you deserve a holiday. Yet there will always be those less fortunate. That doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to indulge and reward yourself. However, just because you bought a BinTang T-shirt doesn’t mean you have helped the economy. There are other ways to be a sustainable traveller and feel good about your indulgence.

Tourism is the fourth largest industry in the world. In 2011, according to the United Nations (UN), it created 235 million jobs worldwide. With the growth of tourism in the global economy there is now more exploitation than ever in developing nations. Tourism in developing nations is primarily an economic endeavour that has social consequences while in developed nations it is a social activity with economic consequences. The perception is that tourism in developing nations brings employment, which is true, however it is often seasonal, exploitative and highly competitive. Developing nations that lack infrastructure, resources and economic sustainability often enter into tourism too hastily. This forces economic leakages towards imports of food and materials, which further negatively impacts on the community.

The online travel magazine Sustainable Travel International states that the average tourist will use the same amount of water in one day as a villager in a developing country producing rice in 100 days. The environmental effect that pools, spas, showers, golf courses and cleaning have on the water supply can be phenomenal and can take priority over nearby villages. The UN supports sustainable tourism and emphasises that companies are “to reduce or control the negative environmental and social impacts resulting from tourism, while continuing to benefit local economies”. Good governance and infrastructure is key to maintaining sustainable tourism.

As individuals we can research if our money is going to an international hotel giant or perhaps a more locally owned business. We can learn how or where our accommodation sources food and support companies that are trying to remain local. Even basic things make a difference such as respecting plant life, trying to minimise water use during our visit and avoiding litter. Spending money within local villages rather than at the bar at the resort makes a huge difference.

All of these things sound basic but the most important is the research in booking a destination and accommodation. The deals and luxury holidays that Australians can experience overseas are unimaginable for the same price here in Australia. Although we all want to get the most value for money, there must be a point where our social conscience intervenes. The cheaper the price, the further we should be conscious of the ethics behind our indulgence.