The rise and fall of South-East Asian tourism

Tourism is an extension of the commodification of modern life and an integral part of consumer culture. The development of South-East Asian tourism clearly illustrates how all-pervasive such commodification and consumerism can be.

by Anita Pleumarom

AT a World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference in Male on the Maldive Islands in February 1997, Seungdam Choi, director of the Korea Tourism Research Institute, commented that tourism in South Korea had a 'bad connotation because it was too consumer-oriented'. Now, he explained, the government was looking at it 'as an industry', and one calculation was particularly important in this new perception: 14 foreign tourists coming to Korea add up to selling one car (The Nation, 28 February 1997).

This is a perspective that points to tourism as an activity determined by the essential logic of capitalism. Since tourism has been recognised as a priority in most Asian economies, inter-sectoral comparisons of profitability play a crucial role.

Indeed, a study of tourists' motivation, behaviour and experience would be insufficient without an understanding of tourism as an extension of commodification of modern life and an integral part of modem consumer culture. International tourism promotion is driven by supply and demand within the capitalist market economy, and both tourist-generating and receiving societies are subject to the dictates of this international system. As Watson and Kopachevski observed,

'... people now live in a world in which tourism and tourist experience are major components. Such a world is one in which image, advertising, and consumerism - as framed by style, taste, travel, "designerism", and leisure - take primacy over production per se, and in which commoditisation is shaped and honed by specific, influential groups in society utilising a mixture of social, cultural, and political resources' (1996, 284).

In contrast to the notion that tourism growth is an epitome of freedom, choice, self-fulfilment and the realm of the 'authentic', modern tourism has often been seen as a reflection of 'supernational institutional will' (Lanfant/Graburn 1992, 94) and a consequence of 'the structural control over one's life, work, consumption, lifestyle and social relations' (Watson/Kopachevski 1996, 288). According to Rojek, in modern capitalist society, 'the time and space allocated for work and leisure can be determined by mathematical precision', and 'leisure activity is explored as a way of filling in the consumers' empty time' (1995, 6). Those who have the economic and political power to instil a sense of materialism and consumerism in society, are also able to shape tourists' consciousness, values and tastes.

'Mass tourism can also be interpreted as relations of power, and is... susceptible to the standardisation and homogenisation of all massified experiences, including both at the ideological and at the level of consumption. To the degree that this happens, individual thought, choice and action are destroyed' (ibid., 288).


The development of South-East Asian tourism clearly illustrates how all-pervasive the commodification of tourism can be. The products of the industry which make the tourist experience - or that which Urry has dubbed the 'tourist gaze' (1990) - are an amalgamation and packaging of formerly diverse elements for consumption, including places, services - e.g. transportation, accommodation, dining, recreation, and entertainment - natural and cultural features, hospitality and ambience. At the end of this sytem of administered consumerism, the product incorporates what Asian tourism critics have denounced for many years as the 'sale' of whole countries involving entire societies, their culture, their environment and their identity.

Usher, for example, described the Thai government's promotional campaign 'Visit Thailand Year 1987' as 'an extravaganza of shameless commercialism' which 'depicted everything up for sale - from spotless white beaches to luscious jungles, from colourful cultural events to beautiful Thai women...' (Usher 1992, 22).

Malaysian social critic and president of the Consumers' Association of Penang (CAP) Mohamed Idris raised the issues of modernisation based on Western values eclipsing Asian societies and changing people's leisure behaviour, describing the Malaysian situation as follows:

'In the past, most people would spend their free hours playing with their children, going on family picnics, or visiting their relatives and friends... Most people would enjoy some hobbies that would deeply satisfy them. Some would go for walks in the countryside, climb hills, swim in rivers and seas, and go fishing... Leisure would thus bring people close to nature, build healthy bonds within the family and with the community, deepen one's knowledge of humanity and the world, and manifest one's human creativity and feelings.

'Some people still do these things, but more and more of our leisure time is being taken up by new types of activities. Many people just plonk themselves on a chair and watch TV or video shows... If it's not TV or video, many people also now spend their free time in some kind of "fun for the moment". Society has become very commercialised. Advertisements have influenced people (particularly the young) to find enjoyment in quick thrills, new short-term sensations and trendy appearances' (Idris 1990, 251).

Idris' viewpoints suggest that the changes of leisure behaviour of Asians are not very different from those in the West. But there is the reminder that in many Asian countries, the transformation from traditional to modern society - accompanied by dramatic urbanisation, industrialisation, growth of technology and science, mass movements of people and the development of new social and personal opportunities - has happened in a period of less than two decades and been largely driven by external forces.

Disorder and alienation

The imposition of modern values on rapidly developing Asian societies appears to have had especially disintegrating effects and created a sense of disorder, alienation, fragmentation and uncertainty of people's experience. The processes of commodifi-cation and homogenisation, along with the mass circulation of new ideas, images and information, have been comprehensive and penetrating, with little margins left to prioritise traditional conventions, cultural customs, family and community values.

The 1977 Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) slogan for the Asia-Pacific travel and tourism industry, 'The consumer - the only person who matters' (cit. in Crick 1996, 25), seems to have become reality in the Asian newly industrialised countries (NICs) which have embraced Western consumer culture and lifestyles. In his book Megatrends Asia, Naisbitt described the remarkable shift from export-led to consumer-driven economy in the region and highlighted the emergence of the middle classes as prime movers to spread consumerism:

'The average Asian's living standard is bursting out of "survival" into consumption. Incomes are increasing dramatically... If Asian consumers continue their 6 to 10% annual expansion of the last decade, their middle classes will double and triple in the next decade. The Asian middle class, not counting Japan, could number between 800 million and 1 billion people by 2010, resulting in a stunning $8 to $10 trillion in spending power. That's in the neighbourhood of 50% more than today's US economy...

'Asia's young population is in its consumer spending prime. Each of the little dragon nations of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea has more than 65% of their population between 15 and 65 years of age. The percentages are also high for countries in developing Asia. Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, India, and the Philippines range between 59 to 66% ... 'Asia's middle classes are changing the economic, social and political landscape of the region. They are better educated, are marrying later and having fewer children. The young, urban middle classes of Asia are as sophisticated as any in the world. They lead sophisticated lifestyles and want sophisticated products and services. They are looking for quality as part of a self-conscious search for quality of life' (1996, 36pp).

According to Naisbitt, the upsurge of regional tourism is a major characteristic of this Asian consumer revolution:

'Suddenly, people in Asia can afford to travel, and exposure to satellite television has piqued their curiosity about faraway places - and not so faraway places... Ten years ago, executive-class cabins and lobbies of five-star hotels were the domains of Caucasians on holiday and Western business travellers working for multinationals in Asia. Frugal Asians, who used to fly coach for business and stayed at mid-price hotels, are increasingly taking those executive-class seats and checking into the region's upscale hotels... A new generation of middle-class Asians intent on visiting friends and family is creating an extraordinary opportunity for the mid-price hotels. Most growth is from Asians travelling to other Asian countries' (ibid; 48).

Notwithstanding that such descriptions fail to take into account the vast historical, socio-economic and cultural differences in the region and within individual countries, they partly explain why the last decade of high economic growth has driven conspicuous consumption to new levels and tourism has become a middle-class rite throughout the region.

Traditionally, a large proportion of the South-East Asian middle classes are ethnic Chinese who have accumulated wealth through family businesses such as retail trading. But over the last decade, professionals, managers, executives and medium entrepreneurs have generally witnessed a high degree of social mobility in countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Particularly the class of the so-called Asian 'yuppies' - young professionals and entrepreneurs - whose spending power can be up to 20 times more than the average citizen's has grown in leaps and bounds.

A considerable number of people have also made easy fortunes as stockmarket players, and land and real estate speculators. It is especially these 'nouveau riche' whose highest hope in life is success, measured in terms of material possessions and expressed in free-spending lifestyles - including tourism. According to estimates of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, for example, there were more than five million domestic tourists in 1996, and the number of Thai citizens travelling abroad was expected to reach almost two million in the same year, a growth of more than 500% since 1978! (The Nation, 27 November 1997).

Television and the advertising industry have become powerful tools in expanding materialistic values, and there has been a remarkable increase of advertisements related to leisure and tourism activities in both the print and electronic media over recent years. A flood of magazines, brochures, television documentaries and even soap operas, sponsored by tourism agencies, airlines and hotel companies, are targeted for potential tourists. For Watson and Kopachevski, this is a sign of societies approaching 'postmodernity':

'Tourism, like other commodities, is packaged for exchange by advertising, much of which appeals to people's deepest wants, desires and fantasies (often sexual), and is anchored in a dynamic of sign/image construction manipulation. As an integral part of modern culture, advertising's main function is twofold: one, to serve as a discourse about objects, symbols and ideas, and as a template for erecting monuments to consumption and self-indulgence; and, two, to persuade people that only in consumption can they find not only satisfaction, but also mental and physical health, social status, happiness, rest, regeneration and contentment' (1996, 286).

Such powerful symbolic messages spread through the mass media have certainly contributed to the change of attitudes towards work, leisure and tourism. A survey by the Far Eastern Economic Review showed that 60% of working men and women from Asian countries opted for more leisure - that is, spending less time at work - to improve their enjoyment of life. Significantly more of those with high incomes - Singaporeans and Hong Kong Chinese - were in favour of more free time than those from less developed countries such as the Philippines (FEER 1992).

Car ownership is not only considered as a symbol of new wealth and prosperity in Asia, but has also brought a sense of individual mobility and facilitated the growth of leisure travel. But the explosion of car traffic has come with high costs, as it severely constrains already inadequate road infrastructure and causes a myriad of environmental problems.

In recent years, the massive advertising for all-terrain vehicles has also encouraged off-road driving as a fashionable leisure activity. To promote new tourist routes and destinations, for example, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, in concert with large automotive companies, has sponsored motor rallies and caravans in the country's nature reserves and off-road driving shows from Thailand to China, Burma and Laos, which has repeatedly provoked protests by environmentalists.

Another major reason for the domestic travel boom is the rampant pollution, congestion and the deterioration of quality of life in the large cities. On weekends and holidays, recreationists of all classes and ages are seeking to escape to beaches, nature reserves and rural areas, or visit religious and cultural sites in the provinces. It has also become common for government agencies, private companies, and even non-governmental organisations to combine work and leisure by holding staff meetings and seminars at upcountry hotels and resorts. Affluent city-dwellers are touring their countries by plane and car, stay at hotels of international standards and purchase expensive country homes.

Greater privatisation

While the proliferation of hotels, secondary homes, golf resorts, theme parks and integrated holiday complexes is a visible sign of an increasingly leisure-oriented consumer culture, spiralling land, house and food prices have affected less privileged social groups and hundreds of thousands of low-cost houses are desperately needed.

The development of commercial leisure and tourism facilities has also resulted in greater privatisation of natural areas, causing land use conflicts and environmental disruption. While recreational activities in natural settings were originally free for all, many of these have now become costly resort activities with limited social access.

Mega-shopping-centres which are proliferating in Asian cities are also spectacular monuments of consumer culture and have become an important part of social life for urban families. While greenery and open spaces for outdoor recreation are utterly lacking, developers in a continuing effort to attract customers have made shopping malls meccas for entertainment and dining with a wide range of restaurants, pubs, movie theatres, swimming pools and amusement parks. On weekends and holidays, malls are filled with young people and families who regard them as economical 'resort' destinations.

For the well-off consumers, shopping has become a major popular leisure activity not only at home, but also abroad. A TAT study of 1994 revealed an increase of 37.36% in the expenditure of Thais travelling abroad during the previous year (Pravit/Patcharee 1996, 50). In 1995, the top two destinations for Thai outbound tourists were the regional shopping centres Hong Kong and Singapore, and about half of their expenditure was classified under souvenir purchases. The number of wealthy people joining organised shopping tours to Europe to buy fashionable designer goods has also increased. An article in a Thai-language newspaper commented:

'Going abroad may be beneficial in terms of education and foreign travel experience, but there are certain people who just throw their money around to buy things not to cover their bodies but just to satisfy their "desires". They desire to wear expensive brand-name clothes and they desire to flaunt it to others. They desire to be talked about in society, among their peers. In the final analysis, these very people are quietly creating an environment of competition for conspicuous consumption' (cit. in ibid., 48).

Advanced technology, together with growing prosperity, has driven the proliferation of credit cards across the Asian region. The most lucrative targets are the middle classes and students whose professional skills ensure their future affluence and encourage them to spend more through 'plastic money'. A credit card offers financial flexibility and convenience, and many tourism advertisements have attempted to capitalise on this advantage by suggesting one does not need cash to go on vacation. Some card companies offer special services as incentives such as discounts on room rates at hotels, the option to become a member of an air travel mileage programme and international emergency assistance.

While there is the argument in Thailand that the shift from a society based on patron-client relationships to capitalism has its positive side as it fuels people's aspirations for individual liberty and, eventually, a more democratic and egalitarian society, social critics such as Sulak Sivaraksa regard the capitalist consumer culture - as revealed in the free-wheeling hedonism and overspending of many tourists - as a menace that affects the whole society. Sulak commented:

'Today's motto is "I buy therefore I am..." (Consumerism is) the promotion of greed for all ... the social catastrophe of Thai society lies in the fact that consumerism has drugged people into climbing the social ladder. But all this is a deception, and whenever we fall into this trap, it's the end.'


Large parts of society have grown accustomed to consuming on credit and less affluent people have been trapped in debts as a result of purchasing goods and services which are not necessary in everyday life. Many people are now seeking a short route to make money, often in inappropriate ways. Recently, it was found that a rising number of Thai teenagers enter prostitution, not because of poverty, but simply to indulge in a materialistic and a leisurely lifestyle. Neighbouring countries and even Japan are experiencing similar problems, with young people joining the sex trade just to be able to enjoy the fashionable crazes of the day (The Nation, 15 April 1997).

How much consumption patterns - and thus the growth of regional tourism - depend on macro-economic developments shows the current recession in several countries. Economists have even predicted an end of the 'Asian economic miracle' in view of looming crises in the financial sector, the slowdown of investments, and feared mass layoffs of industrial workers and white-collar employees. Undoubtedly, a further free fall of Asian economies would have tremendous implications for the regional leisure and tourism industry.

For instance, based on the forecasted growth of Thailand's gross domestic product (GDP), it was estimated that the number of Thai outbound travellers would rise around 14% annually in 1997 and 1998 (The Nation, 27 November 1997). But these optimistic forecasts are now unlikely to be realised. Due to the increasing current account deficit in the country, the Thai government resorted to measures discouraging overseas travel. Apart from a public campaign to promote domestic tourism, it announced a limit on the value of products imported by Thai tourists of US$400 in order to reduce shopping expenditures abroad. As a result, the growth rate of travel abroad slowed down to 7% in 1996 compared to double-digit growth in previous years.

The further deterioration of the Thai economy led to a 30% decline of outbound tourism during the first six months of 1997. But the depreciation of the local currency beginning in July 1997, has delivered the most serious blow: Not only is outbound travel expected to fall by more than 50% since the Thai baht lost over 20% of its value, but domestic tourism is also facing decline due to increased costs of travel, accommodation, food and beverages within the country. Meanwhile, however, tourism officials have predicted higher inflows of foreign tourists because Thailand has become a much cheaper holiday destination in the wake of the baht devaluation.

In South Korea, concerns have also grown that people spend far more on vacation overseas than the country receives from foreign visitors, which resulted in a US$2 billion loss in its tourism balance and contributed to its worsening current account deficit in 1996. This prompted the government in May 1997 to impose a fee of US$11 on Koreans each time they book an overseas vacation (Bangkok Post, 31 May 1997).

Even in Japan, normally associated with unbounded riches, average citizens have been called upon to curb non-essential consumer spending since the burst of the bubble economy in 1991. Although the continuing recession has so far not led to a decline in the number of Japanese outbound travellers, holiday-makers have tended to reduce their length of stay and to consume less inside and outside the country than during the economic boom times in the second half of the 1980s (The Nation,10 February 1997). (Third World Resurgence No. 103, March 1999)

Anita Pleumarom coordinates the Bangkok-based Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m. - team) and publishes New Frontiers - a bimonthly newsletter on tourism, development and environment issues in the Mekong region - with support from TWN.