Globalisation and tourism: Deadly mix for indigenous peoples

Indigenous peoples are paying a high price for tourism, says Raymond de Chavez. In their drive for profits, transnational corporations which dominate the international tourist industry have, with the complicity of governments (particularly those of the Third World), devastated the lives and lifestyles of indigenous peoples. The process of globalisation will only exacerbate their plight.

GLOBALISATION and tourism have become a deadly mix for indigenous peoples. Tourism's impact on indigenous peoples' way of life and on their control of and access to their resources and environment has become more pronounced with globalisation of the world economy.

For several decades now, tourism has been a major source of revenue for countries, specifically in the Third World. Its growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. In the 1950s, 25 million people travelled to a foreign destination. In the 1960s, this grew to 70 million. By 1997, 617 million tourists had been reported by the Madrid-based World Tourism Organisation to have travelled to foreign countries.1

The World Tourism Organisation has even predicted that by the 21st century, tourist arrivals would have reached billions annually. It foresees that by the year 2010, 1 billion tourists would have travelled abroad and by 2020, this would have increased to 1.6 billion.2

In terms of revenues, this would easily translate to billions of dollars yearly. In the 1960s, for example, tourism earned 'only' US$6.8 billion. In 1997, revenues jumped to US$448 billion. By the year 2000, the WTO predicts tourism earnings to reach $621 billion and by 2010, a whopping $1.5 trillion.

Tourism is also touted as a major source of employment worldwide. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), an aggrupation of more than 80 chief executives of the travel and tourism industry, tourism employs directly or indirectly more than 260 million. This translates to one out of nine jobs in the world economy generated by the industry. By the coming decade, the workforce is expected to increase by 100 million more jobs, 70% of these in the Asia-Pacific region.

The WTTC in fact now considers tourism as the world's biggest industry and a 'key 21st century economic and employment driver'.3 Its growth for the past decades has been a constant 9% annually, in spite of the economic slowdown. While acknowledging a decline in tourism activities due to the Asian financial crisis, the WTTC recommended in February 1998 that governments give continued priority to tourism to assist Asian economic recovery.

Tourism as export strategy

It is no wonder therefore that cash-starved Third World countries view tourism as a shortcut to rapid development. Its potential to earn billions of dollars easily has resulted in it being viewed as a panacea for debt-ridden countries. But more than this, tourism has become part and parcel of multilateral financial institutions' package for financial bail-outs for countries in distress. Tourism is now being pursued as a serious development strategy for the Third World.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has included tourism as part of its Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). The SAPs, which are preconditions for the approval of financial assistance, require the indebted country to:

  • be integrated into the global economy;

  • deregulate and liberalise its economy;

  • shift from an agriculture-based to a manufacturing and service industry-based economy; and

  • liberalise its financial sector.4

In essence, these preconditions link the Third World country to the world economy. The SAP opens up the local economy to foreign investments and multinational corporations, while eliminating subsidies and protection to local industries. Under IMF-World Bank prescriptions, tourism is classified as an export strategy. With its capacity to earn billions of dollars, tourism is being promoted by the IMF-WB as a means for Third World countries to repay their debts to them.

Third World governments have therefore tried to fulfil their commitments to these SAPs by large-scale investments in tourism-related ventures. In conjunction with financial multilateral institutions and travel and tourism transnational corporations (TNCs), they have launched infrastructure projects such as roads, hotels and tourist-promotion programmes. Worldwide, public and private investments have reached $800 billion annually, accounting for 12% of total worldwide investments.

But these IMF-WB conditiona-lities have proven to be insufficient to integrate and open up Third World economies. The World Trade Organisation has taken further steps to fully liberalise the world economy. The most important international agreement with direct bearing on tourism is the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Signed in Morocco in April 1994, this agreement '... sets up a legal and operational framework for the gradual elimination of barriers to international trade in services'.5 GATS is an offshoot of the Uruguay Round talks of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Trade Organisation's precursor.

In short, GATS makes it easier for big tourist and travel TNCs to invest in the local tourism industries of Third World countries. Among others, it removes restrictions on foreign corporations' abilities to transfer staff from one country to another; and enables them to use trademarks, create and operate branch offices abroad, and more importantly, to repatriate their earnings to their mother companies abroad.

Under GATS, protection to the local tourism industry would be construed as unfair practice and would thus have to be eliminated. TNCs now enjoy the same benefits as local travel and tourism agencies. This opens the local industry to competition from giant TNCs, which virtually means effectively transferring its control to them.

Other international agreements integrating the tourism industry into the global economy include the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMs), which removes the requirement for foreign companies to utilise local input. The proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) also 'secure[s] for foreign investors, unfettered rights to invest in all sectors of the host country's economy and to obtain for them the same treatment as investors from the host nation'.6 This proposal has, however, been shelved recently as a result of intense lobbying by non-governmental organisations, indigenous peoples' organisations included.

Threat to indigenous peoples

But what does globalisation and tourism mean for the indigenous peoples? It is already an established fact that tourism had brought pernicious and long-term damaging effects on indigenous peoples even prior to globalisation. The present economic order further exacerbates and hastens these impacts.

For one, indigenous communities, which have otherwise been left untouched by traditional tourism activities, have now been targeted for tourism ventures, most specifically, ecotourism. A relatively new variant, ecotourism is described as environment-friendly, sustainable and nature-based. It came about as a response to the growing environmental awareness worldwide these past decades.

Eager to cash in on this trend, the industry promoted ecotourism as an alternative activity, ostensibly to promote tourism while protecting the environment. This activity 'involves visiting relatively undisturbed natural areas with the aim of studying, admiring and enjoying the scenery, wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural aspects'.7 It includes spelunking, mountain climbing, scuba diving, bird watching, and whale watching, among others.

This tourism sub-sector has been met with remarkable success. Today, it has become the fastest growing sub-sector, growing at a rate of 10%-15% annually. Ecotourism now accounts for 25% of all leisure trips abroad.8

It is important to note that ecotourism destinations are more often than not in the Third World. Tourism here has been increasing annually by 6% as compared to 3.5% in developed countries.9 After all, it is in these areas that relatively undisturbed and preserved natural environments and exotic areas are located. But it is also in these countries that the majority of the distinct indigenous cultures can be found.

To a large extent, therefore, indigenous communities have become targets of ecotourism in this globalised economy.

In Africa, tourism's effects on indigenous peoples have been profound: widescale eviction from their lands, economic dislocation, breakdown of traditional values, and environmental degradation. Although ecotourism is a relatively new phenomenon internationally, it has long been existing in Africa.

In the 1950s, the colonial governments of Tanzania and Kenya under the British legalised the hunting and culling of wild animals by 'white settlers', thus paving the way for mass tourism.10 They set up zones for the exclusive use of hunters and prevented access to local inhabitants. Lodges and campsites were established near the preserves, making them major revenue earners. Some 70% of the protected areas and wildlife preserves, however, straddled lands of the Masai tribe.

Basically pastoralists, the Masai used these lands for their economic activities and traditional practices. The ban thus dislocated them economically. Forced out of their traditional grounds, they were left with little or no support from the government. And even after independence, the government failed to provide them with social services such as education and employment.

The Masai's traditional economic activity - pastoralism - has been attacked as primitive and destructive. Yet it has been noted that 'pastoralism and conservation of nature go hand in hand'.11 Alienated from their main economic activity and disadvantaged from job opportunites by a lack of education, the Masai were subjected to poverty.

Even the Masai's traditional socio-political institutions have suffered as a consequence of tourism. Lands outside the preserves where the Masai have been resettled are considered communal. In these areas, residents are registered, and land and resources are to be distributed equally by a management committee.

However, corrupt officials have registered even non-residents who have monopolised prime lands near the preserves. Land disputes have thus arisen. Elders, traditional mediators of conflicts, have become powerless against non-residents who are often backed by powerful persons.

Destruction of properties by wildlife has also been reported but the government has not given any compensation to affected residents. This has caused disruption in the relationship between the tribes and the animals, which are given priority because of tourism. As a consequence, the 'Masai ... are coming to abhor the very wild animals they have successfully coexisted with for centuries'.12

Tourism has not spared the environment and biodiversity. The rise in tourist arrivals in these preserves - more so with globalisation - has increased deforestation, pollution and disruption in the ecological balance. In the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya and in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania, forests adjacent to lodges and camping grounds have been cut down due to the demand for firewood.

The massive influx of tourists and their vehicles has also caused destruction of grass cover, affecting plant and animal species in the area. Hotels have dumped their sewage in Masai settlement areas while campsites have polluted adjacent rivers.

Masai culture has further been threatened and commercialised. Negative Western values have influenced the Masai youth, leading to a loss of traditional values, prostitution, and the spread of AIDS.

Postcards portraying tribes in their traditional costumes abound in these preserves. It is in the interest of ecotourism to 'preserve' indigenous communities and their practices since exotic tribes with exotic practices serve as the main selling point to foreign tourists. 'There is rarely an acknowledgement - much less support - of indigenous people's struggle for cultural survival, self-determination, freedom of cultural expression, rights to ancestral lands, and control over land use and resource management.'13

In the Philippines, where tourism has long been considered as a major dollar-earner, ecotourism has also become a priority. Blessed with a rich biodiversity, the Philippines has developed ecotourism as a strategy to entice more foreign tourists and increase its share in world tourism revenue. Its Department of Tourism (DOT)'s Master Plan aims to develop 'sustainable' tourism while making the Philippines a leading tourist destination in Asia.14

In support of this thrust is the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act (NIPAS) of 1992, which classifies certain areas as protected zones. The DOT has identified 17 protected areas all over the country as suitable for ecotourism. It is important to note that the majority of these areas are territories of indigenous peoples.

In the Cordillera in the northern Philippines, tourism continues to affect adversely many of its 1.3 million indigenous population. Sagada in Mountain Province, home to the indigenous Kankanaeys, is known internationally for its cool climate, rice terraces, and caves, among others. Its people have maintained their indigenous way of life, subsistence economy and sustainable relationship with nature for centuries.

In recent years, tourism arrivals have grown tremendously, caused in part by ecotourism promotion packages advertising Sagada as a pristine community where one can commune with nature. Hotels and inns mushroomed, changing the town's landscape and straining its water resources. Pollution caused by littering and improper waste disposal has now become a major problem for the community.

Apart from environmental degradation, the influx of tourists has disrupted the Kankanaeys' traditions and practices. The solemnity and sacredness of rituals, such as those relating to the agricultural cycle and passage of life, have been affected due to the presence of curious tourists. Caves, traditionally their burial grounds, have been vandalised by graffiti, and some of the bones of their ancestors stolen.

Western influences have also taken their toll on the local community. These include the production, distribution and use of prohibited drugs such as marijuana and hashish. Taboos have been constantly broken by foreign tourists. Tourists, for example, have bathed in the nude in waterfalls, which is frowned upon by the local community.15

In 1995, the world-famous Ifugao Rice Terraces in Banawe, Ifugao province, was declared by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site. This was part of the Philippine government's campaign to sell Ifugao as a major tourist destination in the world.16

The influx of tourists over the decades has similarly affected the Ifugaos, the indigenous inhabitants of the province. Foremost is the disruption of traditional economic practices of the community. The builders of the world-renowned rice terraces, the Ifugaos for centuries have subsisted on crops planted in their terraces. With the entry of tourists and hotels, the lure of money from tourist-related businesses such as selling of woodcarvings, became more attractive than subsistence farming. This has left many terraces untended and in danger of deterioration.

Commercial production of woodcarvings has also affected nearby forests. Trees have been cut down to support commercial woodcarving activities that cater to foreign as well as domestic tourist demand. This has led to the drying up of water sources much needed for irrigation.

Joan Carling of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance aptly summed up the effects of tourism on the indigenous peoples in the Cordillera when she wrote:17

'The tourism industry has facilitated the further disintegration of the peoples' indigenous way of life. Cash production for the tourism industry has led to commercialism and individualism in contrast to the indigenous ways of simple living and mutual cooperation. Likewise, the commercialisation of their culture has led to undignified ways of seeking a livelihood such as allowing themselves to be photographed as souvenirs or to do their indigenous dance for a fee. This practice was never part of their culture.'

The pervasive effects of globalised tourism can also be seen in the way it has affected other indigenous peoples all over the world. In the Cook Islands in the Pacific, a 204-room hotel was built on land sacred to the local people. The construction has caused environmental damage amounting to US$1 million.18

In the Russian Federation's Providenskij and Tchukogskij regions, home to the indigenous Tchukchi peoples, the development of tourism in the past years has affected their source of livelihood. Known areas of walrus concentration such as those in Rugor's Bay and the isle of Arykamchechen have become ecotourism destinations. Sightseeing tour groups ride on motorboats to walruses' breeding grounds.

But a rise in such tours has affected the walrus population. Visitor arrivals have caused stress among the walruses, causing a decline in their population. This has in turn affected the quality and quantity of walrus catch, traditionally the Tchukchi peoples' source of livelihood.19

Tourism's high cost

Indigenous peoples are paying a high price for tourism. In their desire to cash in on the billion-dollar profits from this industry, governments, specifically in the Third World, and transnational corporations have disregarded the interests of indigenous peoples.

The effects have been devastating. Indigenous peoples have been evicted from their traditional lands, their control and access to their natural resources compromised. They have suffered social degradation brought about by foreign influences and the commercialisation of their culture. Even the rich biodiversity of their natural resources has suffered from pollution and environmental damage, unable to support the growing number of tourist arrivals.

What few benefits indigenous peoples derive from tourism are far outweighed by the damage it has caused them. They have been made to bear the brunt of an industry over which they have neither say nor control.

With globalisation, these threats have been exacerbated. International agreements that open up access to the local tourism industry by big travel and tourism TNCs will only speed up exploitation of the natural resources, culture and way of life of indigenous peoples.

Ecotourism, which has been touted as the fastest growing form of tourism in the Third World, has not proven to be sustainable at all. Rather, it has targeted indigenous communities as areas of destination and exploitation in the guise of being environment-friendly.

Unless indigenous peoples have a direct participation in the planning, implementation, and regulation of tourism activities that affect them, and unless benefit-sharing mechanisms are put in place, tourism can never redound to their interest. Indigenous peoples will continue to be mere cogs in the wheel of this billion-dollar industry.


1. Christine Pluss, 'Tourism - A Thriving Force for Whom?', paper presented at the Workshop on Tourism and Indigenous Peoples during the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, 28 July 1998.

2. Annette Groth, 'Economic Importance of Tourism', 1997.

3. News Release of the World Travel and Tourism Council, 2 February 1998.

4. Paul Gonsalves, 'Structural Adjustment and the Political Economy of the Third World', Contours 7 (March 1995): 34.

5. John Madeley, 'Foreign Exploits: Transnationals and Tourism', CIIR Briefing, 1995.

6. Chakravarthi Raghavan, 'MAI or MIA: Global Welfare Rules for TNCs', no. 75 , p.29.

7. 'The Promise of Ecotourism', Ibon Facts and Figures, no. 20 (31 October 1998), p.2.

8. Ibid.

9. Ole Kamuaro, 'Ecotourism: Suicide or Development', Voices from Africa: Sustainable Development, no. 6 (August 1996), p.59.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., p.60.

12. Joseph Ole Karia, 'Impact of Tourism', paper presented at the Workshop on Tourism and Indigenous Peoples during the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, 28 July 1998.

13. Ole Kamuaro, 'Ecotourism: Suicide or Development', Voices from Africa: Sustainable Development, no. 6 (August 1996), p. 63.

14. 'The Promise of Ecotourism', Ibon Facts and Figures, no. 20 (31 October 1998), p.3.

15. Joan Carling, 'The Tourism Industry in the Philippines and Its Impact to Cordillera Indigenous Peoples', paper presented at the Workshop on Tourism and Indigenous Peoples during the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, 28 July 1998.

16. Wilfredo Alangui, paper on Ifugao and the Tourism Industry, 1999.

17. Joan Carling, 'The Tourism Industry in the Philippines and Its Impact to Cordillera Indigenous Peoples', paper presented at the Workshop on Tourism and Indigenous Peoples during the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, 28 July 1998, p.3.

18. John Madeley, 'Foreign Exploits: Transnationals and Tourism', CIIR Briefing, 1995, p.24.

19. Kalantagrau Jurij, Speech of delegate of Tchukchi peoples - Russian Federation, presented at the Workshop on Tourism and Indigenous Peoples during the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, 28 July 1998, p.3.

(Third World Resurgence No. 103, March 1999)

Raymond Chavez is a member of the research staff at Tebtebba Foundation.