There’s nothing necessarily wrong about being a tourist. A tourist is somebody who happens to be more interested in the rest of the world than he is in his own little puddle.”
The recent thawing in relations between the US and Cuba, culminating in President Obama’s March 2016 visit to the island, has prompted a slew of articles like this one urging readers to visit Cuba before it changes or is ruined.
These articles raise interesting questions not only about how tourists view the view countries they visit but also how they view each other.
In a passionate and excellent article for Flood magazine, Natalie Morales urges us to Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined and asks:
What exactly do you think will ruin Cuba? Running water? Available food? Freedom of speech? Uncontrolled media and Internet? Access to proper healthcare? You want to go to Cuba before the buildings get repaired? Before people can actually live off their wages? Or before the oppressive Communist regime is someday overthrown? Make sure you hurry and go observe these human beings in the time bubble that was created especially for you so that you could post a #nofilter photo of it on Instagram.
As tourists, we can fetishise destinations, as though any change in a place will somehow render it less ‘authentic’. As Natalie Morales highlights, that renders the people who live there secondary to our notion of how a place should be and makes them just another part of the scenery.
Alex Garland made a similar point in The Beach. Garland’s novel was criticised for presenting Thais as two-dimensional although that missed the point he was making, namely that this was how the backpackers he was writing about viewed them. The Thais were just part of the scenery to the backpackers’ own south-east Asian fantasy, the result of watching too many Vietnam films.
In Cuba’s case, to equate change with ruining the country is selfish and patronising: it overlooks why the country appears to be a ‘timewarp’ and makes huge assumptions about the desires of Cuban people.
If renewed economic relations with the US bring changes, it would be perverse to view those as ‘ruinous’ when it was the US’s refusal of economic ties with Cuba which have caused so many of Cuba’s problems and denied opportunities to Cubans. No-one would surely celebrate those economic sanctions, yet we worship its fruits in the form of the vintage cars cruising the Malecon and lament the prospect of change.
Christopher Isherwood considered the dilemma of changing and modernising historical places when he wrote about Cuzco in The Condor and The Cow but concluded that the:
The alternative is unthinkable – to condemn thousands of people to a life of squalor and disease for the pleasure of the archaeologists and romantically-minded tourists.
Isherwood’s sentiment, expressed in 1947, is equally applicable to Cuba now.
Taken to its extreme, this kind of glorification of an ‘authentic’ or ‘unchanged’ state can be harmful. The more that tourists demand the picturesque and authentic, the greater the risk of exploitation. In Cuba’s case, economic conditions drive young females into the sex industry.
In a different example, Nic Dunlop has documented in his book Brave New Burma how Thai businessmen exploit the Karen people, whose only option is to return to refugee camps, by running tourist villages in which electricity is forbidden so as to preserve the ‘natural’ experience preferred by tourists. No doubt there are many other examples.
We have all heard people express the wish to have seen famous sights before they became too popular or how pleasant somewhere would be if only it wasn’t overrun or spoiled by tourists or had those thoughts ourselves. It doesn’t take much reflection to realise that a desire that everyone else stays home while we travel to ‘unspoiled’ places is at best unrealistic.
With more than a billion tourist journeys each year, we have to accept, as Nomadic Matt writes in this post, that people will travel and that all we can do is vote with our wallets and our feet to encourage sustainable development and tourism so that places don’t get spoiled.
Yes, 19th-century clergyman Francis Culvert wrote that “of all noxious animals… the most noxious is a tourist” and we all know that it is tourists who spoil places and not travellers. Noel Coward even wrote a song about how it was all the wrong people who travelled (Why Do all the Wrong People Travel?), although we probably shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the tourist is always the other fellow (but that is probably for another post).
In an interview with Ron Gluckman, Alex Garland cringed at the thought that the film of The Beach might encourage hordes of people to visit Thailand: “God, I hope not. That would worry me. But it’s all speculation until the movie comes out. I really don’t see Leo fans jumping on planes and coming to Thailand. I hope not.”
We know how that turned out.
It is inevitable that Cuba will change in time. Everywhere does.