Neo-colonialism of the third world by tourist dollars has been acknowledged by the first world for some time. But the stranglehold Western money has on third world economies is much more destructive. Half the worlds poor live in SE Asia. Guess where our cheap clothes come from?
Lonely Planet does not recommend that its readers stay in Old Delhi – they suggest the backpackers’ ghetto of Paharganj. But the novice and expert India travelers logged on to Indiamike.com heap mixed reviews on Paharganj; they suggest staying elsewhere in the city, in neighborhoods precisely like Old Delhi. A former New Yorker that I know, now living in Mumbai, though seasoned-enough in his travels to Delhi, says New Delhi is beautiful, Old Delhi is crazy, and Paharganj is a loud mess. I’ve gotten my rounds of inoculations and in five short days from the typing of these words, I will be landing in Delhi and headed into the possibly beautiful, undoubtedly crazy, and often filthy cataclysm that is India.
It would be accurate to say that India probably does not conjure images of wealth and splendor, and has not done so for centuries. The media proclaims it one of the world’s great emerging economies – relatively true – while the country itself promotes its growing middle class – partly true. What is wholly true, regardless of the differing percentages produced by official sources, is that present-day India is home to more of the world’s poor than any other nation.
And yet, we still go there to see the whole spectacle on display. In fact, we crowd into these kinds of places the world over, with our dollars and euros and cameras and trekking gear and malaria pills, to watch the way the Third World lives. It’s a new colonialism predicated on the wallets of those who have housing, non-earthen floors, computers, electricity, enough food to stay alive, and travel insurance; a new colonialism wherein those who lack just such amenities and necessities ply their authentically squalid way of life to the visiting hordes. They are selling and we are buying cheap. We flood into poorer nations to benefit from our strong currencies, running over local cultures to gain access to ever more remote villages, ever more authentic ways of life. For us Westerners, it is the experience of witnessing people who struggle daily under the weight of cheap labor, selling bright saris at a charmingly ramshackle tin-roofed stall. But this is what the Westerner goes to places like Thailand, Kerala, Bali, and Bahia for: the local flavor of people who will most likely never know the kind of comfort such visitors enjoy back home.
In a few days I will be guilty of this too. I will have my vibrant photos. I will have my scruffy backpacker’s beard. And I will be able to return back home, to New York.
This being the case, I cannot help but hear voices. “Tourism as Neo-Colonialism” is not a new idea. Many people my age have sat through a sociology, ethnography, or critical theory class in college during the late nineties and read at least one article on the subject. And we all know that there was that one student, that cocky bastard in the class who could spew the canon of authors responsible for the evolution of neo-colonial criticism. The list usually starts with Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. Most of the class nodded along, squinting their eyes and pursing their lips – gestures meant to feign that they comprehended the student’s argument, but more importantly, to signify that they knew the names of the authors, too. The student in my class was named Patrick.
Patrick’s discourse began with Said and Frantz Fanon and eventually spiraled into post-Colonial theory like that of Bill Ashcroft. I have no way to know if Patrick was intimately knowledgeable about the subject, but I do remember the feeling of wanting to totally disregard everything he said. The hubris of his syntax and the withering arrogance with which he sparred against those who disagreed with him were off-putting. But in the academic context, such effusive displays of apparent knowledge (i.e. Patrick giving off the appearance of possessing deep knowledge about a subject very few knew anything about) was enough to give Patrick power and render most of us in the room powerless. It was a power that I craved; a power Patrick would bring to the classroom, wield, and leave the majority of us generally speechless. This is a type of power that determines
the tenor of the environment in which it is exerting its influence, as all power does. Ironically enough, the views that he espoused in the context of a peer group that lacked his specialized knowledge – the views of theorists who saw the perceived and actual power imbalance created by the West’s money and firearms – created our classroom’s own miniature version of oppressor and oppressed.
For many countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America, the South Pacific, and, in growing numbers, parts of South and Southeast Asia, vast sectors of the economy are becoming more heavily reliant on tourism. This leads to having broad swaths of the population locked into various levels of the service industry. When the members of the service industry in these particular regions (as opposed to, say, Western Europe) are earning their wages in the local currency, the value of their work, in terms of money earned, is deflated. The visiting Westerner has the power to bargain downward – to play one rickshaw driver off another – to secure an ever lower fare for him or herself. Not only that, but when a majority of any regional or national population is almost entirely dependent on the beneficence of foreign tourism, events like the 2008 Recession can nearly ruin the economy, and thus the individual or family unit. And as masses of tourists flood regions used to particular ways of life – like the small villages of Kerala in southern India – traditions themselves are changed. Things like air conditioning come to be offered, ultimately straining the local power grid or requiring ever-increasing amounts of diesel to power generators that chug smoke into the air. Small villages or religious rituals become theater. One cannot help but wonder how this would affect life in such a place. Consider the minor discomforts we experience as our New York streets are clogged with ambling Europeans and obese Midwesterners in November and December.
But could the benefits of having such an influx of money not outweigh the detriments, or at least offset them? In a country like India – where the number of poor in one state, Bihar, outnumber the cumulative poverty of twenty-six sub-Saharan nations – could the influx of over $11 billion annually not bring some welcome relief? Perhaps, but only if that wealth is evenly distributed. Bihar, sadly, does not rank highly on the tourism must-see list and gets lumped together with the wealthier state of Punjab in certain guidebooks.
Foreign tastes, though, do corrupt in more sinister ways than rendering a sacred ritual mundane. Sex tourism – trafficking in young children, teenage boys and girls, and adult women – dominates local economies across the globe, and most notably in the developing world. I will never forget the moment I suspected, two years ago, that the ten or eleven year-old boys walking alone, up and down an avenue in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina, were not simply looking for their friends. And indeed, when I returned to the states and did some research, I discovered that trafficking in child sex workers in that region of South America – the Triple Frontier – was a major problem. And there cannot be any justifying this type of neo-colonialism. There is no defending the sort of arrogance that comes with wallets large enough and consciences blind enough to consider the dignity of another human being worthless. This is the worst type of neo-colonialism – the type that looks at the people: the poor, filthy, vulnerable masses of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, India, Brazil – as nothing more than a tradable commodity, a service to be purchased, and a life to ruin at will.
All of these considerations are weighing on my shoulders as I consider my tiny role in this great power struggle. I will be seeing staggering poverty, glorious temples, blazing sunsets from a hut on the Indian Ocean, cremation ceremonies from a boat on the Ganges. And when all is said in done, one month later I will climb back into my bed in New York to try and assuage my mild guilt at having been a neo-colonist for a month, and to fall asleep with the flashing shots of the things I had seen, walked amongst, and left behind.