Are we guests or tourists?
We have been told a few times in travel-related Internet discussion forums that when we travel outside Finland, we are guests. Therefore we must refrain from expressing any opinions on that country or its people unless our view is positive. Criticism and especially trying to right wrongs is not seen as acceptable behaviour of a guest. Are we guests or tourists?
Let us consider a bit more deeply the concept of ‘guest’. Traditionally it refers to a person who is invited to a country or a home by a host. How many people have actually been invited to visit a country? Certainly diplomats, visiting governers of other nations, some sportsmen and other celebrities. But what about regular tourists on their one-month holiday?
In some countries like Russia tourists need an official invitation. It is usually acquired through a travel agency, and does not require the tourist to know anybody in the hosting country. In most other countries travellers don’t even need this. However, there is one group of people in every country who always welcomes tourists above all others: people working in tourism industry. Tourism is a big business as every tourist brings a considerable sum of money into the country.
In general, to deal with a business you do not need any invitation or license. You pay for the services you use or for the products you buy. We do not see how tourism should be different from other businesses. A tourist is a paying customer who should get the best possible service in return of the money spent. If this is not the case, why should the customers just shut up?
Tourism is a big business
Some people deny the commercial side of tourism. According to us, one reason for this lies in nationalism. People attach sentimental meanings to countries, transferring the feelings they have for their own home country to the countries they visit. They feel that in every country there is a nation who owns that country and somehow regulates the tourist influx. Therefore travellers and tourists should be grateful that they have been allowed to enter. Another reason for denying the commercialism is that some people try to cover the fact that they are travelling as tourists. They would like to be something else, to mingle with local people, and be appreciated also otherwise than as mere targets and sources of income for tourism industry.
Nationalists think they show the utmost respect for other nations but in reality they build barriers between themselves and hosts. Hosts are seen as others which leads to an ambiguous attitude. Tourists either belittle themselves assuming the role of a guest who is all the time on his toes and tries to please his host, praising him and the country to the skies and ignoring all the downsides. The other side of the coin is patronizing the host. Us Westerners, when travelling in third world countries, may feel that we are privileged compared to our hosts. We demonstrate that by paying too much, leaving extravagant tips, and trying to live up to the wealthy reputation. We pretend that we can help the poor buggers, but the poor buggers quite often feel that we promote ourselves and disrespect them. Does condescending behaviour imply respect to you?
Let us speculate a little. If we assume the first view of tourists as guests, how should tourism work? First of all, it would be a strictly regulated business, just like it is in North Korea or Bhutan today. Only a limited amount of tourists is allowed to enter with a proper invitation. Everyone should travel on a package tour as a group, where the hosts show their guests all the correct sights for an overly positive picture of the country and its people. Independent travelling cannot be allowed because of the risks of seeing some negatives. What would this mean for tourism-driven countries such as Thailand?
We are not at all sure if Thailand or any other tourist paradise would appreciate the speculated development because the amount of tourists entering the country would undoubtedly sink dramatically and, as a consequence, businesses would perish. The national economy of Thailand or of any other tourism-driven country depends too much on tourism that they would surrender their money-making machinery to play hosts for a small amount of guests. For them, every tourist is an invaluable source of income, and the more tourists come every year, the better. Also everything that brings tourists into the country is an asset to cherish. The basic idea of the tourism industry is to maximize the tourist influx and income, like in any other business. Whatever reduces annual influx is negative whether it is a military coup and takeover, a bombing or a natural catastrophe. In almost every country there is a tourism authority paving the road for tourism-related businesses and trying to take action on such critical moments.
What about the second view of tourists as vagabond philanthropists then—what would tourism look like in that case? Some recent pieces of news give perfect examples. We are talking about the news of Madonna, Angelie Jolie and other celebrities acquiring adopted children from poverty-stricken African countries, or Oprah Winnfrey donating a school to South African girls. This kind of charity tourism requires grateful hosts so that the benign guest is noticed. Without the poor and helpless ’other’, the privileged position of the philanthropist would not be visible. But is this kind of tourism, whether it is done by celebrities or in smaller scale by regular mass tourists, showing respect towards the host or exploiting him for personal aims?
We are not nationalists, but believe that the earth belongs to every living being. We feel that we are nowhere on foreign soil. Every place on earth where we happen to be, is our home as long as we stay there. We call this the nomadic approach on travelling.A nomad is not attached to any particular country in the world because he does not attach sentimental meanings to countries. He does not need to please ‘others’ nor patronize them. This way every living being can be treated equally and with respect. A nomad is concerned about what happens in his current home country, and he tries to right wrongs, just like anybody would try to do in his own home country because he cares about his home and people around him. We understand that criticism is hard to take. The main reason for this is the nationalistic, defensive position which makes people take criticism personally. It is perhaps not possible to underline too much the fact that people and countries, if you wish to stick to these entities, are two totally different things and should never be mixed up.