March 29, 2014

Social Impacts of Tourism

Aymara weaver who charges to have her photo taken, in Sacsayhuamán, Peru.
© Marcela Torres

by Marcela Torres

Tourism offers experiences and local cultures can provide great experiences. However, depending on how tourism activities are carried out, these experiences can be better or worse.

The most obvious social benefit of tourism is that it promotes the exchange between people from different countries and cultures. Many travelers want to learn about the local communities, get to know their traditions and lifestyles. For the host communities, this interaction can help strengthen their self esteem and their sense of belonging by feeling valued by others. Furthermore, tourism can contribute to keep alive local customs and handicrafts in a destination.

But at the same time, there is a chance that this exchange can have negative effects. Several authors warn against the danger of the “tourist gaze”. What are they talking about? Sometimes people from the local community may feel they are being seen as objects; something weird or amazing that must be observed. This has a lot to do with how the tourism industry presents a destination and its inhabitants and with the level of interaction achieved with travelers.

Another risk is the loss of authenticity. In a world that becomes more global each day, a globalization of culture is taking place and many local communities are changing the designs and way they produce their handicrafts to resemble what they believe “sells” in a market economy, or they try to imitate attractions that have no connection to their roots. Communities should focus on what they do best, instead of trying to achieve preconceived tourism ideals.

The lack of mutual knowledge and interaction between tourists and the host communities can result in complex situations, such as rejection to tourists by the local peoples or disappointment of tourists who find more of the same they can already see in their own countries without traveling thousands of miles.

Achieving a balance is not easy. That’s why the first principle of the Code of Ethics for the responsible tourist and traveler prepared by the UNWTO says: “Open your mind to other cultures and traditions – it will transform your experience, you will earn respect and be more readily welcomed by local people. Be tolerant and respect diversity – observe social and cultural traditions and practices.”

This entry was originally posted by the author on July 11, 2011.

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