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The end of exploitation.

I recently heard that in Bali tourists are sold tickets to funerals. As soon as someone is on a deathbed, signs are hung up offering minivan services to the village in question--all aimed directly at foreigners who want to witness a real Balinese cremation ceremony. Since these mournful events are held in public places, there is little the locals can do to keep tourists away At times over 200 foreigners (some indecently dressed, by local standards, in shorts and tank tops) may be pushing their way through the crowds to snap a picture of the procession. The local mourners weep, but the tourists merely look for that one photo to show their friends back home.

As more and more people traverse the globe, plopping down in "exotic" countries with little knowledge of local culture or politics, it's no wonder that the term responsible tourism is gaining credence. The World Tourism Organization says that in the world's 49 least developed countries tourism is the second-largest source of foreign money, after oil As Southeast Asia recuperates from the devastating tsunami of late 2004, it is also recuperating from the loss of valuable revenue brought it by tourists who are too shell-shocked to return to the region. The double whammy of lost lives and lost livelihood brings home the fact that poor countries are much more innately vulnerable to the shifting tides of tourism than the rich travelers who partake in it. Even though tourism is on the steady increase worldwide, it's still a rich man's (or woman's) game: Less than 5% of the world's population enjoys the means to travel abroad.

This hit home on a recent trip I took to Morocco, the subject of this issues cover story. I checked into an incredible hotel that had been built in a remote, renovated 19th-century kasbah (fortress) made from mud and straw. The Hotel Kasbah Dar Ahlam was exquisite in every sense of the word, from its artistic decor to its Arabian Nights pool. But as we headed up the long driveway, past the goat herds and the dry riverbed, past crumbling houses and donkey carts, it felt odd that I was staying at a place that cost several hundred dollars a night--a fortune to the locals.

The next clay I delicately asked my host, Sarah, about how the locals felt about the French owners who renovated the kasbah.

"Oh, they understand how important the hotel is to the town," she said. I pried for more details. "Well, we have not only brought jobs here but brought electricity to the neighborhood. We buy food from the locals, we teach them foreign languages and hotel skills, we support an orphanage, and we're helping to build a local library. We tell our guests not to give gifts or money to the locals--that treats them like beggars. Instead, buy something from them." The next day she even went so far as to set up a meeting for me to speak with a local group of men who were fighting to keep the town's poor from selling off their date palms for money--which increases erosion and the loss of local produce.

I compared this whole experience to another I once had in the Caribbean at an "all-inclusive" chain resort where large walls had been constructed to keep the locals out. The hotel's fancy food and materials were all imported, while the lion's share of the hotel's profits were funneled back to the company's home country. Meanwhile, the host country was left with waste-disposal issues and higher taxes to pay for the First World infrastructure for the tourists. How pointless and cold that experience was compared to this.

I truly believe that gay and lesbian travelers tend to be more aware of local sensitivities, since we have been so insensitively treated by our larger culture as a whole. But how do we make certain our travel choices are helping, not hindering, host localities? Don't be afraid to ask your hotel or tour operator questions like where they acquire their food and materials; whether they train locals for managerial positions and pay them fair wages; if they support local schools, hospitals, or orphanages; if they have truly ecofriendly policies that don't deplete local resources--basically, if they really care about the impact they are making.

There is no reason why tourism need be inherently exploitative. We can flex our consumer muscle and keep from slowly destroying the places we love. And we change our own attitude from what we can get from a place to what we can learn from it.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editor's Letter
Author:Link, Matthew
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 1, 2005
Words:761
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