Welcome to STAND’s new series: “A closer look at tourism”! This first article will give you some contextual numbers on the way tourism is consumed around the world and will introduce you to some disastrous consequences of mass tourism. Next time, we’ll try to answer frequently asked questions related to unethical tourism and how the latter can be dealt with. In the third piece, we’ll observe the world as we pressed pause during the lockdown, and will try to offer alternatives for a better future of tourism.


A few numbers to start

More and more people are travelling each year. In 2019, 1.5 billion tourists were counted. Before the pandemic, prevision stated that in 2030, they would be around 1.8 billion.


The development of aviation and low-cost fares has made travelling more affordable for a great number of  people. Still, let’s keep in mind that, in 2017, only 1 human out of 5 had taken a flight in their life. 80% of the world’s population was still with a record free of flying. Of course, these statistics are constantly evolving, with  more newbies travelling  by plane each year – when there is no pandemic. But still, take the time to think of how many times you had the privilege to sit on a plane by 2017. Closer to home, another striking statistic is that, in Britain, 1% of the population took 20% of the overseas flights.


According to statistics, the vast majority of people want to go to the same places. 95% of travelers explore only 5% of the planet. This phenomenon is highly encouraged by social media. We all want that perfect picture to post on Instagram, that the whole world will then copy. It is known that, in France, 59% of the population aged between 25 and 35 pick their travel destination in relation to its “Instagram potential”.


Europeans remain the biggest travelers, with 622 million of us taking vacations abroad every year. The Chinese population tends to travel more and more as well, due to their growing economy, with 150 million travelers in 2018. The projection for 2020, pre-Covid, was about 200 million, whereas they were about 10 million in 2000.


Two examples of mass tourism consequences

Elephants in Thailand

The fascination surrounding wildlife has become a large business. In Thailand, Surin Elephant Round-Up is a big attraction for tourists. This cultural festival, held every year in November, offers the possibility to “ride” an elephant for 8 minutes for 3€. However, studies have shown that climbing on top of an elephant breaks its back. Several NGOs campaigned on social media to raise awareness and prevent tourists from riding elephants. Yet, 40% of tourists that visit Thailand want to “take a ride”. When asked about the situation, tourists getting off elephants’ backs often hide behind the fact that they are on vacation to have fun and relax and that the elephants don’t seem unhappy. 


During the evening, tourists are entertained with great varieties of shows where the animals are “asked” – understand, forced – to walk on two legs, to play football, to dance, etc. None of these activities are instinctive or natural for an elephant. They had to be taught to do so. The Thai technique to discipline an elephant is called “Phajaan”. Considered to be a tradition, this technique implies training by obliteration. Some trainers explain that it’s been done this way for generations, and anyone who tried another way has failed. To learn, the elephants have to be in pain, they have to bleed. When performing, trainers tend to be as discreet as possible to stab the elephant with hooks or other tools, due to the blame-shaming situation. And some tourists are completely oblivious. During their time-off, elephants have to stay still, restrained by chains or ropes, without the option of sitting down. At no point are they treated with respect.  


I could write many more lines to illustrate what I found out about the way elephants and other wild animals are treated to “please” the tourists. But instead, I’d rather let you know that alternatives exist. If you go to Thailand, your voice matters as much as any other to set a good example. Some sanctuaries for elephants are opened to the public, where the public are in a cage to look at the animals, not the other way around. You won’t climb on elephants, they won’t do tricks for you, they’ll be healing from that previous life. If you want to see an elephant, there are ethical ways to do so. As explained by the biggest activist on the matter, Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, “tourists have their responsibilities too. Only they can truly make things change.”


On a note of hope, some countries, such as Cambodia, already prohibited elephant slavery. Moreover, travel agencies, including Tripadvisor, refuse to take part in those exploitations and won’t promote or sell tickets for such activities. On Instagram, if you post a picture or a selfie with a wildlife-threat hashtag (e.g. #TigerSelfie), you’ll automatically receive a prevention message like this one 


Protect Wildlife on Instagram

Animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or their parts is not allowed on Instagram. You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment.”


Angkor Temples in Cambodia 

If you follow numerous travel accounts on Instagram too – especially when going to the grocery store is your most adventurous  moment of the week – then you must have seen some pictures of Angkor Temples. While those photos make you dream and inspire you to contemplate a peaceful and majestic scenery, the behind the scenes are far from peaceful. Loads of tourists flock to get the perfect picture of the sun rising behind the main Temple, using all kinds of tricks to pretend they were alone.


This wonder from Cambodia was closed for many years, under the Khmer regime, before being brought back to the collective memory by UNESCO, listing the monument as a “World Heritage in danger” site. Over the last  25 years, Angkor has seen the numbers of tourists explode: from 40,000 visits a year in 1994, to 4.5 million in 2019. And of course, the site has suffered from such an increase. But the number of visitors is not the only reason for the deterioration of the monument. In fact, the main reason is the behaviour of those visitors on the site. “The temple was a very serene place and became profaned by tourists’ selfish desires. We have to educate them”, explains a guide in Angkor, showing tags on temples walls where some people engraved their names. Therefore, the Government decided to act to educate visitors; shooting countless videos about how to enjoy the monument in a sustainable way, and humorous videos imagining the meeting between uncivilized tourists and the builders of the Temple.


But the problem isn’t contained in the cultural site. Tourism impacts a whole region. Next to Angkor lies Siem Reap, a “dormitory city” where the majority of  tourists stay the night. This city keeps growing with the demand. But its hidden face is the ocean of waste left behind tourists. Siem Reap is home to one of the biggest landfill sites in Cambodia. On average, 250 tons of waste per day is stocked there, and it is estimated that 70% originates  from the tourism industry. The rubbish tip is now almost at the extent of its capacity. Everyone was surprised by the speed of Siem Reap’s development. Neither the authorities, nor the locals, had anticipated this, and they had no time to figure out the organisation that should come along with it. Poor families from the area come and collect trash that is recyclable (bottles of plastic, cans, etc.), and therefore sellable, to afford school costs. After their passage, the waste is buried into the ground. If you’re an ecologist activist, don’t forget to breathe while processing this. You read correctly. All the waste left behind, including shreds of plastic, are “hidden” in the soil. 


This is just a glimpse of tourism’s dark side that we don’t always (want to) see. In the next piece, I’ll address a few questions raised by mass tourism. Stay tuned!



Photo from Jezz Timms



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