Free movement for all?


A few days ago we got back from Lago Atitlán, one of Guatemala’s prime tourist spots where we spent Christmas eating chocolate, drinking beers and ordering food, and it got me thinking: is free movement into Guatemala a good thing for the country? The usual picture we have is of tourism being a huge economic boon to third world countries and something to be encouraged. Indeed tourism is the most important industry of many economies across the world. Most notably Cuba, whose economy might have collapsed in the 1990s if tourism hadn’t come to replace commerce with the Soviet bloc as the country’s main source of foreign exchange. But although it would appear to be the golden goose that has kept many countries’ economies afloat, is the tourism industry a double edged sword and do its negative aspects outweigh its positive ones?

As travel has become cheaper and information about faraway places abundant, the nature of the tourist industry has evolved from a high-value luxury activity engaged in by elites in a handful of well known destinations to a whole range of activities engaged in by a wider range of people (although still mostly from the global north). An economically significant element of these new kinds of tourism, and arguably the fastest growing one, is backpacking. It also happens to be the kind I am most familiar with, which is why I will focus on it. It is a growing phenomenon amongst tourists that are mostly young, often middle class and up until recently came exclusively from the global north. Theirs is not the week-long relaxation session of the holiday makers, instead they look for budget accommodation for extended travel and to pack the most amount of memorable experience into their trip of a lifetime.

A destination will be desirable insofar as it presents a rich cultural heritage that is alive and well and seems different or exotic, but it will also require a minimum level of infrastructure (wi-fi, dorms, rooms, restaurants, transport) to really thrive as a tourist economy. If it has just the right balance of culture and amenities it will attract an ever changing community of ‘bohemian’ travellers looking to escape the drudgery of modern synthetic life in first-world cities. But this balance will always tend towards imbalance. The success of the destination – often a rural area centred around some natural feature, large portions of the local economy based on subsistence and sharing – will necessarily bring with it changes to the local culture as a market economy takes an ever greater place in the lives of local people. Actions which would previously have been carried out as an exchange of favours become monetised and everything but the very basic necessities (if you know where to look) become unaffordable to locals.

As the spot becomes known, its popularity with other travellers, as well as day-trippers and holiday makers, provides an opportunity for some of the more business-minded of the bohemian travellers who decide they can now settle in the chosen idyllic spot and participate as traders in the market economy they’ve helped create. For this they will have a huge advantage over local entrepreneurs in the form of better access to capital (a relatively small loan from a friend or family member back home can be enough to start a thriving business), a cultural understanding of the incoming travellers and their needs, as well as an easier job of creating a relationship of trust with them as a recognisable face in a strange land, and an instinctive understanding of what is the right balance of culture vs comfort to attract customers.

The process I am describing here is akin to processes of gentrification in run-down areas of big cities. Incomers, attracted by the cheapness and often some intrinsic quality of the area, move in, some start businesses catering to their own community’s needs (for example artists’ studios aimed at art school graduates from other parts of town), this attracts more people like them until it is a popular thriving area and the local people are priced out. (I understand that this is a gross oversimplification of gentrification, but I am using it here purely for the purpose of drawing a parallel).

In the case of a place like Lago Atitlán, the process is more drawn out as there is no external force like a city council who sees an advantage in driving it to its logical conclusion. In fact, the rational thing for the relevant stakeholders (local people and incoming entrepreneurs alike) is to try and keep the balance just right. There are actually signs of that kind of self-aware decision making occurring in some parts of Atitlán – in San Juan de la Laguna for example, local people have decided to shun much of the money that could be made and ban the opening of any bars aimed at tourists in order to avoid attracting too many or the “wrong sort” of tourist. (If you travel to neighbouring San Pedro, only a 5 minute rickshaw ride away you’ll see what they are trying to avoid). But the logic of competition is insidious and if there’s money to be made, someone will build the infrastructure and businesses to make it, and the place will change slowly but inexorably – in backpacker parlance – from “authentic” to “touristy”, thus losing much of the value that made it attractive in the first place.

Of course that process doesn’t happen overnight. It can take many years even decades for a popular destination to lose its spot in the sun and as such many places will continue to grow into economic powerhouses on the basis of tourism long after they have lost most of the charm that started off the process. But the tide can only eventually turn as other destinations steal the limelight and the growth of the tourist industry in that spot reaches its zenith leaving in its wake a shrinking economy and increasingly violent competition. You only have to look at the Mayan Riviera – centred around Cancun, Playa del Carmen and the still bohemian flavoured Tulum – to see this. Recent years have seen a decline in tourist numbers and an increase in organised crime with recent reports of more than daily killings.

So what is the conclusion of this dark picture of tourism? Is there an argument for limiting the freedom of movement of travellers to avoid spoiling or diluting the cultural authenticity of a region or country? This is beginning to sound a lot like the kind of arguments but forward by right-wing demagogues to denounce economic migration from the global south to the global north. But let’s not be afraid to talk openly about different kinds of migration and their consequences – I’m including here all forms of travelling and tourism in this comparison.

In my opinion, “mass migration”, for example of the kind that was welcomed by the UK government and other European countries in the post war period to make up labour shortages, cannot convincingly be argued to have harmed the local culture. True, there are more mosques and gurdwaras in Scottish and English towns and cities than there ever used to be, and if you go out for a meal you’d be more than likely to choose Chinese food or a curry. True also that, current controversies aside, the world cup winning French football squad would be – according to the popular joke – reduced to two players if the Front National ever came into power. But has this new multiculturalism developed at the cost of a dying local culture? It would be a hard case to argue. The reality is that the public house, football and Sunday roasts – or for that matter the French café, the German bierhalle and the Spanish tapas bar – are put more at risk by the commercialisation of our everyday life and the steady decline in real wages since the 1980s than with competition from the local curry joint or the all-Asian cricket team.

But aren’t immigrants to the global north, who are willing to work for less, complicit with the forces that drive down wages and working conditions? In this case, the causal link between the incomers and the process of commercialisation that is evident in Lago Atitlán is just not there. Economic migrants to rich countries don’t cause the worsening of working conditions, these are caused by the outsourcing of heavy industry, attacks on trade unions and the search for ever growing corporate profits. When people come from poor countries in search of jobs and a better life, they arrive as economic inferiors and strive to become equals. They blend into the economic life of the host country without causing it to grow unsustainably. And eventually – if not them then their children or grandchildren – will blend into its ever evolving culture also. When a person with greater economic means arrives somewhere like Atitlán, even if they are searching for solace from their impersonal modern lives, their intention is rarely to assimilate into the local economic life and become a subsistence farmer, a campesino. Their privileged status in the world hierarchy of economies allows them to live a charmed “simple” existence for as long as their savings will allow, attracting others like them with the consequences we’ve already described.

In this light, is it reasonable then for say, India, to make it very difficult for foreigners to own land (they do) or for a country to push the logic of protection of the local culture to its logical extreme and allow only a tiny portion of very rich tourists in each year (as in the case of Bhutan, the country to come up with the concept of Gross National Happiness)? And what of internal inequalities which can have similar consequences? For example the new moneyed classes from Mumbai and Delhi pricing out local home owners in Goa, or English retirees pricing out local people in Welsh seaside towns and Scottish isles. Note also that both these examples are of popular tourist destinations so are more than indirectly relevant to our discussion.

Can we make a coherent argument that defends the rights of any person to live and work anywhere she chooses whilst protecting communities’ rights to determine how and to what extent they might develop and change? With a little imagination, I reckon we can.


One Reply to “Free movement for all?”

  1. I think you make some excellent economic points but I’m less sure about the cultural ones. I do mean “less sure”, not “sure you’re wrong” but I do have doubts. All our cultures grow and change all the time and all these changes involve destruction as well as growth. I worry about the possibility of condescension when we want to protect other people’s cultures.

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