The dangers of sympathy tourism

David Whitley June 28, 2011 Comments Off on The dangers of sympathy tourism

Tactical travel?

On the Guardian website, there is currently a feature bearing the headline: “Help save Greece! It’s time for tactical travel”. The standfirst reads: “A holiday to see one of humanity’s greatest civilisations may be just the boost the economy needs right now. After all, we owe them for Delphi.”

Admittedly, the work of the sub-editor here doesn’t reflect the work of the author all that well. Jonathan Jones is singing the praises of Greece’s ancient sites, while the headline and standfirst make it seem like an attempt to emotionally blackmail people into going to Greece because the economy’s a mess and you can do your bit to help by going there.

Places that ‘need’ tourists

This is something I’ve seen rather a lot of recently; an attitude that because somewhere ‘needs’ tourism, people should go as a sympathy vote. We’ve seen such desperate pleas from Japan post-quake, tsunami and nuclear wobble, and much the same from Christchurch in New Zealand after it was torn apart by earthquakes.

Similar thinking seems to be applying to Egypt and Tunisia, which ‘need’ tourists to help the countries get back on their feet post-revolution.

Now, forgive me if I sound a little callous here, but I suspect that sympathy votes don’t play all that heavily in people’s minds when it comes to picking a holiday destination. It’s not about spending 10p to vote over the phone for an autistic kid with a heart-breaking backstory on Britain’s Got Talent – we’re often talking about thousands of pounds that will be spent on something that’s inherently selfish.

Selfish holidays

That’s what going on holiday is – something inherently selfish. It is the short sliver of the year where we do what we fancy rather than show up for work and do what other people want us to do. To expect people to set aside the small period they get off and spend a lot of money because a destination has had a bad time of it recently – and could do with tourist dollars to help the rebuilding process – is somewhat fanciful.

Take the examples of Christchurch and Egypt. If I worked a normal nine-to-five job, would I be considering them as destinations for a holiday at the moment? Well, with Christchurch, I know they are still getting earthquakes. I also happen to know that it was never a particularly interesting city anyway – if I was advising anyone with a limited time in New Zealand, I’d suggest skipping it, rumbly ground or no rumbly ground.

And Egypt? Well, the whole Sharm-El-Sheikh resort thing is my idea of hell in the first place, and while the Nile/ Pyramids/ Egyptology thing is more my cup of tea, I’d not regard now as the best time for it. The country is in transition, it’s not entirely stable, and frankly I’d say that any trip there is probably best left until the country has worked out which way it is heading.

Yes, that’s an incredibly selfish attitude. But it’s my holiday, so that’s how I’m going to assess the options. Who needs me comes a very distant 435th behind where I fancy going to, where’s good value for money and 432 other considerations. Going for the sympathy vote is not an effective way of selling a destination.

Responsible travel or sympathy votes?

There’s a fine line between promoting responsible travel and going for the emotional blackmail route in this way. In many countries, tour companies will sing about the work they do in the community, and such work is undoubtedly to be applauded. The problem rears its head when this becomes the main selling point. Recent experience in Cambodia showed numerous hotels, tour operators and restaurants trying to distinguish themselves from the crowd with the orphanages they fund, locals they put through school, investment in anti-landmine projects etc.

This is all very noble, but when this becomes the gimmick and prime selling point, it can only do immense damage to the region as a whole in the long run. Far more money will come in if tourists have an excellent time, then recommend a visit to friends, than if they have a bad time but 10% of their money goes towards keeping a training scheme at a silk factory going. The quality of the product should always take precedence over where a share of the profits goes. Yt can be easy to forget that when the smiling face of a child makes for an easier marketing gambit than knowledge, research and customer experience.

For example, the company I went around the Angkor temples with – AboutAsia Travel – was great not because it ploughs its profits into schools (which it does), but because the guides really know what they’re doing and the research into tour routes has been meticulous.

Service, not charity

Tourism as an industry is about service, not charity. People are not giving their money to destinations, they are spending it there. There is an enormous difference. If people are genuinely moved by plight, they’ll make a charity donation, not book a flight and hotel. Tourism is a business, not a welfare scheme – and anyone tempted to overplay the sympathy card would do well to remember that.

PS – Quick plug: My new hotel recommendations site is now online.

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