I just finished reading The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux. It's a great travel narrative which follows his journey through the South Pacific in 1990. At that time, his wife (whom he had met while working in Africa right after his Peace Corps stint) had just left him and, in an unfortunate (?) case of bad timing, he was sent on a press junket to New Zealand and Australia in support of his latest book. On a whim, he decided to bring a collapsible kayak. Good thing he did, because while he was in New Zealand he got inspired to just vanish and see what the Pacific had to offer. He finished out his press junket with what enthusiasm he could manage, then worked his way to north Australia and checked out the Outback, then flew over to the Trobriand Islands, a small chain off the eastern end of New Guinea. The Trobriands marked the first of what would become his many island journey, voyaging from place to place by plane or in his kayak. Many of these islands exist in two worlds: the feverish imaginations of Westerners, fed by fantastic imagery and romantic stories from Somerset Maugham, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Jack London, James Michener, and Herman Melville, and then exotified and mass-marketed by the tourist machine, cashing in on Western paradisiacal fantasy. But the islands also exist in another world, the world of their unexotic reality, a place of windswept rocky shorelines, economically depressed communities, soaring volcanic razorback ridges, low-lying sandy atolls with little fresh drinking water, extensive and fragile reef systems, people who can trace their ancestry back to the world's most accomplished mariners yet are now uninterested even in fishing, ancient WWII relics rusting under the hot sun or in shallow aqua lagoons, expensive goods shipped from overseas on boats that come once a month, and impossible isolated communities of just a few hundred people who get electricity from a diesel generator.
Most Westerners would hate the real South Pacific, because they have been nursed on a complex and exotified concept of the islands as "paradise," a term which stems from Christian mythology and refers to a place where earthly concerns are removed. In fact, most Westerners, especially those who have never spent much time in the tropics, think of life on this islands as idyllic and easy. How else are they supposed to think, when the most common image we receive is of a person on a beach enjoying sheer leisure? Even the environment in those pictures speaks of freedom from concern; the coconut palms and dense foliage send us signals that food is plentiful in a form that can be eaten raw. The waterfalls cascading down thousands of feet from high isolated volcanic ridges speaks to us of pure water. The turquoise ocean appears free of algae and contaminants and most certainly abounds with fish. Plenty of sunlight promotes health. So we see these things and react to them on an instinctive level, being sent signals that indicate this place is in possession of bountiful and abundant resources, where we won't have to struggle to remain warm or survive from day to day.
Not true, of course, as anyone on such an island will tell you. Often the soil is tough and infertile, particularly where it is made of fine coral sand. Volcanic soil is much more fertile, but agriculture is nevertheless a difficult undertaking on an island. Fishing can be just as hard; reefs have a raw, natural beauty, but they are inherently dangerous places and exposure to the elements or battling wave and tide action can be exhausting. Truth is, no place is "paradise," where life is easy and full of leisure. Gathering resources to survive can be just as hard there as anywhere. Underneath the apparent beauty is a living, treacherous ecosystem full of predators and ruthless competition. Perhaps even more so on remote, desolate islands, where resources can be desperately scarce.
Truth is, much of our idea of "paradise" comes from the last five hundred years of colonialism in the West. As Europeans, technologically and martially more advanced than the civilizations already occupying most of the world, coveted raw resources, they found the means to not only take the resources but restructure the environments to suit them. Soon, they had taken control of many parts of the tropical world, the Pacific included, through either economic or military means. This is where the image of the European in tropical luxury, free from the need to struggle for resources or respect among the natives, originates. Colonial power elites owned property, usually the best and most productive plots of land in the area, sheltered areas that were most free from environmental hazards. They built communities here where they could arrange to be the most powerful and influential people in the community. Natives were either hired or simply forced to provide the labor that would supply the occupying European with a constant flow of resources and comfort, often while the natives themselves had to live in conditions of poverty and misfortune far worse than before the arrival of the colonizers. Communities of natives were eliminated, moved, reconfigured to the needs and desires of the colonizers, and the natives were almost universally worse for it. Old power structures, balanced and self-sufficient, were wiped out and natives became dependent upon scraps handed out by colonizers for their survival instead of relying on time-tested, traditional methods.
So the image of the white man (or woman) reclining on a beautiful beach under a shady palm ripe with luscious fruit, wearing either western-casual clothes or (to the natives) scandalously exposing bathing gear, refreshing themselves with an alcoholic drink (alcohol is safer to drink than the water, which is why alcohol has long been a staple of many civilizations), a native (usually brown) nearby to provide them with whatever comfort they desire, has been forged over centuries of European colonial power.
In the last century, colonialism as it existed has all but vanished, the colonizing powers having taken what they wanted from the land and people and pulled out in the face of growing nationalistic threats. Once the darkies got desperate and sick of being under the thumb of cruel masters from overseas, they began to violently overthrow the power structure and then it was time to get the hell out. This left these island cultures forever changed, forcibly brought into a modernized world of imported goods and artificial expectations, the people disconnected through centuries of social reform and missionary Bible-thumping into degraded and unhappy dependents, disconnected from their history and past beliefs, despondent with internalized racism and religious self-flagellation. Natives of these islands now struggle to reclaim their self-identity and make their way in a world with economic and political systems created to advance white people.
Clever marketers then picked up the image of the colonizer, even as colonization came to end. As the middle class was redefined in America and Europe, average wealth now increasing enough to support luxury expenses, the tourist marketers sold that colonial image in tiny slices to the bourgoise -- a way for all of us to be imperialists for a little while. The allure of the effortless colonial life entices us, being served by exotic others while enjoying the company of one's own social and racial brethren, and having abundant resources and beauty at hand. In this way, colonialism of a sort continues to this day, with all of us being miniature conquistadores.
None of this is to say one should not travel. Travelling is crucial to provide one with a global consciousness. Travellers desire to learn about others in the world, the way they really live, to experience a variety of environments and cultures, to take both the good and the bad as part of an education about the world. Tourisms, though, is destructive and dehumanizing. Tourists are only interested in having their preconceptions, their exotified fantasies about the "other," reinforced. Tourists in Hawai`i go to watered-down, cartoonified hula shows and parrot the three words they learned from their Roberts Hawaii tour bus driver (a brown local, of course), buy cheap trinkets that grossly misrepresent the island culture and history, ignorantly ape the beautiful and graceful forms of sacred hula, wear gaudy clothes, litter the beach with suntan oil bottles and candy wrappers, befoul the waters with oily sunblock, touch and walk all over delicate reef systems, expect lordly treatment from the natives, throng to isolated and ecologically fragile areas to tromp around and take pictures and pluck flowers and snap branches and kick up soil and dump hiking trash, and in the end they leave without ever knowing a thing about how the locals live and work and view the world. The tourists go back to Minnesota or Nebraska or New Jersey and think "I've been to Hawaii" (note the misspelling, instead of the correct Hawai`i) but they couldn't tell you a thing about Hawai`i from the viewpoint of a local. Because they don't care. It isn't about education to them, but about consumption -- using resources and treating the area as a playground. Travellers are in and out, quiet and observant, eager to learn and slow to pass judgment, ready to suffer lower standards of living in order to see the "real place," see things as they really are.
Tourism should be abolished.