Social tourism when “Customer is not King”

A picture from the Centre for Responsible tourism showing people protesting 5-stars

When civil society recently came together in Goa under the rallying space of the Centre for Responsible Tourism to explore how the Goan economy could advance tourism in Goa, several pertinent issues arose.

The view that tourism is an exclusively economic movement was seen as flawed and faulty.  Tourism is in its essence is a social contract between those who travel and visit, and those who are visited, whether on business or leisure.  If, therefore, tourism can be designated as a ‘social enterprise’ rather than as an industry, it is possible we can imagine the dawn of a new era of social tourism.

Tourism entrepreneurs under the present paradigm tend to advocate three notions that defy the idyllic nature and spirit of tourism. All three are set in faulty paradigms. In one paradigm, they argue that “Customer is King”. In the second, they advocate “high-end” tourism as the ultimate model.  In the third, they advance 5-Star tourism which, at its core, has little or no social value or for what is indigenous in cultural. 5-stars offer a luxury-sans- substance experience. These three paradigms are classist, anti-poor, anti-working class, and condescending to host communities. Leisure and recreation, to them, is the claim obtainable solitarily to the rich and affluent. “Customer is King” suggests that whoever is client can boss the service provider. The latter is consigned to a subservient role, and compelled into servitude. The fact is this: Take away the service provider and the customer is nothing.

Tourism is a horizontal space in which different sections in the tourism equation are equal humans. It must assume forms which, by definition, relationships especially from the inclusion of otherwise disadvantaged and excluded groups in participation in tourism are equitable. All who participate in tourism are co-humans. Capitalistic overtones dehumanize the weaker.

Many societies have long recognized the important restorative function that tourism performs for people including workers and low-wagers. Under the pretext of high-end tourism, the right to travel and for rest from work for the working classes has been denied to the workers although their life-services and indirect taxes amount to colossal sums.

In a recent trend, the not-so-rich hire buses and find spots where they can cook and eat. These people should be allowed to cook food in designated conditions that guarantee hygiene and cleanliness. This is common place in many advanced European countries where social tourism has no place for upper class conceit. Thomas Cook’s first tours were established around the idea of social tourism because he believed that travel was morally and spiritually enlightening and, thus, a positive use of leisure time The large-scale organisation of social movements, such as sports and health clubs and societies in the late nineteenth century established the notion that leisure and recreation, and by extension, visits to spa and seaside resorts could facilitate positive outcomes for physical health.

Social tourism provides positive and important recuperative and educational benefits for ordinary people, and such opportunities should be deservedly extended to all people in society. This obviously includes those who are service providers in tourism who, too, have earned their share of rest and recreation. This implies there must be mass democratization of travel opportunities, notably for previously excluded members of society, and the ability to participate in international travel.

Tourism is now an industrialized system, an important pillar of the economy of tourism destinations and consequently the rationale for tourism participation has been fundamentally monetized. The tourist is a walking-talking dollar. Instead of affirming the right to travel and tourism as a social entitlement for all, the industry instead declares: “Customer is King’. Since the global financial crisis in 2007, there has been a further process of economic restructuring across with high levels of unemployment, growing inequalities in income/wealth distribution and severe pressure on health and social care systems. Poverty increasingly affects people who are in work, notably as there is an increase in part time work, zero hour-contracts and where people are self-employed. These categories are excluded from opportunities for travel and leisure. It depicts the arrogance and self-imposed superiority of the affluent traveler. Or, what we today call the “Customer-is- King” syndrome.  In tourism, there can be no hierarchy where the rich are privileged.

Often the “King customer” is someone whose origin of wealth needs to be explored.  It is no secret that black money is sanitized in tourism. Status and money-talk allows the affluent to dehumanize the other, as witnessed in sex tourism, trafficking of women and children, drugs and money laundering. This is principally a denial of access to dignity both for the victims of tourism as well as for the service provider who creates the conditions when a traveler can enjoy the fruits of tourism.

Tourism academics and activists have long recognized the important restorative function that tourism plays for service providers in tourism. Accordingly the political economy of tourism is construed as a ‘transaction process’ in which diverse and interacting institutions compete and/or collaborate to harness the strategic socio-economic gains from tourism. Tourism must be conceived as a necessity, rather than a luxury. Two interconnected issues emerge: How to ensure that opportunities to participate in tourism exist for everyone in society, and whether access to opportunities can or should be considered as a form of social right.

‘Scientification’ of the concept of social tourism is about the well-being of citizens and also its potential economic value in terms of revenue generation, job creation and regional development. Hence social tourism aims for social equity, aiding access to tourism to provide fair tourism for all citizens and contributing towards sustainability of the tourism equation as a social enterprise.

Ranjan Solomon is a human rights activist, political commentator who believes that peoples’ power is a non-negotiable instrument to further democracy and justice.


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