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A right to tourism – and the duty of hosting the leisure class

Some thoughts on the recent Convention on Tourism Ethics

The movement of bodies across borders attracts significant media and academic interest. This interest is often directed at specific forms of movement, such as refugees and economic migration. Another form of movement of bodies is having an important environmental, cultural, social and economic impact, albeit more quietly in the human rights realm: that of tourism, most especially mass tourism.

Leisure tourism is not widely recognized as a serious area of study. Cynthia Enloe pointed to this problem in Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, demonstrating that the feminized nature of this economic activity, opposed to war, the quintessential male activity, for example, has led to this lack of attention (2001, at 20). In the case of international law, its relegation to the realm of “soft law” has also contributed to this form of lesser consideration. But this might change, as tourism is now the sole object of a binding Convention, for the first time. On September 15th, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) approved the transformation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism into the Framework Convention on Tourism Ethics. The Chairman of the World Committee on Tourism Ethics, Pascal Lamy, stated on the topic: “In an interconnected world where the business volume of tourism equals or even surpasses that of oil exports, ‎food products or automobiles, it is important to set out a legal framework to ensure that growth is dealt with responsibly and that it can be sustained over time.”

Importantly, a right to tourism is recognized in this instrument. The logic of this recognition is that it can be deduced from the right to rest and leisure, contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 10 of the draft Convention states: “The prospect of direct and personal access to the discovery and enjoyment of the planet’s resources constitutes a right equally open to all the world’s inhabitants.” Surely, other rights are protected within the Convention that are aimed at “responsible” tourism development and conduct. But, the right to tourism is on the same footing as these other rights. The question is: does placing the right to tourism on the same footing as the rights of host communities (hosts by will, or not) contribute to the opposition to hierarchy within human rights (which has, one must recognize, been used to justify the violation of second and third generation human rights), or rather, does this consolidate the leisure class’ rights to tourism rendering invisible the collateral damages the limitless nature this “right” imposes?

The right to tourism dominates the UNWTO discourse. This discourse insists, that tourists should respect the populations they visit; however, this is accomplished without questioning the endless nature of such visits, travel statistics growing exponentially in a steady manner (at the same time as anti-tourism movements are). If we think of rights as leading to associated duties, the right to tourism implies a duty to host the holders of this right. In practice, though, this duty is universal, but not the right. The right to tourism is reserved to the leisure class, holding the employment means to benefit from vacation time, the social means to leave one’s family and community, and the financial means to transportation, lodging and other expenses associated with leisure tourism.

One of the main problems with the duties of the tourists bearing the right to tourism towards the host communities is who holds the power to define such responsibilities. Moreover, who holds the power to decide that tourism will be developed in one area or another? Probably not the host community through a means such as a referendum. In the context of rising anti-tourism demonstrations, such as in Europe recently, perhaps the limitless right to leisure tourism is what should be considered, rather than only the means of accomplishing it “responsibly.” But, the UNWTO sees tourism through the neoliberal prism of sustainable development; in such a paradigm, halts to “development” are never even considered, as the objective is to sustain development, and in which continuous growth is naturalized as inevitably desirable. Indeed, on November 7th, the UNWTO and the World Tourism Market (WTM) will hold a summit under the theme “Overtourism: growth is not the enemy, it is how we manage it.”

The unsustainable character of the sustainable development paradigm has been highlighted in many fields. But its “mainstreamness” still appears rather unchallenged. The acquiescence with a right to tourism is in line with Wendy Brown’s demonstration of the pervasive nature of neoliberalism today in Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, here in tourism under the guise of the ideals of liberalism such as peace, economic prosperity and the free circulation of persons. Brown argues that “caring” is now a market niche, in a world where everything is marketized, and in which governments and firms “are in the business of justice and sustainability, but never as ends in themselves” (2015, at 27). The right to tourism is associated with a responsible and sustainable tourist conduct; but, at the end of the day, the well-being of the tourism market supersedes the well-being of host communities. The fact that the UNWTO celebrates the adoption of this Convention consecrating, namely, “the right to tourism, the freedom of movement for tourists and the rights of employees and professionals,” further normalizes the market framework within the human rights and sustainability framework. The choice of these elements to be underlined in the press release announcing the adoption of this instrument speaks volume to its priorities, two of which are for consumers of the tourism product.

The preamble of the draft Convention states that the high contracting parties are firmly convinced that “responsible and sustainable tourism is by no means incompatible with the growing liberalization of the conditions governing the provision of goods and services and under whose aegis the enterprises of this sector operate and that it is possible to reconcile, in this context environment and economic development, openness to international trade and protection of social and cultural identities.” This very clear free-market orientation is also in line with Brown’s analysis of our current world. She argues: “The economization of everything and every sphere, including political life, desensitizes us to the bold contradiction between an allegedly free-market economy and a state now wholly in service to and controlled by it. […] The absence of a scandalized response to the state’s role in propping up capital and demoting justice and citizen well-being is also the effect of neoliberalism’s conversion of basic principles of democracy from a political to economic semantic.” (at 40-41). Indeed, the clear enunciation of the “free-market” as one of the guiding principles of an ethics convention isn’t more shocking than it is, it seems, for an environmental convention. It is the accepted paradigm of our time in terms of state mandates, confounding the state and firm, as Brown advances. The subordination of other elements to the desirability of foreign capital is nothing new, especially in the Global South, considering international entities’ practices of encouraging “investment-friendly” climates, such as that of the World Bank.

The tourist also plays a role in this dynamic, of course. The UNWTO launched a campaign entitled Travel.Enjoy.Respect for the 2017 International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Its promotional video portrays the tourist namely with these terms: “Everytime I move, I help millions.” Makau Mutua’s human rights construction of “savages-victims-saviours” comes to mind. Are all host communities victims, waiting for their saviours in the form of tourists? Are tourists in a foreign-owned all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean, eating, drinking, swimming and golfing their hearts out to maximize their package cost, truly “helping millions” because the resort company proclaims to uphold sustainable tourism values?

Clearly, we are still operating in the paradigm of “development” as the Holy Grail every society must aspire to, its contours drawn and controlled by Global North interests, as was convincingly exposed, namely, in 1995 by Arturo Escobar in Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. He opens this volume by stating his puzzlement with the “unquestioned desirability” of development (2012, at xlvi). He argues we consider development as having “achieved the status of a certainty in the social imagery” (at 5). This is the way I propose the UN discourse considers the right to tourism; which is of course related to development, the rationale at work being that increased tourism leads to increased development. Escobar also argues that the history of development is tied to the measurable “economic conception of poverty” (at 23), and the solution to poverty, economic growth (at 24). In the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, the success of tourism is mainly measured in numbers of international arrivals. One of the central problems with the worldview associated with the development paradigm, is that it is “articulated around an artificial construct,” that of underdevelopment (at 53). Underdevelopment, in the context of tourism development, is inescapable, as tourism growth is always celebrated by the UNWTO’s statistics. In the preface to its 2012 edition, Escobar describes postdevelopment as “the possibility of visualizing an era in which development ceases to be a central organizing principle of social life.” (at xxix). We have certainly not reached this point, even if “sustainable” is now attached at the hip of “development.”

Should host communities celebrate all tourist visits, when their livelihoods depend on it, as in numerous cases where mass tourism has a strong foothold? The problem that should be reflected upon is not the fact of this dependency and what monetary or gift donations can be made to lessen the precarious conditions often associated with it; but rather, its construction and its reproduction. The problem, at its core, is the unequal power dynamics at play within global tourism relations.

Sabrina Tremblay-Huet is a doctoral candidate and lecturer at the Faculty of Law of the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada. She is a co-founder and a member of the Critical Legal Research Laboratory.

Cite as: Sabrina Tremblay-Huet, “A right to tourism – and the duty of hosting the leisure class”, Völkerrechtsblog, 6 November 2017, doi: 10.17176/20171106-083920.

ISSN 2510-2567
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