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Go Ahead Stick Your Head in the Sand, Just Don’t Do it in Haiti

As globalization bridges the gap between the developed and the developing world, countries and cultures that were once off-limits are now as close as a mouse click away. Not only is it possible to look up information about the Dominican Republic on the Web, but within hours you can be sitting on its white sandy beaches, appreciating the local food, and learning about the culture. So, what is the responsibility of the world traveler who ventures into another country, camera and dollars in hand? Is it a right or a privilege? And does all tourism by default help the local economy?

As globalization bridges the gap between the developed and the developing world, countries and cultures that were once off-limits are now as close as a mouse click away. Not only is it possible to look up information about the Dominican Republic on the Web, but within hours you can be sitting on its white sandy beaches, appreciating the local food, and learning about the culture. So, what is the responsibility of the world traveler who ventures into another country, camera and dollars in hand? Is it a right or a privilege? And does all tourism by default help the local economy?

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Pro-poor tourism is tourism that consciously gives back to poor people, helping to alleviate poverty from the ground up. A pro-poor tourist may decide to stay in a locally owned hotel or buy locally made products, instead of going on a package tour. Or they may decide to go with a package deal to save money, but venture out of the confines of the hotel in order to spread their wealth around. Another option is to book travel with a company that gives back a percentage of the profits to boost the local economy.

Pro-poor tourism can help a country with much-needed development post-conflict. Before the Rwandan genocide, tourism was one of the country’s biggest moneymakers. Today tourism brings in $42 million and the Rwandan government hopes to increase that to $100 million by 2010.

To boost tourism and speed up development in Africa, Microsoft and the United Nations World Tourism Organization have partnered on an e-tourism project that will ensure local tourism ventures have a web presence. This will allow Africa’s tourism market to be more competitive and will increase the quality of the services. At the Global Leaders Forum for Africa, Bill Gates recognized that Microsoft could help drive future economic growth and create jobs by providing affordable access to existing technology.

But what happens when vacations are so white washed that the sight of the poor makes tourists squeamish? An article in today’s New York Times entitled “Amid the Woe, a Haitian Paradise Beckons” highlights this clash of civilizations.

What it boils down to is this: Haiti is the poorest nation in the hemisphere where the poorest of the poor live out their days amidst squalor and disease, while cruise ships dock on Haiti’s beaches allowing tourists to eat themselves into oblivion surrounded by a security fence.

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For tourists, visiting Haiti can be an opportunity to open their eyes to the realities of life for the 1.1 billion people in the world who live on less than $1 a day. It can also help contribute to Haiti’s economy by feeding the hungry and sending children to school. But if this article is any indication, this is not what is happening. In reality it is just the opposite. All the food on the ship is provided by Royal Caribbean and no food is bought locally. Some jobs are given to locals, but much less than in the past, and more are still needed. Yet what is most interesting are the tourists who readily admit that the beaches of Haiti and the local culture are merely a backdrop to their dream vacation. “I don’t want to see poverty,” says one. “I’m on vacation. I don’t want to think that these people don’t have enough to eat.”

If you don’t want to see poverty there are plenty of other places besides Haiti you can go to stick your head in the sand.

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