With the Vatican championing the cause of inclusive and sustainable tourism, the Church in Asia should use its resources to make tourism more than an affair of welcoming Europeans and Americans with open arms.
The tourism industry cares less for the local people and their natural environment. Cases of tourism destroying local cultures and character are aplenty in Asia, where in most places the industry is focused on making foreigners feel welcome or attracting better-off domestic urban dwellers seeking to unwind from the stress of their daily lives.
Many local cultures have gone into oblivion since the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Asian Development Bank (ADB) rewrote the rulebook and built the modern tourism industry on the hospitable character of the native civilizations. Those that survived were forced to put up a vulgar display of servitude.
The tourist, who comes to spend his money, inherently has an advantage over local people and their cultures. Locals are under pressure to adapt to the needs of the tourists.
The superiority enjoyed by visitors takes away the local character and flavor of tourist destinations, sometimes rendering them filthy and denigrated.
The beach at Pattaya in eastern Thailand is an example. Pattaya was a sleepy fishing village 40 years ago where simple people maintained their quiet village life. Then, during the Vietnam War, the US military had several nearby bases, helping servicemen discover the beauty of the bay. Their stories attracted their colleagues and others. The boom came following the Vietnam War and the Thai government also invested in the resort. However, the decades of progress rendered the beach filthy, leaving even the seawater dirty.
Tourism in Asia, however, remains a holy cow even when it exacerbates power inequalities by discriminating against people on the basis of class, caste and gender
Since 1980, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has observed World Tourism Day every Sept. 27 to create awareness about the social, cultural, political and economic value of tourism.
To support the pandemic-hit industry this year, UNWTO has invited member states “to ensure that nobody is left behind as the world begins to open up again and look to the future.”
On its part, the Vatican has urged governments and policymakers to encourage responsible tourism, especially in rural areas. The Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development made the appeal to respect local cultures in a message ahead of this year’s World Tourism Day.
To revive the tourism sector, Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the dicastery, asked the world to promote sustainable and responsible tourism that recognizes the centrality of the local host community.
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Bringing tourism and rural development together on one platform is the best way to learn new cultures, the cardinal added.
Tourism in Asia, however, remains a holy cow even when it exacerbates power inequalities by discriminating against people on the basis of class, caste and gender while exploiting the environment, children, livelihoods, forests and fishing rights, and above all people’s rights over their natural resources.
Globally, Asia continues to be the second most attractive continent for tourists after Europe. In 2019, some 360.7 million international tourists arrived in the Asia-Pacific region, an increase of 4.1 percent over 2018. The pandemic has brought down the numbers in 2020 and 2021, but governmental efforts are underway to increase tourism inflows and income.
Tourism development models in Asia are championed by governments arguing that tourism’s economic benefits will trickle down to the poor. But critics argue that mindless tourism continues to inflict social, economic, cultural and ecological injustices on poor communities.
The Church’s voice is seldom heard when tourism displaces communities and exploits the poor in Asian countries. At a time when forests, beaches and public places are shrinking fast due to tourism encroachments, the Asian Church has to put forward its best foot to foster sustainable and responsible tourism on the continent.
In the 1980s, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) together with other Christian denominations formed the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism (ECTWT). The coalition was active for some time in as many as 12 countries and involved Hindus, Buddhists, Protestants and Catholics to fight the ill-effects of multinational tourism syndicates that sought the luxury of a few at the expense of the basic needs of the many.
That initiative seems to have died out. The excuse of the Church being a minority and thus incapable of influencing policy should be dismissed as stale and lame.
We see the Church effectively intervening in several countries to alter policies when its landed property or resources in the fields of health care and education are adversely affected. The reality is that the victims of tourism are not a priority for the Church.
More than decrying the negative effects of tourism such as environmental destruction, prostitution and drug abuse, church leaders should work out a tourism policy to play active roles in Asian countries.
The Church in Asia can boast many religious and historical artifacts that can tell the stories of genocide, world wars, conflict and peaceful coexistence
The Catholic Church in Asia, which claims an apostolic tradition of nearly 2,000 years, owns umpteen cultural and historical hotspots and a huge wealth of real estate across Asian cities.
The vast swaths of land Christian groups own on beaches and hills across Asia are ideal to attract and accommodate both national and international tourists. Imaginative and professional minds should come together to find ways for the Church to consider tourism as a new mission in Asia.
Tourism can also educate and inform. The history of the Church in each country, the struggles it underwent and the social bridges it built can all be showcased through emotion-filled historic places studded with ancient cathedrals and buildings.
The Church in Asia can boast many religious and historical artifacts that can tell the stories of genocide, world wars, conflict and peaceful coexistence. It can also develop places associated with its saints.
The newer Christian communities in the villages and hills can offer facilities for tourists to live among them, helping them experience their life and culture. That is the most effective way of evangelization.
People like to meet people who are ready to welcome them. “Come and see” should become the central aspect of the mission.
The Church needs to develop new concepts of missionary work to evangelize through sustainable and positive tourism in Asia. The negative approach to tourism, seeing it as the devil’s trap to coax humans into the abyss, should end.
More than preaching for sustainable tourism, the Church needs to act to make it happen. If no action comes, the Vatican’s call for World Tourism Day will simply end with parish priests repeating the appeals during a homily or two.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.