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May 26, 2011

Tourism's Blind Eye

Away from the global flock of tourists that seasonally spill into cities with wide-eyed gaping fascination..Far from the khaki shorts, walk-generated sun burns, disposable cameras, and obnoxious white buses… I want to discuss alternative tourism, the way that Beirut in Between sees it.
Alternative tourism is a trend that has developed as a result of the negative effects that the tourism industry has had on local cultures and communities, especially in developing countries. The global tourism industry is quite huge as you may already know, and with the amount of inter-cultural and cross-border exchange it generates on a daily basis, it is quite surprising that racism and cultural stereotyping still exist.
The tourism industry, however, has a dark side. 'Third world' countries seeking to establish long term development plans were encouraged over the decades by global financing giants and development aid programs to develop their tourism industries as a valuable source of national income and job generation. And so, hungry governments borrowed more and more money and channelled this money towards building the needed infrastructure to host tourists and foreign investors. From resorts, to malls, to hotels and financial districts, development started to look more like building the perfect urban paradise for foreign visitors, at the expense of local residents and rural areas.
 Locals were slowly being pushed out to the peripheries of the capital; local business owners started to time their annual income generation according to season, and the nation located outside the borders of the tourist-attracting capital came to be forgotten and neglected. This is the case in Lebanon and many developing countries. As a post-conflict transitional country, Lebanon had to even go the extra mile and bury its deep-seated social ills as far as possible from the public view in order to re-emerge after 15 years of barbarity as the Switzerland of the Middle East.
So in light of this… Beirut in Between, and many others before it, have joined the train of alternative tourism, to reject an uneven path of development and to say that a healthy, fair, and equitable Lebanon is way more attractive than the Pigeon rock, way more satisfying than the Baklawa, and a lot more enriching than the Solidere financial district.
There are people out there who choose their tourism destination for reasons other than the fact that they're "foreign" and "exotic". In history, there have been travellers that have toured the world for purposes other than colonization and religious preaching…these are the travelers that tour for alternative reasons, and they are as profitable as any other.
These are the kind of people that would rather converse with a native than read the Lonely Planet. These people seek to know how the annual tourism to the pyramids has been affected by the Egyptian revolution; why Rome has no Starbucks and who designed Mumbai millionaires' extravagant city homes. They want to know how immigrants in Montreal preserve their cultures through their living spaces and why Georgians are averse to Russian culinary influences.
In Beirut, the stereotypical labels that the Ministry of Tourism perpetuates through its promotional Middle East Airlines "welcome aboard" videos are the crust of a land that stirs and boils internally, in ebbs and flows of peace and war, hospitality and hostility, spirituality and profanity.. sense and madness.
Usually, it is the tourist who comes to the city to see it and be told about it. In Beirut, it is the tourist's perspective that shapes the local identity. Traditional tourism and the government's post-war policy has served to highlight certain aspects of city life, at the expense of others, and has gone so far as to influence our own perception and representation of ourselves and our city. Whereas the tourist is meant to see the city through us, we have come to see the city through the tourist.
We and the tourists are looking at a still image of ourselves… but not at ourselves. Borrowing Edward Said's words, this form of touristic representation (like Orientalism) "shares with magic and mythology the self-containing, self-reinforcing character of a closed system, in which objects are what they are because they are what they are, for once, for all time..". Lebanon, the Switzerland of the Middle East, is just that… a population census that was never redone after 1932, a country carved out of green cedar mountains, Levantine ports that have distinguised its inhabitants, a people that love life and like to live it big. At least that’s what you see when you choose to turn a blind eye to everything in between..

Some interesting examples of alternative tourism from around the world:
·         Palestine: http://jfjfp.com/?page_id=3656
·         Lebanon: http://tastelebanon.co.uk/sample-page/
                  http://www.bebeirut.org/walk.html

1 comment:

  1. "Whereas the tourist is meant to see the city through us, we have come to see the city through the tourist." <- *BOOM* this is theoretical dynamite, congrats

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