News & Blogs Can travel really be a force for good?

Matt Derrick

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It’s hard to fault people who are cynical about the effects of tourism on developing countries.

The environment, traditional ways of life, and affordable rents are just a few of the victims of ‘runaway tourism.’ For many commentators, this is simply the latest chapter in an ongoing story of colonisation and Western privilege.

Travel is changing, however. Digital disruption and modern habits and tastes have all but ended the need for travel agencies, and it’s probably reasonable to suggest conventional holiday resorts are next on the chopping block. Hostels, seemingly unaffected by the meteoric rise of Airbnb, are more popular than ever. The gig economy and a movement towards remote work now enables people to live abroad as digital expats, while smartphones have made it practically effortless to translate, plan and navigate trips off the beaten track.

But even as tourism gives way to a new travel paradigm, the ghosts of historical and present-day exploitation haunt conscientious travellers and expats. Businesses keen to extract their share of incoming foreign wealth continue to offer services catering to the whims and desires of yesteryear’s travellers. The habits of the most careless and abusive tourists are inevitably ingrained in the historical memory of the local community, becoming the default and expected behaviour for future tourists. Meanwhile an insidious voluntourism industry takes advantage of young backpackers and their desire to make a difference. Put simply, breaking the cycle and being a ‘good traveller’ is harder than it looks!

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Hermes Rivera / Unsplash
In the digital nomad community, the debate over what constitutes good and bad behaviour abroad is as ferocious as any political news comment section. The key point of contention is money — specifically, what kind of spending is appropriate when earning an income and living abroad for a prolonged period of time. One group lives very frugally and accuses the other of using their excess wealth to lord over local people like an ascendant ruling class, creating what amounts to segregated, gentrified neighbourhoods where locals can’t afford to live. This group counters that their presence creates jobs and opportunities for their host communities, while penny-pinching nomads are little different from ‘begpackers’ — taking advantage of the generosity customs that are typical in developing countries while consuming the kind of ‘cheap’ products and services that are in limited supply but essential for the wellbeing of the very needy. It’s an argument as old as economics itself; is one’s ‘contribution’ to society measured in participation or spending?

Of course, the parameters of this debate are narrow and totally divorced from the realities on the ground, and digital nomads typically don’t spend long enough in any one place to gain a deep understanding of the economic and political situations in their host countries. Real intuition about how various behaviours affect communities is something that comes naturally with time. That’s not to say that all long-term expats have a net positive impact — on the contrary, countries like Thailand have had to contend with a wave of immigration from Westerners keen to live out lethargic yet insidiously predatory lifestyles. Indeed the phenomenon of marriage agencies is well documented. But just as travel is changing, a new wave of expats is beginning to challenge the reputation of Westerners in Asia.

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Pixabay
Corruption and extortion are facts of life throughout Southeast Asia, and most foreign visitors play right into the hands of this system. Inequality of wealth is a wide and growing chasm, with large companies and governments collaborating to hoard the vast majority of the benefits of foreign trade. Ordinary people with modest businesses and limited English language skills simply cannot compete with such rivals. As a result, digital expats can unlock a whole new world of experiences and interactions — simply by learning some of the local language and finding the bravery to participate in environments that are not ‘designed for foreigners’. This is a crucial first step in dismantling exploitative structures.

But for real transformation to occur, the relationship in which wealthy expats have the role of customer and the host country has the role of service provider must be left in the past. In other words, remote workers must start to see the huge opportunities that are possible from cooperating with local businesses. This is no easy task: legal and ethical traps, communication barriers and local distrust of Westerners all must be overcome, but the benefits of such partnerships are huge for both parties, for the community as a whole, and arguably for international cooperation in general!

Individual remote workers are limited in what they can achieve in this regard. At least in Thailand they have the option of joining a digital expat organisation and benefiting from the wisdom of locals and experienced expats that have worked together for years. In 2017, three members of Iglu’s staff participated in a charity run event with the proceeds going to Baan Mitratorn — a home for children infected with HIV — and donated computers to the Warm Heart Foundation as part of a wider technology recycling programme. In 2018, this trend continues to grow within the digital expat community as significant donations are made to organisations like Thai Freedom House through hugely successful fundraising events.

Thanks to the example set by forward-thinking expat communities, there’s finally hope for travellers to have a positive impact on the cities and countries they now call ‘home’.

 
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I like what Mark Twain said about it over 100 years ago:

mark-twain-travel-quote-png.42784_Can travel really be a force for good?_People & Cultures_Squat the Planet_10:54 AM


I've often thought Twain should be considered a "kindred spirit" with those who are on the road and learning about life and people. In his own time he did much traveling while plying his trade as a journalist, lecturer, and even entertainer. I can only imagine him among us today
with all of the digital technologies we have to communicate instantly.
 
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