Saturday, February 29, 2020

Should cultural tourism be limited to luxury tourists?

It is indeed a provocative question with uncomfortable answers. By its very nature, cultural tourism is potentially the most beneficial form of tourism toward understanding cultural differences and consequently promote social harmony. So it should be encouraged and facilitated to reach the largest audience. That is the bright side of the idea. The downside of cultural tourism is the “observer effect” where the subjects are affected by the mere presence of the observers. As cultural tourism become increasingly popular so does the increasing effect on the culture being observed altering its nature and diminishing its value.

Cultural tourism does change the culture

Even with the greatest care, the observed culture is affected in some ways. Objects such as monuments may be well protected, in many cases even benefit as the economics of cultural tourism can fund preservation, but their surroundings inexorably degrade to accommodate more tourists affecting the overall experience. It is no longer possible to see the pyramids, the great wall or a pristine waterfall without many other tourists, or even tourism infrastructure, in the view.

People are even more deeply affected. Tourists do bring an economic benefit to the villages they visit for their cultural value, but the trade-off is a loss of that cultural value proportional to the volume of tourist traffic. On the face of it, it is good to help improve the living conditions of other human beings, but how much is good, how much is lost and how much bad? There are tribes in Brazil which remain untouched by civilization and the government does go to great length to prevent civilization from affecting these tribes. Cultural tourism would be disastrous to them no matter how enriching it would be for the observers. Bhutan opened its borders to tourists only in 1974 and to this day enforces a policy of “High Value, Low Impact Tourism” with minimum spend of US$250 per day, effectively restricting access to luxury tourists only.

Is it elitist to restrict access to a few affluent tourists?

No one would argue that there is hardly any cultural value left in a village receiving a thousand visitors a day with the unavoidable large coach parking, sanitation and garbage disposal, hard top walk paths and seating area, food and beverage, etc. etc. On the other hand a village receiving may be two dozen visitors a day would not need nor have any of that infrastructure and the lifestyle of the villagers would be minimally affected by so few tourists. That is cultural tourism at its best causing minimal impact on the subject. And that is where the problem lie: genuine cultural tourism is not compatible with mass tourism.

To preserve the cultural interest of the destination and cause the least impact on the subject, it make sense to restrict access to as few tourists as possible. For large monuments, like La Alhambra in Granada, Spain, the daily limit is set at 6,600 visitors per day or 300 per hour. That is hardly elitist as anyone can visit with advance planning. But for a sensitive nature site or a small village, the reasonable limit may indeed be two dozen visitors a day. As the popularity of cultural tourism grows, the demand may be ten or even a hundred times greater. A lottery would be fair to the tourists, but aside from being impractical it would also be most unfair to the destination to prevent it from earning an economic benefit from their cultural value to either help preserve monuments or improve the lives of its people.

Setting a high access cost, like Bhutan does, reduces market demand to the most affluent tourists and brings the highest economic benefit to the cultural destination at the lowest impact cost. In conclusion, for the smaller or most sensitive cultural destinations it is indeed responsible tourism to limit access and price it as high as necessary to bring demand down to a level of least impact.

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