Yankees Seeking Paradise: Reflections on International Tourism

July 13, 2018 | 0 comments

The following is a narrative by Recreation, Park and Tourism Management undergraduate student William Fitzgerald as part of the “Students Telling the Stories of Science” series. This introspective piece takes readers on a journey through the heart of Tanzania with Carter Hunt, assistant professor of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management in the College of Health and Human Development. He is also the advisor of the sustainability leadership minor at the Penn State Sustainability Institute. Hunt’s research focuses on topics located at the cross-roads of sustainability, biodiversity and tourism. 

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Yankees Seeking Paradise: Reflections on International Tourism

Carter Hunt is talking his way into the Udzungwa Falls Lodge of southern Tanzania. He leans on the polished teak counter, flanked by Larry Gorenflo— fellow Penn State professor — and Kenny, the indefatigable driver and fixer extraordinaire. A fellow student, James, and I hang back silently.

We had left the June sun and climbed a steep forested road in Kenny’s customized Land Cruiser — two diesel fuel tanks, extended cab and zebra print seat covers. Saluted through two sets of wrought iron gates manned by fatigue-clad guards with red berets, belonging to the informal army of Western Nerves Eased, we landed among sculpted concrete and towering bark cloth trees. On the rainforest slopes, abutting the Udzungwa Mountains National Park, is the Udzungwa Falls Lodge an upscale hotel; one that we are keen to see.

The receptionist is less keen; she eyes the camera slung over Hunt’s shoulder, black, bulky, and capable of much intrusion. Hunt chews on a toothpick; his plaid shirt unbuttoned at the neck reveals a large sand dollar necklace. He explains that he and Gorenflo are professors studying the area who are interested in the lodge for a conference. Hunt and Gorenflo are scouting locations for an upscale alumni trip offered through the Pennsylvania State University, that will be hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro next year, then venturing south to the Udzungwa Mountains, where their work focuses. While conducting research in the area, the pair are also leading a study abroad trip focusing on the interactions between land conservation and human development; Parks and People: Tanzania.The students on the trip—housed in an old Chinese railway camp—will have a chance to present their work to these alumni, and serve as guides, with the common bond of Happy Valley.

Carter Hunt emergies from Kenny’s Land Cruiser – Msosa Tanzania

“15 people, for three nights. And maybe we can use the airfield?” Hunt asks. That would be the airstrip owned by the Illovo Sugar Company, whose cane carpets most of the valley below us. He realizes the airstrip is supposed to be top-secret and steps his 6’ 2” frame back from the counter, bashfully looking to Kenny.

With an exchange of Swahili, we are wandering the paths of the lodge carved into the hillside. Conference room; swimming pool with bar; gym; restaurant; another bar where startled Tanzanian men drink Bombay at noon; Bungalow-style rooms; a gift shop; the receptionist fielding an array of questions. How many rooms? Air conditioning? Wheredoes the power come from? How many local staff are employed? What happens in the off-season? As we tour the lodge, Gorenflo stays unusually quiet, wistfully chewing his toothpick, soul patch twitching.

Back at reception we are presented with the package deals. Wedding deals, golfing options, safari packages. Armed with a stack of pamphlets and brochures we walk back to the truck; hotel drivers, surprised to see us, have washed it of the ubiquitous red dust. On the bone-shattering drive back to the research station, Hunt lays out all that he observed. I am eager to hear his opinion of the lodge. What he did not tell the receptionist was his research background in tourism, local perceptions of it and its impacts on the local environment, society and economy; Hunt has been conducting research during our tour. Whether as tourist, professor, or trip-leader, observations of the world’s largest employer never cease.

Hunt says it is impossible to separate research from touristic experiences: “I started out in psychology and it was the same way there — every aspect of life became scrutinized,” Hunt explains. “It is valuable to experience the tourism system not just as a researcher but also as a ‘participant.’ While that is not research per se, it does increase awareness of the array and extent of what falls under the umbrella of the word tourism. It informs subsequent thinking.”

According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) tourism accounts for 10 percent of the world’s GDP, employs 1 in 10 people, and generates $1.4 trillion in exports. An industry of such immense scale has significant impacts: economically, socially and environmentally. Billions of people now cross international borders in pursuit of tourism experiences. Their baggage is more than they can check or cram into the overhead compartment. 80 percent of their carbon footprint is accumulated in transportation to and from the destination. Tourism is often conducted with and through all-inclusive resorts owned by multinational corporations; the revenue stays within the confines of the resort. Scarce resources such as clean water — as the tourist seeks destinations of sand and sun — are diverted from a needy local population to golf courses and water parks. The local population may be employed in the resort, but in positions as maids, cooks and drivers, those without upward mobility or adequate pay.

There are doubts as to the positive impacts of tourism on local livelihoods, income creation and protected areas. As tourism and specifically “leisure travel to natural areas” continues to grow, the very resources on which it relies are strained. Research is being conducted to assess its impacts and determine strategies and bifurcating forms of tourism to promote sustainability for the local population, economy and environment. One such form of leisure travel to natural areas is called ecotourism, a rapidly growing subset. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.” Much of Hunt’s research focuses on ecotourism. While it is often touted as a sustainable alternative to mass-tourism, ecotourism is not without its shortcomings. With loose interpretations and implementations, a lack of true regulatory body, and the capitalization on the marketability of eco-anything, the ecotourism industry’s recent success may be its own downfall.

His doctoral thesis, which was the foundation for further papers, focused on ecotourism through An Ethnographic Analysis of Ecotourism in Nicaragua (2010). Much of Hunt’s research was carried out at Morgan’s Rock, a high-end ecolodge in southeastern Nicaragua that had gained publicity for its quality ecotourism practices. Hunt was able to live in the staff quarters in exchange for English lessons, immersing himself in employee life at the lodge. This provided invaluable research opportunities and data collection, but also provided intangible benefits. “[M]ost valuable to the research was the opportunity I had to participate fully in all aspects of employee life: lodging in an isolated group of six employee cabins, taking of meals in the separate employee kitchen, eating rice and beans for every one of those meals, inter-property baseball games between hotel and plantation staff on rocky ground with homemade bats, profanity and smoke-filled nightly card games…”

Hunt’s immersion and research at the lodge allowed him to see behind the “Green Curtain.” He found the lodge to be purporting an aura of sustainability that was gravely false on accounts of the environment–often called “greenwashing“–and community outreach, employee compensation and treatment, and intentional falsehoods played to the tourists. However, Hunt — exposed to the reality of life in Nicaragua — came to further conclusions with a nuanced perspective; that in the context of Nicaragua the lodge was doing much better than most in providing consistent income —employing 125 people; an alternative, with Nicaragua’s growing tourism industry, to the massive resorts and exclusive communities now littering the coast; instilling in the employees of the lodge an appreciation for the environment that outside locals did not have.

In finding tourism ventures that provide worthy immersion experiences, Hunt says, “A general tip would be to seek out locally-owned and operated projects. They may or may not include levels of desired immersion, but the level provided will be determined by the local community residents themselves and is therefore a more appropriate form of immersion than other types of immersion that might perpetuate imbalances and inequalities of power, influence, affluence, etc. In short, buy local.”

Tourism — and the act of holidaying — is a hedonistic endeavor; a submission to selfish pleasures, not necessarily undeserved, without concrete purpose or meaning. International tourism means being a foreigner in a foreign land. One does not belong, and, in the pursuit of sun and sand, one never will. Properly executed ecotourism can provide holiday-seekers with the opportunity to interact with the local community under local guidelines. In this interaction, the tourist may find a deeper sense of purpose, belonging, and reward; conversely, it is beneficial to locals. Activities such as artisanal fishing, working-in and buying local handcrafts, farming, or giving skilled aid in clinics or hospitals. These activities are found in niche genres of tourism, see: voluntourism, farming-tourism, medical-tourism, but can also be incorporated into any tourism experience. Some be perceived as gimmicky or contrived, but if a monetary exchange has taken place that adequately rewards locals for their time and service, upholds community culture, or provides much needed aid, then there is no gimmick.

Having studied under Dr. Hunt since 2014, I have developed a critical eye and pessimistic attitude towards tourism. Growing up an expat, this academic-found attitude has made for deeply conflicting internal debates. Going home — a place I define by the location of my family — involves travelling overseas to a country that is not my own. While I am not necessarily a tourist, I am wracked by worry of local perceptions, cultural distancing through lack of language, and an overall sense of not belonging. In visiting Switzerland earlier this month and having a poor grasp of perplexing Swiss-German, I found myself avoiding interactions at all costs. I didn’t want to be ousted as a foreigner. I stopped at shop windows but never entered. I pointed at menus, smiling with a look of bovine intelligence. With a keen sense of direction, I wandered the city of Basel — slaloming the Rhine on modern bridges, ancient bridges and a reaction ferry — but lacked any sense of belonging or compass. I could blend in, sure, but I also faded away. Perhaps that is why Americans don the garb of the innocent abroad —bulging white sneakers, elastic-waist jean shorts, our flag encrusted in jewels, waved by a teddy bear, on a t-shirt — to stand out. Flocking in droves to floating prisons in the Caribbean, tromping onto cattle cars that offload them at the slaughterhouse of trinket markets, drained at the neck of authenticity — selfies with the Mona Lisa.

I went to Dr. Hunt with my worries of local perception, curious what he as a researcher felt abroad. “This might have been the case in the past, but now it would be weird if I was not seen as a tourist…it takes a long time to develop sufficient rapport that results in you being distinguished differently from tourists. And even then, that only happen on an individual basis. The next local resident that walks up will once again think, ‘that white guy’s a tourist!’ So, I don’t feel bad about being perceived as a tourist anymore. I just feel good when a time comes when I’m perceived as something different — be it a researcher, a guest, or a friend!” Hunt said.

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Sunrise over the Indian Ocean – Kilwa Tanzania

We spent the last days of our 6 weeks in Tanzania lounging on the shore of the Indian Ocean. It had been a slog; a tremendous amount of research and writing, the inevitable frustrations of fixed companions while living in a foreign country in which our presence elicited gawking stares and selfies. There was no fading away here. Those last days I shared a bungalow with James, one of three African Americans on our trip. He and I had become very close during the trip. Never before had I engaged in such poignant conversations on race, ethnicity and culture — with all of my classmates, facilitated by those whose skin was black, and ethnicity American; perhaps it was the feeling of being in the racial minority; it was certainly my classmates’ willingness to engage in such conversations. Another classmate, Toyin, expressed her sense of connection to the Tanzanian’s through shared race, but the deeper void created by differing cultures. Watching the sunrise on the Indian Ocean, I thought to myself, and smiled a bovine smile, I had to go all the way to Africa to become close with an AfricanAmerican.

What does that say about me?

In the conclusion of The Innoncents Abroad,Mark Twain writes, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

We cannot stop travel, nor should we. Now more than ever we need travel, but under the auspices of ecotourism; for the expanding of waned perspectives, for the celebration of cultures not our own and the infusion of sustainable economic development, for feeling lost and confused as our nation does to those seeking refuge on our shores, and for toes in the sand, let us embrace a new age of travel

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