In recent years, travellers have had to take one more factor into consideration while planning their trips, especially if the destination is a popular tourist attraction. ‘How to avoid crowds’. Well, travellers aren’t the only victims of mass tourism.
Protests against mass tourism by residents of Venice and Amsterdam mark a sea change from the earlier attitude of tourism being good for the economy, good for growth etc. Albeit over the years the focus has gradually shifted to ecological burden on certain fragile sites, the overall consensus appeared to be in favour of tourism.
Now, more and more articles are appearing about how certain tourist sites have lost their charm due to overcrowding. Writers on culture in media are also increasingly talking about UNESCOCide – the death of the character of a city once it is awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status. While the recognition entails better conservation and protection for monuments and local architecture, and also boosts revenues and jobs, the resultant surge in tourism might not always be good for a heritage city.
Luang Prabang, which I recently visited, received its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1995. Already, there is grumbling about damage to the character of the city. The as-yet pristine city is surrounded by luscious green hills and located on the Mekong-Nam Khan confluence. It was awarded the heritage status for its amazing mix of ancient Lao architecture and French colonial architecture, and is considered to be the best preserved in Asia.
Nevertheless, some aspect of commercialization is evident. The main road, along which most of the picturesque Buddhist temples are situated, is lined with touristy cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and convenience stores. By 5pm in the evening, the area transforms even more into a tourist hub with red and blue tarpaulin tents stretching over a km for the night market.
Moreover, with increasing tourist arrivals, the government feels pressured to offer a ‘unique’ experience to tourists. This often leads to destroying/commercialising the very thing that is supposed to be unique. For instance, the Lao government has often been criticized for opening up the tak bat ceremony to tourists.
The traditional ceremony involved monks solemnly walking through the town at dawn as its residents lined up to give them alms. However, now busloads of tourists are dropped off before the ceremony, and they buy over-priced sticky rice from stalls to donate to the monks. The ceremony ends up becoming a spectacle as tourists vie with each other to get the perfect shot, sometimes walking right up to the monks and using flash photography. No amount of flyers put up in the temples has been able to discourage this unruly behaviour.
In the age of social media, and instant gratification, people are ready to do anything for the perfect selfie, not bothering to take permission before clicking away. Incidents of tourists dying or causing diplomatic embarrassment for the perfect picture are sadly becoming common.
Mass tourism has led to such unsavoury experiences that tourist websites and travel writers have specifically started advising travelers about how to avoid crowds. So, does this mean that we should all stop travelling and just stay put where we are? God, no! As an avid traveler, that is the last thing I would suggest! But then, how do cities find the right balance? Between ensuring that the residents prosper financially, but do not get pushed out of their own homes? Between ensuring that a city welcomes tourists, but maintains its culture and character too?
A partial solution to the ill-effects of mass tourism could be to actually engage with visitors and encourage them to meet and positively contribute to the lives of the residents. Volunteer tourism has apparently become very popular over the last decade.
In Luang Prabang, a not-for-profit called ‘Big Brother Mouse’ welcomes tourists to visit their facility at specific times to help Laotian children practice their English conversations. The centre is located in the heart of the heritage site, making it easy for tourists to stop by and pitch in.
Laos ranks among the poorest ASEAN countries in terms of GDP per capita and also has the unfortunate distinction of being the most bombed country in the world. So, any efforts to improve the lives of its citizens, while not completely giving in to globalisation, are likely to bring many benefits to Laotians.
Big Brother Mouse appears keen on maintaining this balance. Its mission statement says that Laos, as a country, doesn’t read, and that they have taken it upon themselves to turn Laos into ‘a country that reads for fun!’ College graduates and enthusiastic students have put their heads together to come out with fun, easily readable fiction in Lao language. They have adapted well-know fairytales and stories for children to the Lao context and kept in mind reading ages as well.
The organisation publishes books, distributes them (sometimes for free) and holds ‘book parties’ in rural schools, so that children can experience the joy of reading. They have also opened a school – Big Sister Mouse – in a rural area, where they take visitors for a day trip to play with the children, teach them, and share a hearty meal. Here are some heart-warming pictures from their website:
Due to time constraints, I could not participate in any of these activities, but I helped some students practice their English at Mt Phousi. We also met an enterprising 17-year-old monk in saffron robes, who spoke English quite well. He told us that he had made it a habit to come to tourist places and speak with visitors so that he could polish his English.
He had many questions for us, especially about India, and it was a genuine heart to heart encounter that I will never forget. He told us that the school in his village wasn’t good, so his parents made the decision of sending him to Luang Prabang to study in a monk school. I could only imagine the hardships of his parents back home, and how he must be living here all alone, driven only by his dream to make something of himself. He told us he wanted to learn English so that he could open his own restaurant someday.
Speaking with him made me wonder about the kinds of opportunities available to girls and women in rural areas. There are no equivalent nun’s schools in Laos. This 2012 report states that:
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 93% of women who participate in the labor force in Laos are employed in agriculture.
I wish I had time to find out more. There are also many initiatives to preserve the traditional knowledge and way of life of the Lao people, while also affording them dignity and fair wages, like Ock Pop Tok and the TAEC (Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre). I was particularly impressed by my visit to TAEC, awed by the displays that showcased the histories and geographies of different peoples, where they might have originally come from, and differences in their livelihoods and lifestyles. Through text and imaginative displays, the museum curators also showcased unique aspects of the Lao culture, like the hand-crafted whistle which is used on social occasions and also to show interest in a potential partner. It was also a joy to see the different costumes worn by women of different ethnic groups.
There was an interesting display of various furniture items and utensils made of bamboo for uses like separating husk, smoking chillies, drying grains, and as lamps, hats and baskets for various purposes. Sort of like how cane is used in India for a variety of purposes.
The signboards accompanying the displays also mentioned that silk making and weaving was a traditional activity and that women in many groups wove clothes, scarves and items of bedding for their entire families.
There was also this elaborate section on Job’s tears seeds that explained where these seeds came from and what they were used for. They are also available in Africa and naturally have holes on both ends, making it easy to string them into funky headgears or jewelry! They are sewn into clothes to make really beautiful patterns and are almost as hard as plastic.
The centre mentioned though that with globalisation, plastic beads and materials were gradually replacing natural materials, as artisans moved to bigger cities for better opportunities. While the increase in tourism has revived interest in these traditional artforms, would it be sufficient to really preserve them is something that remains to be seen.
So, we can blame governments and commercialisation for mass tourism, but the biggest power is with us, the tourists, and the choices we make, that can either save or destroy nature, culture and the lives of our fellow human beings. From now on, I determine to be a responsible tourist!