Negative Socio-Cultural Impacts From Tourism

Change or loss of indigenous identity and values

Tourism can cause change or loss of local identity and values, brought about by several closely related influences:

  • Commodification
    Tourism can turn local cultures into commodities when religious rituals, traditional ethnic rites and festivals are reduced and sanitized to conform to tourist expectations, resulting in what has been called "reconstructed ethnicity." Once a destination is sold as a tourism product, and the tourism demand for souvenirs, arts, entertainment and other commodities begins to exert influence, basic changes in human values may occur. Sacred sites and objects may not be respected when they are perceived as goods to trade. 

  • Standardization
    Destinations risk standardization in the process of satisfying tourists' desires for familiar facilities. While landscape, accommodation, food and drinks, etc., must meet the tourists' desire for the new and unfamiliar, they must at the same time not be too new or strange because few tourists are actually looking for completely new things. Tourists often look for recognizable facilities in an unfamiliar environment, like well-known fast-food restaurants and hotel chains.

  • Loss of authenticity and staged authenticity
    Adapting cultural expressions and manifestations to the tastes of tourists or even performing shows as if they were "real life" constitutes "staged authenticity". As long as tourists just want a glimpse of the local atmosphere, a quick glance at local life, without any knowledge or even interest, staging will be inevitable.
  • Adaptation to tourist demands
    Tourists want souvenirs, arts, crafts, and cultural manifestations, and in many tourist destinations, craftsmen have responded to the growing demand, and have made changes in design of their products to bring them more in line with the new customers' tastes. While the interest shown by tourists also contributes to the sense of self-worth of the artists, and helps conserve a cultural tradition, cultural erosion may occur due to the commodification of cultural goods. 

Creating molas, which are the blouses worn by Kuna women in Colombia, is an art that began with designs that reflected the conception of the world, of nature, and of the spiritual life of the Kuna Nation. Now it is increasingly being transformed, through tourism, into a commercial trade which causes loss of its spiritual value and quality. This is changing the designs of the molas to correspond to the interests of the tourists, while at the same time the Kuna women are losing their knowledge of the old designs and the interpretations and meanings of the mola designs.
Source: Eco-index

Culture clashes

Because tourism involves movement of people to different geographical locations, and establishment of social relations between people who would otherwise not meet, cultural clashes can take place as a result of differences in cultures, ethnic and religious groups, values and lifestyles, languages, and levels of prosperity.

The result can be an overexploitation of the social carrying capacity (limits of acceptable change in the social system inside or around the destination) and cultural carrying capacity (limits of acceptable change in the culture of the host population) of the local community.

The attitude of local residents towards tourism development may unfold through the stages of euphoria, where visitors are very welcome, through apathy, irritation and potentially antagonism, when anti-tourist attitudes begin growing among local people.

Cultural clashes may further arise through:

  • Economic inequality
    Many tourists come from societies with different consumption patterns and lifestyles than what is current at the destination, seeking pleasure, spending large amounts of money and sometimes behaving in ways that even they would not accept at home. One effect is that local people that come in contact with these tourists may develop a sort of copying behavior, as they want to live and behave in the same way. Especially in less developed countries, there is likely to be a growing distinction between the 'haves' and 'have-nots', which may increase social and sometimes ethnic tensions. In resorts in destination countries such as Jamaica, Indonesia or Brazil, tourism employees with average yearly salaries of US$ 1,200 to 3,000 spend their working hours in close contact with guests whose yearly income is well over US$ 80,000.
  • Irritation due to tourist behavior
    Tourists often, out of ignorance or carelessness, fail to respect local customs and moral values. When they do, they can bring about irritation and stereotyping. They take a quick snapshot and are gone, and by so acting invade the local peoples' lives.

In many Muslim countries, strict standards exist regarding the appearance and behaviour of Muslim women, who must carefully cover themselves in public. Tourists in these countries often disregard or are unaware of these standards, ignoring the prevalent dress code, appearing half-dressed (by local standards) in revealing shorts, skirts or even bikinis, sunbathing topless at the beach or consuming large quantities of alcohol openly. Besides creating ill-will, this kind of behavior can be an incentive for locals not to respect their own traditions and religion anymore, leading to tensions within the local community. The same types of culture clashes happen in conservative Christian communities in Polynesia, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

  • Job level friction
    In developing countries especially, many jobs occupied by local people in the tourist industry are at a lower level, such as housemaids, waiters, gardeners and other practical work, while higher-paying and more prestigious managerial jobs go to foreigners or "urbanized" nationals. Due to a lack of professional training, as well as to the influence of hotel or restaurant chains at the destination, people with the know-how needed to perform higher level jobs are often attracted from other countries. This may cause friction and irritation and increases the gap between the cultures. 

    Even in cases where tourism "works", in the sense that it improves local economies and the earning power of local individuals, it cannot solve all local social or economic problems. Sometimes it substitutes new problems for old ones.

Income Inequality in Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia
In Western Malaysia, the Taman Negara National Park is a privately owned park and resort which can house 260 visitors at a time. The park employs 270 people and 60% of the staff in the administrative headquarters are locals. In 1999 these local staff earned about US$ 120 a month; for comparison, Malaysians living off the land at that time were earning on average about US$ 40 a month.

Despite the positive effects of increased park employment, the difference in income between the two local groups has led to social tension and driven up boat fares and the cost of everyday goods. Little of the tourism money generated by the park stays in Malaysia, and park employees spend almost 90% of their income outside the region or on imported goods. Thus local inhabitants, whose culture has been marketed to attract tourists, benefit only to a very limited extent. Indeed, many have taken to illegal hunting and fishing in the park, contrary to its protective regulations. 
Source: ILO report on human resources development, employment and globalization in the hotel, catering and tourism sector, 2001

Physical influences causing social stress

The physical influences that the increasing tourism flow, and its consequent developments, have on a destination can cause severe social stress as it impacts the local community. Socio-cultural disadvantages evolve from:

  • Resource use conflicts, such as competition between tourism and local populations for the use of prime resources like water and energy because of scarce supply. Stress to local communities can also result from environmental degradation and increased infrastructure costs for the local community - for example, higher taxes to pay for improvements to the water supply or sanitation facilities.
  • Cultural deterioration. Damage to cultural resources may arise from vandalism, littering, pilferage and illegal removal of cultural heritage items. A common problem at archaeological sites in countries such as Egypt, Colombia, Mexico and Peru is that poorly paid guards supplement their income by selling artifacts to tourists. Furthermore, degradation of cultural sites may occur when historic sites and buildings are unprotected and the traditionally built environment is replaced or virtually disappears. 
  • Conflicts with traditional land-uses, especially in intensely exploited areas such as coastal zones, which are popular for their beaches and islands. Conflicts arise when the choice has to be made between development of the land for tourist facilities or infrastructure and local traditional land-use. The indigenous population of such destinations is frequently the loser in the contest for these resources as the economic value which tourism brings often counts for more.

As an example of how local people can suffer from tourism development, in coastal areas construction of shoreline hotels and tourist faculties often cuts off access for the locals to traditional fishing ground and even recreational use of the areas.

Depriving local people of access 
There are numerous examples where local residents have lost access to local natural resources because of tourism development. On Boracay Island in the Philippines, one quarter of the island has been bought by outside corporations, generating a crisis in water supply and only limited infrastructure benefits for residents. Similarly, in Bali, Indonesia, prime agricultural land and water supplies have been diverted for large hotels and golf courses, while at Pangandaran (Java, Indonesia), village beach land, traditionally used for grazing, repairing boats and nets, and festivals, was sold to entrepreneurs for construction of a five-star hotel (Shah, 2000). 
Source: Overseas Development Institute

Ethical issues

Partly due to the above impacts, tourism can create more serious situations where ethical and even criminal issues are involved.

  • Crime generation
    Crime rates typically increase with the growth and urbanization of an area, and growth of mass tourism is often accompanied by increased crime. The presence of a large number of tourists with a lot of money to spend, and often carrying valuables such as cameras and jewelry, increases the attraction for criminals and brings with it activities like robbery and drug dealing. Repression of these phenomena often exacerbates social tension. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, tourists staying in beachside five star resorts close to extremely poor communities in hillside "favelas" (shantytowns) are at risk of pickpockets and stick-ups. Security agents, often armed with machine guns, stand guard nearby in full sight, and face aggressive reactions from locals who are often their neighbors when they go home. Tourism can also drive the development of gambling, which may cause negative changes in social behavior. 

  • Child labour
    ILO studies show that many jobs in the tourism sector have working and employment conditions that leave much to be desired: long hours, unstable employment, low pay, little training and poor chances for qualification. In addition, recent developments in the travel and tourism trade (liberalization, competition, concentration, drop in travel fares, growth of subcontracting) and introduction of new technologies seem to reinforce the trend towards more precarious, flexible employment conditions. For many such jobs young children are recruited, as they are cheap and flexible employees.

An estimated 13-19 million children and young people below 18 years of age (10-15 per cent of all employees in tourism) are employed in the industry worldwide. However, these figures take no account of the number of children working in the informal sector in ancillary activities.

Child labour in tourism is common in both developing and in developed countries. Many boys and girls below 12 years of age are engaged in small business activities related to hotels and restaurants, the entertainment sector or the souvenir trade, often as porters or street or beach vendors. They are frequently subjected to harsh working and employment conditions. 
Source: ILO

For more information on child labour in the tourism industry, see Quick Money - Easy Money? A Report on Child Labour in Tourism by Christine Plüss.

  • Prostitution and sex tourism
    The commercial sexual exploitation of children and young women has paralleled the growth of tourism in many parts of the world. Though tourism is not the cause of sexual exploitation, it provides easy access to it. Tourism also brings consumerism to many parts of the world previously denied access to luxury commodities and services. The lure of this easy money has caused many young people, including children, to trade their bodies in exchange for T-shirts, personal stereos, bikes and even air tickets out of the country. In other situations children are trafficked into the brothels on the margins of the tourist areas and sold into sex slavery, very rarely earning enough money to escape. 

The United Nations has defined child sex tourism as "tourism organized with the primary purpose of facilitating the effecting of a commercial sexual relationship with a child". Certain tourism destinations have become centers for this illegal trade, frequented by paedophiles and supported by networks of pimps, taxi drivers, hotel staff, brothel owners, entertainment establishments, and tour operators who organize package sex tours. At the international level, there are agents who provide information about particular resorts where such practices are commonplace. (See the ILO report on Human resources development, employment and globalization in the hotel, catering and tourism sector.)

Although sexual exploitation of children is a worldwide phenomenon, it is more prevalent in Asia than elsewhere. ECPAT, an organization that fights child sex tourism, has started a campaign against child prostitution in Asian tourism. In 2000 ECPAT international created a Certified Code of Conduct (CCC) for tour operators against child sex tourism and this year initiated a follow-up project, the "Code of Conduct of the Tourism Industry to protect children from sexual exploitation".

For more information on efforts to combat child sex tourism, see the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) and the WTO Task Force to Protect Children from Sexual Exploitation in Tourism.

For more general information on socially responsible tourism, see "Seeking socially responsible tourism" by the ILO.