Sponges!! Perhaps the most apt spirit animal for travellers. Little creatures travelling around the world absorbing all that it has to offer. In a world where the usual immigration query – “travelling for business or pleasure?” – no longer finds an either-or answer, travelling for experience is the theme of the era and all of us have become travellers. But as we tread across the world letting it leave a mark upon us, we may be overseeing the mark that we leave behind. As we go about exploring the world, are we carrying and perhaps even imposing our own world on the places we trot through?
We had been doing our own trotting around the streets of Fira, Santorini. Beautiful white buildings, colourful doors, Bougainville bursting with colours, the inky blue seas and the cool Mediterranean breeze all should have come with epilepsy warnings. Indubitably a beautifully white washed place but indeed a bit of a white wash. The more we walked around, the more the Greek village felt like a city mall adorned with posh brands. The same was observable in Ios and Mykonos with Prada and Gucci lining up the cozy streets. Of course there is nothing better than enjoying the refreshing sea breeze as one lugs around big bags with acquisitions to spoil oneself with. But the lack of local stores and outlets of local produce and works had us wondering of reasons for such disparity?
Locals spoke of how the touristy demands had shaped the local economy in a somewhat unsustainable market. They spoke of a greater demand for known brands than local works. Which led us to question whether we are seeking the comfort of known products even when we are travelling to foreign worlds? The same food, the same clothes, the same wines at the cost of local businesses?
Maybe we are, for economic leakages are more common and global than one would anticipate. For instance, Thailand suffers from the highest leakages in the world. About 70% of the tourism revenue ends up in foreign countries. It is what tourists demand and where they spend that is the primary cause for such leakages. In other not-so-counter-intuitive words, it is the tourist’s buck that is shaping the destiny of the local markets. If an adequate flow of tourists to even a remote corner of the world consistently demand McDonald’s meals and Hilton pampering then the international markets would respond at the cost of local family run food stalls and quaint homestays. Agreeably there might be certain essentials that one cannot live without and the local availability of which may be uncertain. In this case, we could choose to simply carry these life savers along.
Where the economic effect is evident and extensively studied, the effects on culture cannot be understated. Tourists’ demands can also dilute local culture as well as local resources. Culture is after all a sum of the local foods, drinks, arts, handiworks and products. By mixing our demands in, the uniqueness of local cultures suffer slow abrasion. Yes, culture is an evolving concept. It builds over other influences. But do we want to paint the entire world in the same colour especially when we are travelling it for novel experiences? We could instead choose to embrace the differences and live them through our travels!!
So why not create demand in favour of the local markets. We would not only support the people of the lands we travel to but also bolster their culture and businesses! This finds greater context in recent observations that touristy locations are running dry owing to increase in water consumptions and wastage. Shimla, India being one of the most recent examples that is facing acute water shortages.
We travel to new worlds as tourist but also as spongy consumers. It is our choice what and how much we consume.
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Content and Photos by Anant Raje.