The Fragility of the Western TravelerTime to (Un)pack the Colonial Baggage

This feature, on the continuing destruction of colonialism through exploitative tourism, is the fourth in our monthly longreads on the topic of Fragility.  Every month through December 2017, we’ll publish a new must-read perspective on the subject that we hope you’ll read, share, and make part of your routine.

For now, though, get comfortable and get ready for part four: It’s time to unpack your bags and rethink how you travel the globe.

Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5   |   Part 6   |   Part 7   |   Part 8  |   Part 9


“How Lucky Am I?”

The first image we’re drawn to is a white man. He is positioned at the center and looking straight at us. To his right stands a Native Hawaiian woman in all her bobblehead glory—the flower in her hair, a burnt orange lei around her neck, and a hula skirt that looks to be made out of leaves. Her bright red lips curl into a subservient smile, her eyes creased in his direction as she adorns the man’s outstretched neck with a lei. To his left is a white woman resting her jaw in a hand, pensively watching the exchange between the man and the Native Hawaiian woman, and being situated between the two, the man wears a dopey look on his face, as if he’s asking us, “How lucky am I?!” An island surrounded by blue water beckons from a distance and above it reads ALOHA FROM HAWAII.

“In this little grotesquerie, the falseness and commercialism fairly scream out from the page,” writes Haunani Kay-Trask in Lovely Hula Hands: Corporate Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture, a takeaway we can apply to the image described above, and really, could be ascribed to the countless images that look just like it, for there is little variation in the marketing of a place like Hawaii. And there exists no other depiction of Native Hawaiian women outside of this static Western prototype. “Thus, Hawai’i, like a lovely woman, is there for the taking,” sums Kay-Trask.

The Promise of Women’s Bodies

The use of women’s bodies—and specifically, the promise of sex—to sell any and everything under the sun has long been the subject of beef between feminists and the advertising world, but what happens when the product being sold is a place? The marketing of women’s bodies, namely, those of color, as destinations to be consumed, lands to be penetrated, or as accessories to the (masculine) tourist experience has remained a largely uncontested norm in travel ads, from vintage depictions of the Hawaiian feminine to the mainstream pimping of Brazilian women’s bodies by brands like Adidas and Kia Motors during the 2014 World Cup. In examining these depictions through an intersectional feminist lens, and factoring in the consequences of such depictions on the lives, lands, and bodies of women of color, we can then decode their lasting message: that mass tourism and colonial occupation are often one and the same, and POC bodies, cultures, and lands are the exotic dominion of the settler. So what does tourism’s dehumanization of women of color tell us about the fragility of the Western traveler? What role does patriarchy play in selling place? And what does—or doesn’t—constitute a feminist travel narrative?

Ever since European colonization gave birth to the Western travel narrative, the “traveler” has had a tendency to gender the land before him and even the vessels who bring him to his destination, using cliches of “virgin forests” waiting to be “explored” and “wild” (read: Indigenous) terrain unacquainted with the poke of flag, assigning himself as the active male do-er while the land and its passive people are being done unto. Kay-Trask continues in this vein, writing, “Hawai’i is ‘she,’ the Western image of the Native ‘female’ in all her magical allure. And if luck prevails, some of ‘her’ will rub off on you, the visitor.” Wilderness is then very much a white supremacist concept, a fantasy land void of people and their resistance that the settler can escape to when the travails of civilized life grow too taxing (#FirstWorldProblems amirite). The flowery rendering of “exploration” inherent in the tradition of travel writing, from the Doctrine of Discovery to Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, is all about thinly veiling his insatiable urges to make a place his bitch.

In feminizing place, patriarchy demotes it to the realm of the female, that is, not valued but valuable, and when we add capitalist imperialism to the mix, she is ceaselessly plundered for her resources by settlers. And in many ways, today’s Western traveler is a descendant of the settler. There’s an uncanny resemblance between the way the settler treats the land and how his society treats women of color. To sell a place, that is, to advertise to consumers that it is available for ownership, it first has to be objectified, and since white men in these ads signal action and ownership, the women of color are easily sold with the product. A relic of colonial nostalgia that would get Hemingway hard, she’s coded as more “traditional”: not yet influenced by the likes of (white) feminism. At a special meeting of Women Ministers of Culture in Iceland, Dr. Annette Pritchard gave a presentation calling this product a “remarkably durable imaginary, which is routinely recycled in the gendered, sexed, and racialized cultural iconographies of the travel industry.” In order to tame women and to tame the wild, he must depict her as tame. In using one to market the other, they “both continue to be framed by colonial myths and fantasies,” she continues, “so that these leisure landscapes are feminised and eroticised” in order to justify occupation. He came, he conquered, but in the context of settler colonialism and tourism, he never left. Like a cheap souvenir, “Hawai’i itself is the female object of degraded and victimized sexual value,” sums Kay-Trask. Considering this, travel media can be understood as the very narrative behind domination dressed up as leisure. But leisure for whom?

Passports of Entitlement

Leisure travel is all about escape and indulgence, which, to the Western tourist, can seem rather harmless. But consider the dichotomy between what is being escaped and what is being escaped to. “From the mid-1800s through the 1930s, the acceptance of wild landscapes inhabited by Native peoples as being natural evolved into an idealization of uninhabited landscapes,” writes Carolyn Finney in Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. It seems that the white settler can not enjoy nature without conquering it or without objectifying the land and relegating the rest to nature for ornamental relief. “Implicitly,” she continues, “it is informed by a legacy of Eurocentrism and the linkage of wilderness to whiteness, wherein both become naturalized and universalized.” Heroes of the National Park and Reserve system like John Muir, who was very anti-Black and Native, worked from a place that destruction of nature for development was okay, just set a little green aside for us to vacation in. As Kay-Trask clarifies, “Tourists flock to my Native land for escape, but they are escaping into a state of mind while participating in the destruction of a host people in a Native place.”

Likewise, to the fragile Western tourist, indulgence is deserved, something they are entitled to. Just challenge them on this and you’ll see how fragile they are. (One butthurt bro wrote a whole article in response to my work: “[Amor] rejects the idea that holidays are about fun and freedom.” He has a point, though. I am wholeheartedly anti-fun, and GET THAT FREEDOM AWAY FROM ME.) In his lecture at Massey University in New Zealand, Ripping off the Brands: a Rough Guide to Anti-travel, writer Scott Hamilton said, “Travel has become the ‘other’ of work. Because we are often so busy at work, we choose to be indolent on holiday—to switch off cell phones and brains and lie on a beach. We can be selfish and demanding on holiday.”

In travel ads and media, images of women lying on beaches communicate indulgence to the tourist; a report on gender in tourism marketing found that “body shots describe the destination as a place where the tourist can indulge him or herself.” In wanting to be taken care of, the tourist infantilizes himself without considering whether or not his host deserves a break, too. “Every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour,” Jamaica Kincaid expertly explains in A Small Place, “But some natives—most natives in the world cannot go anywhere. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

Indulging in “uninhabited” landscapes takes on an interesting life when embodied by white women. As Mary Fillmore writes in Women and Tourism: Invisible Hosts, Invisible Guest, “A tourist destination is where men of one class can enjoy the privileges of men of another class, and women can enjoy the privileges of men.” White women, that is. She continues, “Someone else will cook their meals, make their beds, clean their toilets,” but how does that differ from the norm of women of color laboring for white women here in the States? It doesn’t, but for white women, indulgence itself is what constitutes feminism.

Hostess with the Mostess Oppression

From the wide world of travel writing by white women to the ones in my Twitter mentions responding to my question, “What does a feminist travel narrative look like to you?” there’s a general consensus that feminism is (white) women simply doing whatever they want, including going on vacation. Fillmore advises us to “consider what the tourist seeks” in order to look “at tourism through the feminist lens. The tourist’s desire is usually to be indulged like a child…being free to indulge one’s appetite at will, to play all day” and have someone else (spoiler alert: WOC) clean up the mess. These host communities end up playing the role of the Mother to the infantilized tourist. There’s nothing feminist about taking selfies with Maasai women struggling to hold onto their dignity in the face of exploitative tourist practices—that’s some colonial Mammy shit.

Clearly, this is indicative of white feminism’s shtick of employing the tawdry guise of “female empowerment” to assuage their white guilt. But even when laborers in tourism are conveniently erased from mainstream women-centered travel plots, patriarchy’s prints can still be found all over their reels. Take the (very few) travel-ish films starring women, for example, Eat, Pray, Love, Wild, Aloha, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Last Holiday, and Under the Tuscan Sun. Cishet romances drive these stories, telling us that women travel to either get over a dude, find a new one, or both. Let’s use Amy Schumer, and her latest movie, Snatched, as an example. After she’s dumped (check) on the eve of an “exotic” getaway (check) to my home country of Ecuador, she takes her mom instead, and they both get hilariously get kidnapped (check) by random natives in the Amazon jungle. Basically, two white women bond over farts while wild men of color prey on their fragile femininity on Indigenous land. In making their disposable film, they’ve rendered my people and place disposable, too.

From the Black Mammy trope to that of the Singapore Girl, Spicy Latina, Pocahontas, and China Doll, women of color are deemed to exist to serve the whims of the white settler, whether that be sexual or domestic. (The current boom in sex tourism by white women to the Caribbean and Africa says enough about the white supremacist hypersexualization of Black boys and men, but I digress.) They’re either depicted as sexless or hypersexual, which, in denying a woman’s agency over her body, are both objectifying. Kay-Trask breaks down the consequences of a Western tourist gaze on women’s sexuality, writing that hula dancers are to “behave in a manner that is smutty and salacious rather than powerfully erotic. The distance between the smutty and the erotic is precisely the distance between Western culture and Hawaiian culture.” Travel media preserves the colonial origins of so many stereotypes about women of color, which Dr. Annette Pritchard elaborates on, saying that they “recycle not only hetero-patriarchal but also ‘colonial’ myths and fantasies, so that gendered and sexed representations of women are used to exoticise and eroticise” the Global South and East. This extends from advertising into travel writing and TV shows, which “all play a part in mapping the sensual topography of land and skin so that the women and the landscapes of the Caribbean and the South Pacific become analogous.”

Borrowing from Rape Culture

Much of the lingo used in travel writing and marketing consistently employs the language of rape culture. In feminizing place, tourism marketing has also sexualized it, showing just how creepy this obsession with owning the Other is. (Colonial dudebros really know how to put the “lust” in “wanderlust.”) Let’s start with a brochure from the Jamaica Tourist Board that promises that “tempting sunsets appear as girls with cinnamon-coloured skin walk the beach wearing bikinis the size of butterflies. This is your Eden. Welcome to Negril.” (Italics mine.) One male traveler writes that India “awaits you. She is an indescribable and unforgettable land [where] every whim will be gratified.” (Are these writers or wannabe pimps?) Another male travel writer describes Tahitian women as “dusky, voluptuous village girls” who “tempt tourists” with their “long hair, velvet skin [and] fragrance.” But it’s not just creepy, it’s a marketing ploy. And isn’t that even creepier? Dr. Pritchard writes that the Tahitian women here “represent the enticing and inviting land to be explored, mapped, penetrated and known by the male traveller.” She is a symbol for the brand that is Tahiti vying for the gaze of the tourist, the consumer. Her boss.

Consider the relative ease with which Western cis male tourists are able to travel. Travel writing, blogs, and memes overflow with entitled, thoughtless language like, “Spin the globe. Where it lands, that’s where we’ll go,” and “I was not born for one corner; the whole world is my native land.” They generally have more money to spend on travel, more time to take off from work, less responsibilities to family, powerful passports, and few barriers to acquiring visas and are not criminalized by the TSA, are less vulnerable to policing and sexual harassment, and besides not having to worry about being treated like a human being wherever they go, are treated like rock star royalty in the developing world, where their dollars triple. And when traveling is a cakewalk to you, feeling entitled to it naturally follows. Travel marketing fuses travel “destinations” and the host women into one brand, so that the tourist is not only entitled to the land by design, but to its women. “In [tourism advertising] we will see that stereotypical gendered, sexed and often racialized images of women are in many cases part of the tourism product itself,” summed Dr. Pritchard. This is part of what makes sex tourism, trafficking, and abuse by Western male tourists more rampant and commonplace than any mainstream outlet has given it credit for.

In an industry where women are the face of the product and not the business, where they are over-concentrated but invisibilized and working menial tasks for less pay than men, they are made dangerously vulnerable. Especially as hotel and other travel brand owners are either foreign whites or national elites, and tourism laborers are usually non-unionized, the substantial power differences therein shrink the woman and her rights, making her prey to the potential attacker. A 2003 report from the International Labor Office finds that women in the tourism industry aren’t just vulnerable to male coworkers and bosses, like other sectors, but to their clients, as well. Citing the report, Dr. Pritchard writes, “Factors such as late working hours, service of alcohol, dress codes, racism, negative attitudes towards service staff and the uninhibited, sexualised nature of tourism and tourism promotion contribute to a high-risk environment for women and younger workers, as well as ethnic minority, migrant and part-time workers.” (Italics mine.) In a similar United Kingdom study of graduates in the hospitality industry, 44 percent said they had experienced some type of violence, and 50 percent of those respondents say it was directly due to their gender. “Overall,” the report concludes, “respondents in non-managerial occupations reported customers as the most likely perpetrators.” Not only do many men travel specifically to engage in sex tourism, mostly in majority-POC regions, but they’re also afforded more opportunities to harass or attack women, as they are more likely to be their flight attendants, maids, waitresses, bartenders, and sex workers.

Eat, Prey, Loot

But what of the ripple effects of mass tourism on women of color, regardless of the tourist’s gender or intent? A major one is displacement, when gubernatorial or corporate powers (or both) seize local land in favor of resorts, displacing local people and replacing local industries. Studies by Tourism Concern show that “forced displacement and loss of livelihood due to tourism development in” coastal areas historically inhabited by fisherfolk “has caused disenfranchised fishermen to turn to drink, which is often a forerunner to domestic violence against women and children, and even abandonment.”

Overconsumption of resources and environmental degradation are also effects of mass tourism that directly impact women of color. In Invisible Hosts, Invisible Guest, Mary Fillmore writes, “It is a local woman who must pay the price for the tourist’s luxuries.” Inflation follows growing tourist demands for imported items. “It is she who must go farther and farther for smaller and smaller amounts of water, who must carry less over greater distances.” Traveling further for water is known to raise a girl or woman’s exposure to violence. “She is the one who must make do with less in cooking and in washing herself and her children.” The tourism industry is real good at overusing water in places where access to drinkable water is scarce, especially since resort tourism is typically done in developing countries. “Her working day, often already overextended to include paid as well as unpaid work, is lengthened further.” Notice a pattern here?

While it’s no news that women’s labor, especially that of women of color, is devalued around the world, it is either erased or glamorized as a part of the tourism product. Like a free gift tossed to the bottom of a cereal box, she is molded to attract the attention of swinish boys expecting the product to match its advertisement. “It is as if everywhere we go, we become someone’s private zoo,” wrote Trinh T. Minh-ha in Woman, Native, Other. The thing about women though, and the places they come from, is that neither are static, ageless, or free of resistance. That image was brought to you by colonization, a process that necessitates the devaluing of land and its people by creating a system of difference with which the white man could prop himself up on. And travel media refuses to discard of those stereotypical scenes that carry the vestiges of imperial rule to today, because without them, they wouldn’t have a brand, much less a product to sell.

In an industry that would cease to exist if it weren’t for women of color: “They are among the most useful pawns the industry has to move to the front of the board to attract the Northern male tourist,” writes Fillmore, “depicting them as compliant, submissive, and ultimately accommodating.” But if you tell this to a white travel writer or just a Western traveler, that just as women don’t exist for male consumption, their lands don’t exist for tourist consumption either, their fragile sensibilities will buckle before you. And that’s because he needs to believe that he is propped up by nature and not by design in order to keep Eat, Prey, Looting. Cool story, bro. 

Check in next month for the next piece in our series on fragility!

Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5   |   Part 6   |   Part 7   |   Part 8  |   Part 9

by Bani Amor
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Bani Amor is a queer travel writer, photographer and activist from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador who explores diasporic identities, the decolonization of travel culture, and the intersections of race, place and power in their work. They’ve been published in Bitch Magazine and Apogee Journal, among other outlets. They are a three-time VONA/Voices Fellow and have an essay in Brooklyn Boihood’s anthology Outside the XY: Queer Black and Brown Masculinity. Follow them on twitter @bani_amor.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Settler images in travel

Very disturbing story & brought up issues most of us travelers have not thought of. The white settler image is so true. Outside Magazine on Twitter: "Thru-Hiking Goes International with These New Long-Distance Trails Inspired by iconic American long trails, a new generation of pioneers are creating paths for hikers and bikers the world over."

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