Paradise LostWhat Hedonistic Tourism Costs the Global South

A shining necklace hanging over a human chest that opens up to a tropical waterfall

Illustration by Joyce Lee

Cover of Bitch's Wild issue cover: women dressed in white dancing in a circle in a river with greenery in the background
This article was published in Wild Issue #92 | Fall/Winter 2021

The narrative constructed in the 2019 Fodor’s Travel article is almost formulaic: A white female traveler looking to get out of her comfort zone flies to Negril, Jamaica, to check out Hedonism II, a nudist resort known for its swinger culture. Though nothing exciting happens during her visit, the idea that Jamaica is a (physically and metaphorically) far-away place where a travel writer can finally indulge and “feel good in [her] skin” is present throughout—and she eventually returns home feeling liberated. “Narratives like the one in Fodor’s Travel are rooted in white colonial racist and sexist fantasies of ‘the other’ that eroticize and fetishize Black and Brown people and spaces,” says writer, scholar, and activist Angelique Nixon, PhD. “They’re harmful and perpetuate paradise myths and unrealistic and problematic understandings of the Caribbean. They create a market built on these myths and then Caribbean spaces become dominated by these expectations, which then sustain existing social and economic inequalities.”

Tourist destinations in the Global South have been historically constructed as “paradise” or as places of “idyllic wilderness,” where tourists are free to explore their more hedonistic side. Sociocultural anthropologist Noel B. Salazar calls these types of constructions “tourism imaginaries” in a 2012 article for Annals of Tourism Research. In a special edition of the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, feminist geography scholars Jennifer Devine and Diana Ojeda argue that these “imaginaries” materially and symbolically “reflect the stereotypes, ideas, ideals and desires of their designers, rather than the multiple and often conflicting place-based identities overlapping in any given space characterized by tourism development.” In the same article, Devine and Ojeda audaciously suggest that the making of tourist destinations is often intertwined with violence and dispossession. “Violence in tourism appears paradoxical in part because of the industry’s ability to obscure the constitutive violence that produces paradise found in multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, privatized man-made beaches, whale watching and slum tours,” they write.

Procuring pleasure isn’t a harmful practice in itself, but Global North tourists doing so in the Global South at the detriment of local populations is a form of neocolonialism—the control of less developed countries by more developed countries. Nixon, who was born and raised in the Bahamas, has witnessed firsthand how damaging an economy that’s overly dependent on tourism can be to cultures, people, and the environment. She says the notion of “wildness” in the Global South has direct roots in colonial histories and narratives that depicted these colonies as uncivilized societies with “wild” social expectations and hypersexual Black and Brown populations available for white consumption. “These narratives are rooted in white colonial racist and sexist fantasies of ‘the other’ that eroticize and fetishize Black and Brown people and spaces,” Nixon says. But in our current times, corporations rather than plantation owners are turning a profit from tourism. As such, people who live in the Caribbean are forced to create paradise for tourists at their own expense. In Antigua and Barbuda, for example, the tourism industry accounted for 90.7 percent of jobs in 2019, and in Aruba, the industry accounted for 84.3 percent of jobs, according to Statista.

“Tourism continues to be seen and embraced as the dominant model for Caribbean development in spite of it being unsustainable—economically and environmentally—and dependent on external factors that are outside of Caribbean island-nations’ control,” Nixon says. “Further, the tourism industry is supported through globalization and unequal systems of power that benefit multinational corporations at the expense of Caribbean people, cultures and environments. Caribbean tourism is built upon colonial and plantation systems and the daily realities of being in a double bind of dependency capitalism.” Though feminist geographers Devine and Ojeda clarify that tourism itself isn’t solely to blame for dispossession and violence, they’re clear that the tourist experience results in deeply uneven and violent geographies, evidenced by “[t]he tight linkages between tourism and capital accumulation, tourism and colonialism, tourism and sexism, and tourism and militarization.” In this modern method of neocolonial extraction, the realities of being overworked in the Global North converge in the assumed right to extract pleasure from the Global South.

What Does Pleasure Cost?

In the years leading up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, the city of Rio de Janeiro underwent significant changes to accommodate the thousands of athletes and tourists that would eventually land in Brazil. There was a pressing need to get Rio in order, which led to the military occupying predominantly Black and Brown working-class neighborhoods in the city’s north zone and dozens of people being evicted from homes deemed too close to the Olympic village. Visitors were made to feel safe enough to enjoy the pleasures of Rio—the beaches, the women, the cheap but delicious food—at the expense of those who would remain in Brazil long after the World Cup and the Olympics ended. This aspect of Olympic history is doomed to repeat. After the Olympics were initially canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Japanese government was eager to host the mega-event in 2021. A May 2021 survey revealed that, despite COVID-19 safety precautions being put into place, 83 percent of Japanese people said they didn’t want Tokyo to host the Olympics and Paralympics.

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But the Japanese government and the International Olympics Committee (IOC) were committed to going through with the event, no matter the consequences. Though the raging pandemic forced Japan to declare a state of emergency in May 2021, precautions were relaxed in the weeks before the games began. But in the final week of July 2021, Japan expanded its state of emergency midway through the Olympics, with the government citing a spike in COVID-19 cases. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the IOC have denied a link between the mega-event and the sharp spike in cases, an unsurprising development for journalists who have previously covered mega-events staged in the Global South or for those of us who have lived in tourist destinations that encourage wealthy tourists to exploit local populations. Mega-events such as the Olympics and the World Cup are, perhaps, some of the biggest and most visible cultural examples of the Global North exploiting Global South destinations for entertainment and pleasure.

Though the pandemic has made visible the many inequalities of capitalist exploitation, these well-oiled profit machines will probably never be disrupted, no matter the human cost. For instance, Amnesty International has repeatedly exposed the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers building the 2022 World Cup stadiums in Qatar, but FIFA and the Qatari authorities alike have ignored workers’ pleas for better working and living conditions, the freedom to leave their jobs, and higher, fairer salaries. As long as tourists can enjoy the soccer matches and drink their beer, who cares if some migrants die on the job? Hattie Casino, an international relations PhD student at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, observed these dynamics as she did her doctoral fieldwork in Pipa Beach, Brazil, to disentangle how the tourism industry turns certain places into “paradise.” “The history of colonial voyages is a history of paradise, these sailors told stories of paradise back home to drum up excitement and investment in their finds,” Casino says. “Paradise has been used to produce places as places of exploitation and extraction; somewhere so special that it exists for the taking.” One of Brazil’s most famous beaches, Pipa Beach, is located next to the major city of Natal in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, and is well-known for its hedonistic nightlife. According to Casino, the idea of wildness in tourist destinations has wide-ranging effects on local life. “The perception isn’t just that people can go wild there, but that [the place] is wild,” Casino tells Bitch. “So that means the people are wild, the nature is wild, the whole thing is just embedded in a different and distinctly uncivilized historical time with different, sort of savage, social expectations. So even though I don’t really think that people ‘drop’ everything about who they are and what their lives are when they go on holiday, they still go to places with this expectation that it might represent an opportunity for them to go and do things they wouldn’t otherwise.” In Pipa Beach, the monopoly of the tourist industry has irrevocably changed the way the locals live.

From the perspective of a Global North worker, a vacation is an escape from the 9 to 5 grind, an opportunity to experience paradise away from the exploitation of their own labor, but such an escape is not possible for people working in the tourism industry in the Global South.

The construction and subsequent maintenance of a paradise displaces locals from their land, raises the rent, and forces natives into precarious and underpaid hospitality jobs. Casino is careful to clarify that things weren’t perfect before the tourist industry monopolized Pipa’s economy: Located in Northeast Brazil, Pipa used to be a forgotten, impoverished fishing town—but the hierarchies of tourism still limit the agency of local populations, leading Casino to point out that the projection of hedonistic fantasies onto Global South destinations is “a central part of the capitalist infrastructure which sustains labour practices in the global north.” The ability to go on vacation and leave everything behind serves a specific function within capitalism: From the perspective of a Global North worker, a vacation is an escape from the 9 to 5 grind, an opportunity to experience paradise away from the exploitation of their own labor, but such an escape is not possible for people working in the tourism industry in the Global South

“Holidays [are a] part of the temporal architecture of capitalism and the way spaces of paradise are reduced to a tropical landscape, a blank yet sensuous slate where fun happens above all else—what’s clear is that a lot of European tourists understand that holiday as a right,” Casino says. “So actually going to these places was more important than the unfolding pandemic, and my instinct here is that that framing actually stems from these colonial chronological separations, which place tropical spaces as underdeveloped, and therefore not quite filled with humans in the same way.” This dynamic became exceedingly obvious to Casino when Pipa Beach had to erect a literal barrier to stop people from entering the town in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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A drawing of a person with long black hair crying into their hands. Tears leak out from their fingers and float into bubbles.

Illustrations by Joyce Lee

Policing Paradise

In Ollantaytambo, a region of Cusco in Peru, the pandemic has indefinitely paused writer and teacher Abby Franquemont’s sustainable-tourism activities. Ollantaytambo, a town where Indigenous Quechua life has mixed with colonial Spanish traditions, is located near archeological sites such as Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The vast majority of the town’s economy is tourism-based—but the locals’ access to medical attention is limited, putting the population at risk during COVID-19. However, larger, international companies and foreign-owned businesses have begun gradually resuming business in Ollantaytambo while Peru’s vaccination rates still lag, with less than 20 percent of the population fully vaccinated. “This means most of the money that comes in doesn’t benefit the local residents directly, and the jobs that do exist exploit a glut of workers and service providers who were all ramped up for the volume of tourism we saw before the pandemic,” Franquemont says. “Many people who used to have good-paying, stable jobs have lost them and now work informally or for drastically reduced wages.”

Like Casino, Franquemont observes that the idea of wildness constructs tourists’ expectations when vacationing in the Global South, but she adds that there’s also a huge difference in how local authorities treat tourists and locals due to perceived affluence. “The same police that will intervene in, say, a local funeral where people are gathered closely together, will turn a blind eye to tourists gathering in groups, not observing masks and social distancing laws, and so forth,” Franquemont said. “Global North tourists often engage with impunity in activities which would get a Global South local arrested or otherwise punished. We also see things like expatriate men committing serial sexual abuse of local women and women travelers, centered around high-tourism areas.” When a location or town is overly reliant on tourism, the local authorities are likely to criminalize locals and protect the people who are supposedly bringing in money. In some destinations, there are whole police departments full dedicated to serving the needs of foreign tourists. As such, police protect the rights of Global North tourists to experience pleasure (no matter how illicit that pleasure is), while local populations are vulnerable to daily violence. “I see this [dynamic of the perception of wildness] especially when people want to travel to experience things like plant medicine that may not be legal in the Global North,” Franquemont says “Even within generally well-intentioned ‘sustainable’ travel, actually—the human cost is fairly obvious.”

In her award-winning 2015 book, Resisting Paradise: Tourism, Diaspora, and Sexuality in Caribbean Culture, Nixon argues that the critiques of tourism present in the works of Jamaica Kincaid, Marion Bethel, and Audre Lorde are grounded in a resistance to paradise that directly contrasts traditional travel writing by “creating alternative Black female travel narratives that represent diasporic travel, identity, and multiple homespaces.” With that in mind, we must question whether it’s possible to vacation ethically. “I think there are a few ways to be an ethical traveler,” Nixon says. “Support local businesses and do research on the place before you travel, learn about the history and culture, and appreciate where you are going. Find ways to support local economies—and don’t expect places or people to change themselves for you or your comfort.”

 

Nicole Froio, a Brazilian woman with short, blonde hair, poses on a concrete balcony
by Nicole Froio
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Nicole Froio is a writer and researcher currently based in South Florida. She has just submitted her PhD thesis on masculinity, sexual violence, and the media. She writes about women’s rights, Brazilian politics, books, and many other topics.