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Opinion | Responsible Tourism


A debate on the arguments surrounding alternatives in tourism

Ernest Cañada | Alba Sud

We share our thoughts on the question posed by the Catalan weekly paper ‘Directa’ on whether or not local and sustainable tourism, which break away from capitalist ideology, could be a viable alternative to mass tourism.

Photography by: Anthony Georgeff, Creative Commons license.

Under capitalism, any economic activity is conditioned by the dominant rationale of the accumulation and reproduction of capital. One question is whether types of production and consumption organizations, which try to escape this hegemony, can be built. North American Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright spoke about these as the ‘real utopias’ -- desirable, viable and feasible alternatives with which to advance a post-capitalist future. We have seen efforts towards this in various fields, scale, and commitment as alternative proposals. They are one of the expressions of freethinking, which seek transformation right now, such as testing and learning, and also to resolve specific issues that arise from other philosophies.

The question is whether this is also possible in the case of tourism, with experiences that can be recognized as freewill; with the moral purpose of eliminating any form of oppression or domination and, in turn, favors an expansion of the human capabilities that allow a dignified life in a just society at peace with the planet. Some believe that nothing good can come from tourism. And indeed, in its expansion, global tourism has given rise to recurrent expressions of dispossession, exploitation and destruction that are characterized by physical, symbolic and structural violence.

But, what is the risk of naturalizing tourist activity under only hegemonic capitalist forms? This argument does not stand up to counterexamples, which show multiple initiatives and results. In addition, it disconnects us from the daily struggles of the many people who try to improve their working conditions under the current forms of tourist organization and from those experiences that try to build themselves under different philosophies. Above all, it denies the human capability for social transformation. Tourism can be organized under other objectives and specifications.

The main question is how we make this transformation possible under post-capitalist perspectives. The possibility does not exist, rather it is dissolved in the dispute, in the existing social struggles that determine what tourism capital can do and in the ability to sustain different forms of production and consumption. Therefore, it involves collectively organized social actors that resist and affirm themselves by sustaining these desirable, viable and feasible alternatives.

The current situation, marked by the drop in international tourism due to COVID-19, has made us rethink the terms of this argument. The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of ‘touristified’ territories, and therefore the challenge of this accumulation model has gained positions in public debate. Now, temporarily, and under great uncertainty, there has been a shift to local tourism in recent months. This opens up a few cracks. On the one hand, local markets alone cannot sustain the tourism industry, which makes the competition between capitals for its survival more acute. On the other hand, the reduction of international mobility takes pressure off the carbon footprint, factors that should not be overlooked. At the same time, the pressure on certain areas in this new cycle increases. The alternatives are not potentially emancipatory in the abstract; they depend on a certain context, and what may work in one place may be counterproductive in another. By itself, local tourism does not breakaway from capitalist philosophies, rather it promotes new scenarios of social dispute that are historically those that will make other forms of tourism production and consumption viable or not.


This article was originally published in the Catalan weekly paper ‘Directa’ on September 15, 2020, starting with the question "Are local and sustainable tourism, which differ from capitalist ideology, alternatives to mass tourism?"

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