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On the other side of tourism

· Iris

It's a unique experience working behind the scene at a guest house whilst being a tourist myself at the same time in Sicily. Serving the tourists is like watching my old self on holiday - they want to relax, chill by the pool, eat nice food...and then poof! the one week holiday is over, and suddenly it's back to the office desk. 

Now that I've left my job and am without an income, that kind of holiday seems like a luxury to me. While I find myself rarely needing my purse on my working holiday, I know almost everything costs money for them - from going to the toilet when visiting towns, buying drinking having daily meals. It brings back something that I started questioning - 'Is tourism a fair exchange? How can we achieve equal tourism?'

The pool at the guest house

I have done my fair share of vacations and I know that tourism as a business can become extremely transactional. You go to a foreign country wanting to experience a different culture and some new air, but you soon become distracted by all the sight-seeings, transporting from one place to another, researching for where's good to eat on tripadvisor. You realise at the end of your holiday, the only exchanges you've had with the locals were ordering food and drinks. When you're trying to avoid the tourist traps, inevitably you find yourself in one giant tourism trap. 

I most recently felt this when Joey and I were visiting Trinidad in Cuba. When we were walking in town, there were hustlers everywhere, asking if we want taxi, if we want to have mojitos...asking where we're from so they can strike up a conversation which will then lead to them taking us somewhere. In those moments, I think we stopped seeing one another as normal people; in their eyes, I am the tourist with money to spend; and in my eyes, they are the 'jineteros' who just want to get me to take out my purse.

A really popular restaurant in Trinidad. We never went in, but every night we saw a long queue outside (probably highly rated on Tripadvisor).

I wondered at the time, what has led to this situation where the 'foreigners' and 'locals' are not supposed to do the same thing? that there are restaurants and activities only for the tourists. Now, I know there's a wide spectrum of tourists, some are extremely open and willing to live as the locals do, while some come with a certain 'expectations' and would go about their ways to have those expectations met. 

I remember an anthropology case-study I read about western tourists visiting Ethiopia to photograph the Suri tribe. The tourists were attracted to the place by pictures in National Geographic, and they expected to see the Suri people in a remote tribal setting. The tourists would point their cameras at the Suri, trying to capture them 'in situ'. 

Can you imagine how you would feel if you were going about your daily business and suddenly there are random people just taking pictures of you? 

As the Suri couldn't stop tourists coming to take photos of them, they adapted to preserve their dignity - they started charging the tourists for photography. They began organised tours where tourists would be taken to specific spots where they can take photos of the Suri people in a 'tribal setting' as shown in National Geographic. 

Perhaps that's how the situation in Trinidad came to be. Instead of having the tourists interrupt and dictact how they should live, the locals start to organise the tourists in return. Of course, as a tourist it's pretty annoying when you're constantly hassled and treated like a money tree, but both sides have contributed in shaping this type of tourism. 

Working at the guest house has allowed me to share the daily grind with the locals. We suffer the same heat, power cuts and early morning starts, which made me more appreciative of the coffee I get to drink, the bread I get to have. Of course, I know it's not realistic for everyone to take a long period of time off to travel, but maybe even on a short trip, if we can share a little bit of normal life with the locals, we can start to shatter those expectations.

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