World tourism day reminds us of the many faces of tourism. Advertisements invite us into the wonders of the world, by flying in comfort to see far off places lit up by perpetual sunshine, to visit castles, ancient temples, remote islands and to taste exotic food. Articles in magazines, however, alert us to the human cost of tourism: the destruction of the natural environment, exploitation of local workers, the corruption of children and the commercialisation of local culture.
World Tourism Day is a time for reflection on travel, both on its good and bad sides.
Christian experience can help that reflection. Travel, sometimes forced, sometimes chosen, is in its DNA . The journey of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt to wandering in the desert, from exile to return underlies the celebration of the Eucharist. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus repeats the journey to and from Egypt as a little child. After Jesus’ rising from the dead, the disciples went in all directions to preach the Gospel.
Paul’s travels are part of Scripture, and he constantly commended Christian travellers to other local churches.
After Christianity was tolerated, many Christians were attracted to visit Jerusalem and the places where Jesus had walked and died. It was not a jaunt. Pilgrims could be away from home for many years. They faced dangers at sea, hunger and thirst when walking, and the risk of sickness everywhere.
The travel of later missionaries was similar. They walked across Europe in times of war. Of the Jesuits who were sent to work in China, only a third arrived. In the Congo in the nineteenth century their life expectancy was five years – young Anglican missionaries often took their goods in a coffin. And they were ripped off by ship captains, local merchants and guides.
In this tradition travel was costly and concerned with what mattered deeply. Wherever travellers went, too, they shared the life of the people among whom they worked. They relied on the hospitality and good will of strangers.
Of course, it was also ambiguous – missionaries followed colonial conquest and the disruption of traditional societies that accompanied colonial exploitation. But the emphasis on travel focusing on what matters deeply and enhancing life by entering the life of strangers offers a criterion for evaluating tourism today.
Set against this background modern tourism is much more ambiguous. Good travel opens our eyes to the beauty and variety of our world and the people in it. For young backpackers it can be a demanding and life-orienting experience with much at stake. For others, too, it can help focus on what matters by drawing them out of a non-reflective life to share living with the varied people they meet along the way.
Tourism, however, can also recreate the world of home against a painted backdrop of foreign scenery. It can reinforce prejudices and discourage reflection. The tourist experience can also come at a heavy cost. The local economy, social relations and environment are often damaged by the demands of tourism, with few benefits flowing to local people. There is little of the learning that comes from discomfort and relying on the hospitality of others.
Many of the people with whom we work at Jesuit Social Services came to Australia to seek protection from persecution. For them travel has been costly at every level. Tourism can open doors, or like other forms of colonialism, it can close doors and erect barriers.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.