n Nick Hornby's most recent novel,
"How to Be Good," the author of "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy"
explores the confusion a woman feels when her husband begins
"walking the walk" of being good: He offers a spare bedroom to a
homeless youth, hands over large sums to a panhandler and insists
that their children give some of their toys to the needy.
The woman, a doctor who feels she's a perfectly "good" person
who contributes to society (albeit in more conventional ways), is
troubled by his actions, but also is chagrined by her own critical
response to her husband's idealistic schemes.
I empathized with her predicament when I read a press release
from the World Tourism Organization and the United Nations
Conference on Trade and Development that stated, "The world's
poorest countries can expect a brighter future" because these two
groups have agreed to join efforts to reduce -- if not eliminate --
poverty through the encouragement of tourism development.
Reduction of poverty, the press release said, is a means to
solve a variety of problems, including poor health standards,
social inequality and even terrorism. The creation of sustainable
tourism leads to the enhancement of social development and
participation in international trade in services, it continued.
Now, why should reading about this undertaking make me a little
uncomfortable? Why does it leave me feeling even vaguely sad? Here
are people deciding to take action to alleviate poverty, and
they're interested in doing it through tourism, an industry I
believe capable of spurring meaningful economic growth.
It may be that I, and perhaps other observers of mass-scale
tourism, see the huge gap between the travel habits of most
Westerners and the ambitions of the WTO and UNCTD. I can't help but
notice that most travelers tend to vacation in Las Vegas, on cruise
ships and at Caribbean inclusives rather than spending holidays in
Haiti, the Congo or Bangladesh.
I've also noticed that most people who visit developing
countries that are tourism-oriented -- for instance, Kenya, Nepal
and Egypt -- will visit on packages that enrich the already-haves
rather than the have-nots.
It's the insidious nature of cynicism that belief in failure
precedes effort, and like the protagonist of "How to Be Good," I'm
uncomfortable with my negative reaction to this altruistic project.
I've been to Las Vegas, on cruise ships and to Caribbean
inclusives, but I've also been to the Congo and Bangladesh. I know
that yesterday's backwater can be featured on next month's cover of
Conde Nast Traveler. So why do I have doubts about this effort
before its details have even been drafted?
Ultimately, I think my discomfort stems from the language of the
announcement: The world's poorest nations can expect a brighter
future through tourism. Tourism can solve health problems, social
inequality and terrorism. The press release uses the phrases
"poverty alleviation," "poverty reduction" and "poverty
elimination" interchangeably, as though they were synonyms.
Maybe I'm being a bit churlish to criticize these
well-intentioned people for the crime of hyperbole. I'd certainly
hate to dampen anyone's enthusiasm for alleviating poverty,
creating jobs or increasing international trade in the world's
poorest countries because they express their dreams in bold
So let me position what comes next as a friendly caution rather
than as a criticism. As the two groups collaborate on producing an
action plan, I hope expectations are stated, and not overstated.
Otherwise, I would worry that modest but meaningful successes can
be viewed as failures, and support for worthy programs can dry
WTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli is quoted in the
press release as saying, "Words are not enough, we must take
"Words are not enough"? Perhaps I'm feeling that, at times,
words can be too much.