Searching for the Light at the End of the Tunnel

by Francisco Dias

If we want to say something and be listened to, we have to wear a mask.

We are living in a time of paradoxes. Words can take on meanings diametrically opposed to their original ones, without most people realising it. For populists, mystifiers, evangelical prophets, and snake oil salesmen, all that matters is success. The purest ‘credible realities’, that serve as a reference for most citizens, are turned into ‘alternative realities’.

To understand the perilous situation in which humanity finds itself, one must break free from the “dogma of immaculate perception” (Nietzsche), by questioning appearances, looking outwards and to ourselves from the perspective of others, relativising convenient truths.

Concretely, we should put aside ethnocentrism, the idea of the cultural and moral superiority of ‘our’ civilisation and look at other cultures and latitudes as worthy of a full life. We should also take a humbler stance toward nature. It is certain that when the Earth becomes exhausted and incapable of guaranteeing life, there will not be a Planet B to replace it.

In an attempt to respond to the challenges facing humanity, the UN has outlined the following 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs): 


From the standpoint of the general principles, all these goals are likely to be highly appreciated by anyone with common sense. However, today’s world seems not yet to be well prepared to seriously take on the challenge of implementing such demanding goals. Thus, achieving the 17 SGDs requires a mindset change at a global level.    

By way of example, here are some brief reflections on a paradox facing sustainable development in Tourism.

The authenticity – sustainability paradox in Tourism

In an interview with the newspaper Liberation, in July 2007, sociologist Rachid Amirou referred a surprising paradox, which goes unnoticed by analysts: The possibility that sustainable tourism may be a sustainable obstacle to the sustainable development of populations and territories. This is how Amirou presents it: 

“I have doubts concerning the moral legitimacy of sustainable development concept. It looks like that the “sustainability” is essentially a moralist approach. There is an imaginary of sustainability, often exploited by companies, somewhere. They go there to protect interesting things. What is interesting? Based in which criteria? It is supposed to be the authenticity, as opposed to false in our day-to-day, for example, here in Europe. We want to protect the landscape; we want to keep local people unchanged, as they are now. The mistake is to think that what is older is more authentic. It is a mistake, because sometimes the old is staged, and so the authentic means what looks like as it was in the past. However, behind all this there is a poverty regarded as authentic. It is a human quality, relational, in generally poor native populations. So, this is very paradoxical: sustainable development can be a sustainable obstacle to the sustainable development of populations and territories. It is as if these people were under house arrest for identity reasons. In our imagination, they are supposed not to evolve.

Amirou’s brilliant conclusion (“…it is as people were under house arrest for identity reasons”), eloquently sums up what is observed in ethnic tourism. When tourists from the so-called first world visit native tribes from the so-called third world, they expect to see how the Indian communities live, according to an implicit imaginary of well-known patterns of misery. Picture, for instance, the surprise or even frustration of many tourists in Coroa Vermelha (Bahia, Brazil), when they buy souvenirs in the Pataxó’s shops, and find that Indians accept payment by credit card and use mobile phones. In the ethnocentric and overbearing view of most tourists, an Indian tribe that modernises itself is no longer an authentic tribe. Nitynawã, a leader of the Pataxó tribe, says:

People have no idea what it is like to be an Indian. Tourists ask if Indians can have credit cards and use their mobile phones. Of course, we can! We have Identity Card and can have a credit card. I always explain that we are very careful to regatta and preserve our culture and tradition, but we also want to use the computer and we want to study!” (Castro, 2008, p. 36).

In short, the staged authenticity that the tourism industry imposes on host communities implicitly requires the cultural and economic underdevelopment of these communities as a sine qua non condition of preserving their attractiveness. It is therefore within this framework of neo-colonial relations that the relationship between the concepts of authenticity and sustainable development contradict each other.

The tautology of the illusory experience of (in)communicability

A painter once told me: “the reader is always a co-author because to read a book or a painting is to reconceptualise its content“. This idea, which I believe to be accurate, can be transposed to the tourism experience. The tourist can only see, understand, and feel what he/she is prepared and predisposed to see, understand and feel. Tourists beliefs and attitudes, as well as their previous images and expectations of the destination, greatly determine the type of experiences, making this process often purely tautological. We experience exactly what we were predisposed to experience. This means that the world that opens to the tourists’ perception, is like a book whose meanings and interpretations are dependent on the cultural and linguistic background of the reader. 

Contextually, the group visits by Western tourists to the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s can be recalled. These tourists’ main motivation was to experience Soviet society first-hand. Therefore, the same package was bought by communists and anti-communists. Pro-regime and anti-regime tourists travelled on the same planes, stayed in the same hotels, ate in the same restaurants, made the daily tours in Moscow and Leningrad on the same buses, and took part in the same daily visits to museums and other attractions while listening to the same guides. So, one can ask: what was the impact of the trip on the tourists’ minds? Did they return more lucid and enlightened? In other words, did communists and anti-communists begin to converge on what the Soviet regime and society really were? According to dozens of interviews, I conducted among both communists and anti-Communists Portuguese tourists, the effect was exactly the opposite. The communists returned even more convinced of their beliefs, while the anti-communists were even more categorical in their criticism of the USSR. Thus curiously, this polarisation or crystallisation of beliefs, based on the personal experience of visiting the destination, only served to confirm and reinforce their expectations.

In light of the above, it can be assumed that those who define cultural tourism as an intercultural encounter and a means for mutual knowledge between people and cultures, will most probably embark on a very naïve reading of reality. This is not to say that cultural tourism is not beneficial, either in terms of cultural enrichment or in overcoming prejudices and stereotypes relativisation. What I want to stress is something very different. Considering the tautological model described above (beliefs – attitudes >> expectation – anticipation >> visit – confirmation), we should not underestimate the role of tourists’ (long-standing) pre-existing beliefs and attitudes about a given country or destination.

There is Nothing More Practical Than A Good Theory.
Kurt Lewin

I frequently pass on to my students this famous aphorism, attributed to German psychologist, Kurt Lewin. The theories of Nazism or Stalinism have led to disastrous practices. The theories underpinning racism and colonialism have also followed their normal course, generating in societies daily-lives far more horrors and iniquities than those that history can account for. However, we must not forget that a convinced racist is fully sure of his reasoning since according to his conscience, his practices are morally dignified and commendable.

In tourism, it is also possible to differentiate and categorise “good practices” and “bad practices”. Consequently, it is also possible to identify the theories behind both. Therefore, the ethical obligations of training in tourism and tourism management are to:

  1. Make implicit theories explicit, by underpinning good and bad practices, carefully separating “the wheat from the chaff”;
  2. Develop theoretical models that lead to the establishment of better practices;
  3. Test and validate the ways of implementing good theories, preventing its distortion during the process;
  4. Train local actors by providing them with the concepts and tools necessary for the adoption of good practices;
  5. Foster the replication of good practices by sharing experiences.

As the Covid-19 pandemic crisis bitterly taught us, all world phenomena are interconnected. A local-level microbiological occurrence has unleashed the greatest global economic crisis in human history, reminiscent of the metaphor commonly used in fractal analysis: the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in China can trigger a storm in America. If a negative microphenomenon can generate a global crisis, can a chain of positive microphenomena, in turn, generate some global benefit? 

Realistically, I believe that in complex systems it is very easy to induce dysfunctions or destroy rather than to induce improvements in the system. However, perhaps with a little optimism, persistence, coherence and systematicity of wisely coordinated individual efforts can serve as a starting point to force the “butterfly to flap its wings” to clear the atmosphere around the world. 

It is said that ‘after the storm, comes the bonanza’. However, at a time when we are witnessing a human-generated global climate crisis, the bonanza will certainly not triumph over the storm, unless we finally acknowledge that it all depends on us.

Tourism is one of the many variables in this problematic equation, thus it must also be part of the overall solution. There is much to be done to make tourism truly sustainable. A decisive factor relies on the search for solutions to the “wicked” problems that humanity faces in the 21st century. However, as the ancients said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, thus the process has to be gradual.

Therefore, the first step towards a change that leads to the adoption of good practices in tourism must be the awareness of the problems and the search for solutions. It was with this in mind that EATSA (Euro-Asia Tourism Studies Association) decided to create, with the support of Centro de Portugal Film Commission, a film festival dedicated to the promotion of good practices in tourism, arts and culture: the EATSA Art & Tourism Film Festival

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