The Michael Pollan of Tourism

I had a meeting today with someone from an organization lobbying for ‘fair trade tourism’. They’re trying to promote hotels, tours and activities that don’t exploit the societies in which they take place, and lead to sustainable employment and development for nearby communities.

As we were talking, I kept thinking of the blurb I saw last night asking why there isn’t a Michael Pollan for clothing:

Fashion has parallels to food: most clothing is too cheap, that cheapness has tragic costs, clothing is an agricultural product, and we consume too much of it. Affordable designer collaborations are like the rise of the home gourmet, but now we should be ready for responsibility beyond taste and design. I’m looking for the textile version of Food Rules, some aphoristic guidelines that won’t make me feel evil when buying a shirt.

Tourism is another black hole for consumers. We all want to how our kiwis were grown, who picked them and what color the 747 was that flew them here.  We have ready access to the calories, fat and sugars in everything we buy.

In tourism, though, the only thing you know about your hotel is what it costs and where it is. You don’t know the wages of the people who work there or where they’re from. Or how the beachfront your hotel is sitting on was acquired. Or how much water the hotel takes from the local watershed. Or how many locals vs expats there in mangement.

I’m in Johannesburg this week, and most of the staff here are from Zimbabwe. I have no idea if it’s the case at this particular hotel, but I know the influx of something like 2 million Zimbabweans to South Africa in the last 10 years have pushed down wages and working conditions in hotels. The minimum wage for hospitality staff here is about $10 a day.

I’m amazed at the extent to which the sustainable procurement movement has skipped the tourism sector. In the four years I’ve worked for the Danish government, we’ve switched to recycled paper in the copier, fair trade coffee in the percolator and organic milk in the fridge. You always hear about private sector firms taking steps like switching their light bulbs, making everyone turn off their computers at night, etc. Consumers and workers accept that their purchasing decisions have social and environmental impacts, and they pressure organizations that purchase on their behalf to do so sustainably.

Yet the places we stay on business seem curiously immune to this trend. Considering I’m here on Official Bidness (for a human rights organization, no less), I think it’s reasonable to expect that I’d be staying somewhere that pays its staff a living wage.  Yet I have no information about this place beyond its star rating and buffet menu.

I’m sure if we got more transparency in tourism, we wouldn’t like what we saw. But 10 years ago, you could have said that about clothing. It’s about time we take the principles we use to decide what we eat and what we wear and apply them to where we sleep.

3 Comments

Filed under Denmark, Serious, Travel

3 responses to “The Michael Pollan of Tourism

  1. This is absolutely brilliant.

  2. Eco tourism is up and running… all we need now is a fair trade tourism label… some guidelines…

  3. elephantwoman

    When you go to the States, for example, it seems to be incredibly well promoted at how little wait staff are paid so you *have* to tip for that reason. Whereas you obviously never have to worry about wages of locals in countries which have good labour laws and a minimum wage etc.

    I guess this shows why it’s so important to have decent labour laws that protects the rights of workers, so the issue needs to be tackled more broadly than just in the tourism sector. Though it would be a good starting place for sure.

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