Death By Selfie-Stick: Mass Tourism, Economic Inequality and Georgia

 

For years now, tourism has existed in a state of crisis, all while continuing to grow in popularity. Flights from Luton to San Sebastian for €35 have become the norm. No longer are we beholden to chain hotels because the Airbnb app can have us in a fashionable flat for €65 in Kreuzberg within a minute. The maps on our walls have shrunk, and suddenly the world has become largely accessible for more people than ever before. We can all be nomads now, and have an accompanying hashtag for our Instagram account.

Meanwhile, protests have been occurring throughout the cities of Europe – from Venice to Barcelona to Dubrovnik – decrying the negative effects of mass tourism. The millions of tourists converging on the streets of their beautiful and historic cities have not provided the economic miracle that was promised by local governments. Tourists have come to be viewed as a societal tumorous growth by citizens, rather than a pathway to greater economic and social power for local populations. Unwittingly chasing their perfect photo, tourists have contributed to a system that leads to major inequality, alienation, displacement, and cultural homogenization.

With increasing fashion, protest movements have emerged as a result of the negative consequences of mass tourism. A popular graffiti slogan found in tourist areas is “Tourist: Your Luxury trip, My Daily Misery”, ensuring tourists are fully aware of how welcome they are. The anger is so real that protesters have taken to blocking tourist buses and destroying certain infrastructure. Upon the surface level, tourists are a logical and easy target for resentment. They arrive in the city armed with their tasteless selfie-sticks, guidebooks and poor sense of direction, belligerently congregating upon all the same must-see spots while bringing a tremendous habit of pissing on the street and running around naked.

When the mayor of Barcelona speaks about limiting the number of tourists in her city, one can only naturally sympathize with that sentiment when they see the infuriating economic and cultural destruction of the city. Those who live in tourist centers have to contend with ever-increasing gentrification and precarious, underpaid labour. The consequence of working class locals in cities like Dubrovnik and Kotor being pushed out of the center is that the culture and dynamism that initially attracted tourists there disappears. It removes the human factor that once made those cities so special. Tourists create the conditions whereby they destroy what they profess to love. Despite this all being true, the source of the problem is not the middle class Staffordshire couples on a weekend visit to Amsterdam. Rather, it is an entire industry that enables and thrives upon the destruction that tourism causes.

Although tourists have been the subject of the majority of criticism, they are merely symptomatic of an economic system that prospers on this destruction of cities. A wide and diverse industry exists surrounding tourism that looks to market and shape both the individual’s expectations and fantasies. Through mass marketing, governments and businesses work in constant collaboration to construct an image that looks to attract these individuals.  Meanwhile, little education exists regarding the devastating effect of mass tourism on cities. The consequence has been tourists continually congest cities centers while contributing the consolidation of wealth of the few.

Even in the face of the growing tension regarding the effect of this industry, tourism continues to be seen as the main industry to grow for many developing economies. According to the United Nations, tourism is an industry that contributes up to 10 percent of the world’s GDP while contributing to one third of the world’s international trade. Since 1995, the number of tourists has nearly doubled, from 550 million to 1.18 billion, according to the World Bank. This is largely thanks to greater access to transportation, information via the Internet, and the corporatization of the shared economy (Airbnb, Uber, etc.). As a consequence, tourism has come to be viewed by many poorer countries as the main vehicle for developing their economy and spurring wealth. With ever expanding flight routes, if a country has the necessary infrastructure, safety, and effective marketing then there is ample opportunity to attract visitors and investment.

Few countries have made so much progress in such a short period as Georgia in developing its tourism industry. Georgia had long been a popular tourist destination for Soviet citizens, with its beautiful tropical Mediterranean weather, snow-capped mountains, unique cuisine, and extremely welcoming population. With the post-Rose Revolution years providing far greater stability, tourism was always promised to be one of the main industries in developing the Georgian economy.

Since the war with Russia in 2008, the Georgian tourist industry has grown at a staggering rate whereby the country has gone from having an almost non-existent tourist industry to becoming increasingly referenced as a ‘must see’ destination by a host of major Western media outlets. Between the years of 2011 and 2016, the number of tourists visiting the country more than doubled, from 2.6 million to over six million. According to the United Nation’s World Travel and Tourism Council, Georgia ranked as the fourth fastest growing tourist industry last year. Tourism currently contributes to 6.8 per cent of all employment while that is expected to rise to 9.8 percent by 2027. Naturally with the tremendous growth in tourism, many hopes are pegged to this industry, however upon greater inspection, tourism appears to offer little opportunity for working class Georgians to increase their quality of life.

Much of the thanks for the rise of tourism in Georgia can be attributed to the Saakashvili regime. Under Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia underwent unprecedented reforms, where corruption and crime saw massive declines that enabled the state to begin marketing Georgia as a potential tourist destination. Crucially though, the state wanted to attract international investment to fund essential tourist infrastructure for Western tourists, like hotels and shops. To do this, the Saakashvili regime began a massive process of deregulation and privatization to the point where the Minister of Economic Development was quoted saying that the government “would sell everything but Georgia’s conscience.” Flat taxes were imposed and labour codes were simplified almost ten fold to limit the power and protection of workers. Most drastically, white-collar crime was, for all intents and purposes, legalized with no threat of jail time. Georgia had become a Hayek-inspired wet dream.

To the joy of big business and neoliberal organizations like the World Bank, Georgia skyrocketed in the world ranking when it came to ease of doing business and was able to finance major projects in Tbilisi and Batumi. Even ‘esteemed’ businessmen like Trump got in on the act. The result was major Georgian cities went through massive cosmetic changes under the guise of improving Georgia’s economy and lifting the country out of poverty. The reality was that tourism merely contributed to an already unequal society.

Under a neoliberal policy direction, Georgia’s economy has grown exponentially while exasperating inequality. For all the accolades that Rooms Hotel in Tbilisi may get in the New York Times, poverty and inequality has become even more entrenched in the country. Rural poverty continues to be rampant and has only made minimal growth in a country that is comparatively more rural than most European countries. Georgia ranks 88th in the world in terms of equality, sandwiched between Mali and Tunisia, according to the Gini Index, which measures global inequality. More telling is that Georgia ranks as the second worst alongside other former USSR countries. It is just marginally ahead of the notoriously oligarch-controlled Russia. Proponents of the free market reforms of Georgia argue that tourism will stimulate the economy to create more jobs but the majority of these jobs will exist in the low paying service industry, creating minor social mobility. The probability is that tourism will in fact aid further inequality.

Research investigating the relationship between tourism and inequality indicates that tourism leads to greater inequality, particularly in Georgia’s circumstances. According to a transnational study completed at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia of 49 developing countries between 1991 and 2012 indicates that inequality growth flourishes during tourist booms. According to Md. Samsul Alam and Sudharshan Reddy Paramati, “Results from long-run elasticities indicate that tourism increases income inequality significantly.” They posit that if that rate of tourism doubles then it can began to alleviate inequality. However, if redistribution measures are not in place and an oligarchical system is entrenched, then inequality will not improve. They write,

The current tourism service providers may be formed into an oligopoly market, where the supply of tourism services such as accommodations, travel and other services are solely managed by only a few multinational corporations (MNCs). If this is the case, then small and medium enterprises (SMEs) at the local level will not be able to compete with these large conglomerates and may quit their businesses, which will eventually lead to an unequal income distribution.

As a result, in an economy like Georgia’s, where 35 percent of the economy is controlled by businessman and former Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and minimal redistribution exists, it would appear that tourism is primed to continue contributing to inequality. One must begin to think that tourism offers little hope for working class Georgians but instead merely enables foreign investors and the upper class to profit off of the backs of those who are suffering the most.

What is evident in Georgia is not that different from what is seen across Europe, where people are beginning to realize that mass tourism does not empower the working class. Mass tourism is just part of a broader neoliberal agenda that treats communities across the world as an opportunity to exploit individuals and destroy cultures until they are no longer profitable. However, it does not have to be this way. Being anti-mass tourism is not an extension of xenophobia. People should step out of their own environment to visit other cities and countries to take pleasure in their beauty and difference. People in different communities should be welcoming to tourists but tourism must be for the benefit of the entirety of society. Both businesses and governments need to look to create a sustainable tourist industry that enhances lower and working class individuals’ opportunities and social mobility. Until then, tourists will continue their luxurious privilege while it will contribute to the daily misery of working classes.

 

We’d like to thank Maurice Wolf for the picture above. He is the co-owner of Brutal Tours, which operates on a policy of fairness and respect that contributes to a more fair and sustainable travel industry.