HONOLULU — Baptists meeting in one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations were reminded July 29 that beneath the glitz and glitter of the tourism industry lie moral issues that call for a Christian response.
Presenters at a breakout session on the ethics of tourism during the 20th World Congress of the Baptist World Alliance in Honolulu focused on a trio of ethical concerns that are especially urgent in developing nations that increasingly depend on international tourism:
- environmental degradation from large-scale developments and related industries;
- unfair employment practices for persons in host countries; and
- marginalization and devaluation of host cultures.
Deonie Duncan, a Baptist minister in Jamaica, and Rod Benson, an ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute at Moring College in Australia, emphasized that Christians must discern how best to respond to issues that are complex and varied. Although tourism is a modern practice that was unknown to the biblical writers, both speakers noted that the Scripture — especially the accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus — provides a framework for addressing the moral challenges associated with the tourism industry.
Duncan’s first ministry assignment after graduating from seminary in 2004 was in a district that included Ocho Rios, one of Jamaica’s most popular tourist attractions. “Not that many years ago Ocho Rios was a quiet fishing village,” she said. “Now most people in the area are employed by the tourism industry and its various subsidiaries.”
As she interacted with a cross-section of persons working in tourism-related jobs, Duncan began to see some of the downsides to the economic benefits of the industry. “By and large, employees report increased earnings,” she said, “but it comes at a cost.”
Employees often are required to work long hours and extended periods, including weekends and holidays, and without commensurate remuneration, Duncan said. Unscrupulous employers exploit low-wage-earners by hiding behind the ubiquitous “and other duties as assigned” clause in many position descriptions, she said.
Despite repercussions affecting the health and well-being of employees and their families, workers are reluctant to complain, Duncan added, for fear of missing a promotion or, worse, losing their jobs and leaving their families in dire straits. Changes in management can exacerbate the problem, she said, as a new employer renegotiates or abrogates workers’ agreements made by the previous owner.
Preservation of host cultures
“Does tourism really constitute national development if it does damage to host cultures?” Duncan asked. Too often, she said, genuine representations of indigenous cultures are supplanted by contrived images preferred by tourists — and the hospitality industry. Images presented to guests at exclusive hotels or “all-inclusive” resorts, she said, may be a far cry from the ways people live only a few miles away.
For their part, she added, workers in the tourism industry often suffer the negative impact of contrasting their status and cultural heritage with the wealth and power of international guests from developed countries.
Benson encouraged Christians to peer beneath the veneer of high-sounding verbiage from industry leaders. “Tourism bodies have developed excellent marketing resources and excellent lobbies,” he said. “It is not in their best interests to be seen to be abrogating the rights and responsibilities of employees” or devaluing host cultures, he said.
Christians, he said, need to recognize the tensions that often exist between ethics and commerce.
Both speakers noted that governments in developing countries are tempted to give priority to revenue from the tourism industry over the rights and benefits of citizens who work in the industry. “The wealth generated by the tourism industry often does not trickle down to local citizens,” added Duncan.
Duncan bemoaned the long-term environmental degradation that she said is often exchanged for the short-term economic gain of large-scale developments by the tourism industry.
She listed a variety of environmental problems associated with overdevelopment in Jamaica, including damage to coastlines and reefs, air pollution, destruction of natural watersheds, poor waste management and the inordinate consumption of water, electricity and seafood.
Duncan suggested “three Christian affirmations” as a framework for evaluating the real value of tourism for national development:
- Affirm that all human beings have value as persons created in the image of God. Christians, she said, should advocate for practices in the tourism industry that do not undermine the personhood of people or place material wealth above other human values.
- Affirm the differentness of each person and the uniqueness of each culture as divine gifts. Christians should steadfastly resist notions of superior versus inferior cultures, she said.
- Affirm that the environment is a gift of God for which humankind are stewards. Proper Christian stewardship, she said, calls for a shared commitment to ecological preservation.
David Wilkinson is executive director of Associated Baptist Press.