The Great Escape (…From What Exactly?)
Vacations and holidays are generally thought of as periods of leisure and relaxation in one’s life. Having put in countless difficult and exhausting hours in at work, we are delighted at the idea of warm weather, the beach, limitless alcohol, and other vices we would not ordinarily be able to indulge in. After all, it is important to take breaks from work throughout our lives, otherwise we may become wound too tight and snap, preventing us from continuing in the long term and making the most of our time here. Interestingly, though, while travel has existed since the first humans began wandering the African continent, it is only quite recently in the grand timeline of human history that vacations, as we know them today, have become available to so many people. Before industrialization, unless one was a soldier, diplomat, indentured servant or slave, they were more than likely fated to never leave the village or town where they were born.
Once train travel had become firmly established throughout Europe in the early days of industrialization, around the 1840s, middle class workers and other non-elites suddenly had the opportunity to travel and discover their countries. With the significant drop in the cost and risk of travelling, ordinary people now had the possibility to get away to seaside resort towns in England and spa-towns in Germany that had once been reserved for noblemen and the like (Merriman, 2010). As time went on, and modes of travel continued to advance to the point where commercial flights became available to the masses throughout the West, these resort getaways mutated into their current forms.
Today, it seems that the perfect holiday for many throughout North America consists of booking a week at a time on a cruise ship or at a resort in one of the many Central-American or Caribbean countries to the south. This approach to travel is wrong for a number of reasons, ranging from ethical to environmental, however we will only be discussing four of these. Firstly, they promote the continued exploitation of less-developed countries, and their populations. Secondly, these types of vacations are extremely wasteful, and harmful on an ecological level. Thirdly, these types of resort vacations do not add any substance to travel, only acting as temporary sedatives for the middle classes. Lastly, it is not as though these excessive, over-indulgent resort or cruises ship holidays are the only available options for travelling, alternatives do exist.
Taking a look at any of the popular travel websites today, we see destinations offered such as Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Bahamas and so on. Aside from their warm weather and beautiful beaches, what these countries also have in common is that they are all former European colonies whose native populations had been decimated, and repopulated with slaves and European settlers to serve, and enrich, the metropole through plantation economies and resource extraction. Today they remain some of the poorest countries in the world, a consequence of their extractive colonial histories, as well as more recent economic and political domination by Western powers — what some have called deliberate underdevelopment.
Many praise the breakthrough of the tourism industries in these countries, claiming that they contribute significantly to their economic development. Taking a closer look at how the resorts are set up, though, it would appear that they are simply another expression of neocolonialism as these countries and their people continue to be exploited by foreigners and a few local elites. Simply looking at the ownership of some of these all-inclusive resorts and their arrangements for compensation with their host countries, we get a rather clear picture. Iberostar, for example, in addition to their European hotels is one of the biggest resort chains in Latin America, and is owned by Spanish billionaire, Miguel Fluxa Rossello. Bahia Principe, another chain of resorts operating throughout Latin America, also has its headquarters in Spain, ran by multi-millionaire, Pablo Pinero. It is the same story with Melia International Hotels, another one of the biggest resort chains in the world, who have their headquarters in Spain and are owned by another billionaire, Gabriel Escarrer.
The resorts these transnationals build throughout the Caribbean disrupt local economies and aid in extracting wealth from these societies on unfair terms. The way all-inclusive resorts are set up and built, they force the closures of local businesses as entire neighbourhoods are transformed to serve the needs of tourists (and the resorts) to the disadvantage of locals. Visitors are discouraged from leaving the resorts and venturing into the nearby towns and cities, and so local restaurants, souvenir shops, and transportation companies all suffer, as all of these services are provided in cookie-cutter format, and at a discounted rate by the resorts. Some estimates suggest that, because of this, it is possible that up to 90% of revenues generated from tourism in the Caribbean leak back to the countries where the resort companies are headquartered, leaving the bare minimum, in terms of compensation, for the residents of the host country (Sealy, 2018). Clearly, not much has changed since the time of Isabella and Ferdinand.
To add insult to injury, the locals working in these resorts and cruise ships are seldom treated fairly or respectfully. Top and middle management positions are commonly reserved for foreigners, usually from the countries the resorts are headquartered in, and locals are left with the more labor-intensive work as cleaners, housekeepers, cooks, servers, and gardeners. Amalia Cabezas has referred to this is as “de-skilling”, where the resort enclaves systematically exclude locals from positions where they can develop new skillsets and advance their careers, only keeping them around for the less desirable work (2008). This, coupled with the wealth disparities between the Caribbean nations where the average annual income is below $5,000.00 USD, and the North American or European tourists whose average incomes are ten times higher, should pose a huge ethical question for potential tourists debating the all-inclusive route (Sealy, 2018).
The problems with these types of holidays are unfortunately not limited to ethics and economic inequalities. As mentioned before, these all-inclusive resorts and cruises encourage overindulgence — drinking too much, eating too much, and all that goes with it. After all, what else are the guests really going to do in these environments? The guests are more or less restricted to the premises of their resorts or cruise ships with access to unlimited food and drinks. Once they have had their fill of the beach, or some golf and boat excursions perhaps, they are inevitably going to turn back to the only other activities available: eating and drinking. But in accommodating this overindulgence, and fulfilling the services and standards promised to guests, these resorts and cruise ships can end up creating inordinate amounts of pollution.
Here are some figures to give an idea as to how much waste and pollution is produced. The US Environmental Protection Agency recently found that on average, in a single day, one cruise ship will generate 21,000 gallons of sewage; one ton of garbage; 170,000 gallons of wastewater; more than 25 pounds of batteries, fluorescent lights, medical wastes, and expired chemicals; up to 6,400 gallons of oily bilge water from engines; and four plastic bottles per passenger (Moscovici, 2017). Multiply these figures by the 380 cruise ships worldwide with an average holding capacity of 3000 passengers, and the hundreds of voyages they make each year, and we are only scratching the surface of the global tourism industry (Carić, 2016). Furthermore, the carbon footprint left by tourists just flying to their destinations is no better, with a round trip flight from New York to Barbados producing 505 kg of CO2 per passenger and a round trip from London to Jamaica producing almost double that, at 985.8 kg of CO2 per passenger (Ewing-Chow, 2019).
Oddly enough, but not the least bit surprising, there is not very much data available that speaks to the waste produced by the all-inclusive resorts. There is, however, a decent literature examining the plastic waste produced by the Caribbean nations where a lot of these resorts are. For example, Ewing-Chow cites the small island nation of St. Lucia as the 6th largest producer of plastic waste in the Caribbean (at 0.52 kg of waste per person per day), producing more than four times as much plastic waste per person as China, the world’s largest absolute plastic polluter (0.12 kg of waste per person per day), blaming the root of the issue on “inadequate waste management” (2019). St. Lucia has a population of about 180,000 people, but hosts 1 million tourists a year who stay at the resorts on the island, so it is amusing to consider how “inadequate waste management” by the domestic population could be the root cause of so much plastic waste per person, and not the million yearly tourists and the single-use plastic cups provided to them at all of the resorts.
All of the above notwithstanding, it is obviously still very nice to sit by a tropical beach, enjoy the warm weather, drink piña coladas, and to forget all your troubles at home. As mentioned, in order to relax and take the pressure off from daily life, it can be helpful to sometimes sit around and do nothing — but for how long? These all-inclusive vacation packages can usually be booked for one- or two-week periods, during which time travellers are usually confined to their resorts or cruise ships. Except for activities like snorkeling excursions, the rest of their time is going to be spent in something that amounts to a state of animated sedation, between the hours spent binge drinking at the open bars, overeating at the buffets, and sunbathing. One cannot help but wonder what sorts of memorable events vacationers could possibly have experienced on such a schedule.
This depiction of travel for the masses really brings into question what it means to travel correctly, and how exactly we can have the most fulfilling experience. For the generations prior to the advent of the railways, the travel I imagine they would have been daydreaming about would have been something more akin to the romantic and adventurous travel documented in the memoirs of the great explorers of that time: an exclusive experience, reserved for those with the means to start off and the willpower to see it through to the end. But long gone are the days of explorers like Marco Polo, Giacomo Casanova, and Charles Darwin. These explorers were the quintessence of leaving one’s comfort zone; staging their adventures during a period when it was understood that travelling, especially by boat as they would have, meant there was a good chance they would never return. True adventurers, these travellers sought novelty and actively engaged with their new surroundings, reciprocating with the new lands they visited. Throughout the 13th Century, Marco Polo traveled extensively throughout almost the whole of Asia, serving and trading with the Mongol Empire, providing some of the first insights for Europeans into the cultures of the Far East. Later in the 18th Century, Casanova would travel throughout Europe, holding different odd jobs and mingling with various members of high society and important figures in the arts. Finally, Charles Darwin, though remembered as a biologist, was nonetheless great explorer as well, having completed his famous 5-year journey around the world onboard the HMS Beagle, discovering and cataloguing the flora and fauna of the distant lands he visited. In the travel and vacationing of the modern era, such thirst for discovery and real engagement with the new surroundings seems to have largely fallen out of fashion, with vacationers only seeking familiarity.
All of this begs the question: how exactly should one then be planning ethical and fulfilling holidays? In a day and age where it seems the only decent, affordable options for taking a break are resorts and cruises, to find an answer to this question we must ask ourselves another very important question alongside this one, and that is whether the point of travel is to seek comfort to the point of sedation, or whether it is to discover and feel. I say we would all do well to take a page out of Marco Polo or Casanova’s book, and take the adventurous route. Despite the ubiquity of beach resorts or cruise vacations, alternative holiday options do exist.
For starters it might help to simply change destinations. For North Americans especially, much of the appeal of the Caribbean comes from its proximity, but it is silly to restrict oneself to a single geographic area, and to deprive oneself of the opportunity to see what people two generations ago could have only dreamed of, simply because one does not want to endure a longer flight. The voyages Marco Polo and Darwin undertook were naturally very long and treacherous, as it was still the era of ships and horses, but they were also enriched by the diversity and novelty of the destinations they visited and discovered during their stays. Marco Polo, while spending most of his time in China, also traveled through India, Indonesia, Burma, Persia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Darwin, on his expedition, traveled south from the UK, along the West African coast, circumnavigating the South American continent where he would famously stop at the Galapagos Islands before continuing to Australia. These two, along with all the other explorers history remembers, dared to take the inconvenient path, and they led more fulfilling lives for it; seeing new places with every voyage, they brought back new knowledge and information that would help their compatriots, as well as the whole of humanity.
In the end, though, perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is not so much how to change the types of vacations we take, but how to develop lifestyles that can provide us with constant adventure and novelty, rather than temporary leisure. After all, Marco Polo, a merchant, and Charles Darwin, a scientist, were, in a sense, travelling for work. In the modern scheme of things with the forty-hour work week, family obligations, and the two weeks of paid vacation a year that most young urban professionals are afforded, we are not left with much time for losing ourselves in lengthy adventures. Maybe what we should really be reconsidering is the lifestyle that limits us to only two weeks of free time a year, and encourages the week-long all-inclusive vacations we set out to reject.