‘All you need is Ecuador’? Some reflections on the ethics of tourism and international volunteering in the wake of Charlie Hebdo

The weeks before and after the Charlie Hebdo attack I was in Ecuador, the smallest oil producing member of OPEC, a country where the (largely nationalised) oil sector accounts for a sizeable proportion of all export earnings and represents about one-third of all tax revenues. Partly in a push to diversify the economy, the Ecuadorian government announced in 2013 that tourism was to become a key future industry in the drive towards sustainable economic development. The slogan ‘All you need is Ecuador’ that greets visitors throughout the country is testimony to the effort put into promoting tourism not only with words but with substantial government resources. In due course, 2013 became a successful year for Ecuador on the international travel awards circuit – the country won the prestigious World Travel Awards World’s Leading Green Destination and was nominated in a number of additional categories.

And indeed, the government’s strategy symbolized in its “Always friendly, always honest, always professional” campaign seems to be an unqualified success, a win-win situation for foreigners and locals alike. But when taking a closer look, a more complex picture emerges.

An important figure in the tourism industry is the local guide. Paulo (name changed) is a typical example of such a guide: He works ‘freelance’ as the vast majority do, ‘as no travel operator wants to pay a monthly salary to any guide’. Travel operators are usually from Europe or the US or other countries belonging to the Global North. But Paulo is not simply called for guide duties, he in fact has to fully organise the tours he works on. The agency that passes work his way simply ‘calls me, tells me the duration of the trip, the agenda’, he says. He then has to organise transport, make box lunches, book accommodation – the whole logistics rest on his expertise. For his work he is paid comparatively little in relation to the cost of any tour – becoming a tour operator in Ecuador seems one of the fastest ways of becoming rich! Paulo and a few of his fellow guides have actually tried to set up their own agency a few years back. ‘It was very hard and we failed’ he remembers. ‘Foreigners trust other foreigners more’, thus they tend to arrange trips with a travel agent from their own nationality – and to break into that circle remains an uphill struggle. The more I think about Paulo, the more I wonder about the ethics of the Ecuadorian tourist industry and the almost neo-colonial relationships within it. And this brings me back to Charlie Hebdo. One of my colleagues has questioned in a recent blog about the attack and its aftermath whether ‘our’ societies are really civilised and sophisticated and those of the perpetrators are not, and whether we can really overlook how our societies organise themselves – and exploit others in the process I would add. We tend to conveniently forget the more often than not barbaric origins of our contemporary ‘civilisation’ and their enduring legacies.

Maybe a way out of those dilemmas is the figure of the international volunteer. In Ecuador there are many, busy with all sorts of activities, including in the tourist sector. These are mostly young (or not so young) enthusiasts who claim to really believe in solidarity and a better world, and in the process fail to realise the exploitative order of which they become an important part. There is for example the young couple that manages a (foreign-owned) hostel in a small mountain village, for no pay but at least free accommodation and food. From the profits of the hostel, a small percentage goes to the local community, they announce proudly. In that community, most children now go to school, including secondary school, but there is little to do in the village with those qualifications afterwards. Manager of a hostel could be a worthwhile career perspective – but the foreign owners ‘who come once a week to collect the money’ are not interested in providing meaningful local training and why should they, if there is a constant flow of volunteers who work without pay? Volunteering in such circumstances becomes another example of what Lilie Chouliaraki calls a post-humanitarian understanding of solidarity as irony, where charitable acts are ultimately conducted for one’s own fulfilment, fun and enjoyment.

Of course there are also exceptions, (foreign) operators in the tourism industry who pay their staff well (and local operators who do not), there are those who have a genuine interest in advancing the local economy and contributing to sustainable economic development as was the government’s plan in its drive to increase tourism. A fascinating example is the cooperation between a posada in Otavalo and the weaving workshop of Master weaver Miguel Andrango and his family, whose craft may not survive without international customers. It might also not do so with those who visit Otavalo – as prices for a beautiful peace of cloths that takes 15 days to produce cannot compete with the cheap imports now sold on the Otavalo tourist market. But there is some hope that a few of those who answer the call to visit Ecuador will recognise the value of local craftsmanship and – whether out of enjoyment or guilt or a combination of both – put their money where their mouth is.

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