In my experience, some of the most difficult things about travel have been facing the realities of mass cultural exchange, swallowing my pride, and recognizing my part in it. Don’t get me wrong, there are incredible benefits to cultural exchange and connecting with people across cultural boundaries is the number one reason I travel. But when lots of people from one culture start invading the space of another, funny things start happening. Mix in heightened demands for creature comforts that the visiting group is accustomed to and things can start to get ugly. Perhaps the easiest place to see this play out is at mass sporting events.
In 2010, I spent a monsoon season in India. I spent months walking between rural villages and tandas, asking questions about education, and questioning everything I thought I knew about human rights agencies. After months spent sweltering and questioning (mostly myself), I found myself in New Delhi, sipping a “mocktail” in a gloriously air conditioned restaurant. I felt as though I had reached the end of a marathon. Air conditioning was literally the only thing on my mind. Well, that and a shower that was actually hot and didn’t require a bucket. I fell into a chair by the window and sat, motionless, thinking about the previous few months.
Down below me, on the street, a few dozen people were working furiously to erect a building. I noticed them after a few minutes and watched their fierce determination. I counted the number of kids I saw. 10…11…12…13…. They littlest among them were sliding in and out of impossibly small nooks and crannies and I quickly found myself hoping none of the bricks that were being thrown around would accidentally wall them into forgotten spaces or, worse, collapse around them.
I asked someone what those people were building and, without a glance, he told me they were getting ready for the Commonwealth Games. Having spent several months wandering dirt paths and not being a sports fan in the least, I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained and told me, with a laugh, not to worry. They’d certainly be done in time! At least, he claimed, things were looking nicer around the city.
After paying, I drifted out on to the street and noticed things I had been unaware of on my way in. The kids laying bricks to fix the holes in the sidewalks, the men scrambling as fast as they could, bent under impossibly heavy loads, desperate not to lose their pay by falling behind. I went back to my hotel to pour over news reports and learn what I could about the games. India was already facing criticism for not being “ready” for the games and many were saying they never should have been given the responsibility of hosting. In the weeks and months to come, reports of human rights abuses (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11218833) would finally begin to gain mass attention. I say finally because, from what little I saw, it should have been the first thing anyone had concerns about.
At the time, the media enjoyed making India seem like the worst games host in history. With many outlets reporting that New Delhi was far from ready to host, some countries even delayed the arrival of their teams at the games. The biggest story of those Commonwealth Games seemed to be India’s struggle to make them happen.
But India isn’t the only country to face harsh criticism for their handling of large scale sporting affairs. Brazil’s World Cup in 2014 and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are just two other events where the host country also received backlash for human rights violations. But does all of the criticism lie with the host countries? Shouldn’t we be considering why the host countries work citizens to the bone to produce “world class” venues? One Toronto journalist raised a legitimate question- during those Sochi Olympics was all the complaining justified or were some of the visitors just accustomed to being little more pampered than is possible in developing nations?
Hosting large scale events has an undeniable draw for developing nations. Tourists are sure to stream into the country and bring their tourist dollars with them. There is a very real human desire to be a part of the “in” crowd and to prove you have power and ability. That human desire translates to governments who bid for the right to host these events. Once they win that bid and the reality of having tens of thousands of foreigners with high comfort expectations descend upon their country hits them , they get to work making sure they do everything they can to avoid being plastered all over the media as inept and poor. Everyone knows these countries are struggling when they put their bids in. Every single person who votes knows the very real challenges of getting a city ready for such events. But we still give them the bid. We still celebrate their win and then shame them when they struggle to get things together in time. Why is that?
It seems most people see the benefits of mass tourism on an economy without difficulty. But we struggle to see the very real strain that same tourism puts on developing nations. We mock them when they fall short of Western standards and roast them for human rights abuses that we pretend we didn’t know would be the outcome of intense international pressure to measure up. It’s not very often that we turn the mirror on ourselves and wonder if we had a hand in the turmoil. There is a very real pressure that is inflicted on a host country to keep everyone visiting from abroad safe and comfortable. When the expectations are higher than what the host country can provide, we laugh at them instead of wondering if we are getting lost in our own biases on what “comfort” looks like. When the host country uses labor barely making slave wages to erect stadiums, we chastise them and pretend we didn’t se the reality of their work conditions before they even won the bid. When they clear entire slums to make way for parking lots, we pretend we never wondered how an over-crowded city was going to make room for those lots.
I’m not suggesting any of these games stop happening, nor am I suggesting that developing nations don’t have the right to put bids in to host. But we do need to take a fair look at the negative impact of mass tourism on developing nations and these large scale sporting events are a great place to start having the conversation.
It’s a difficult balance and one I recognized with new clarity after that particular trip to India. I want to see these places, to experience new cultures. But in order to do that responsibly, I need to temper my expectations and biases of what “comfort” is and what being a “good host” looks like. I also need to remind myself not to get as lost as I did that day in my own thoughts and to make sure my eyes are open to what is going on around me. After all, I can’t even begin to look at mass tourism’s impact if I am not wiling to acknowledge that individuals, like myself, make up those masses and individuals are the ones who will make choices that create a sea change.