Cities that want to attract tourists construct wide sidewalks, pedestrianize streets, and build spaces where people can meet and talk. These open areas, which provide access and ease of movement for residents as well as visitors, pave the way for democracy.
Tourism has been criticized for the damage it inflicts on the dignity and culture of less economically developed societies, which may be made to feel inferior by wealthier tourists. But tourism may have an ultimately positive impact on developing country societies—particularly on these nations’ ideas of equality.
Walking off old ideas
Tourism is a pedestrian activity: tourists want to walk. Therefore, cities vying for tourists make better sidewalks and pedestrianize streets. Even in Disneyworld, visitors spend only 3 percent of their time in games and attractions. They basically pay to be in a pedestrian city, walk, see people, buy hot dogs—and go to a few attractions.
Building better pedestrian spaces constructs and benefits democratic ideals, as it shows respect for and protects the most vulnerable local citizens: children, the elderly, the handicapped, and the poor. Particularly in developing countries, where most homes do not have cars, quality pedestrian spaces show respect for the carless majority, literally placing everyone on the same level.
Quality pedestrian spaces are spaces for democracy. No revolution has started in a shopping mall. Tourism requires quality sidewalks and plazas: so does political activism.
Often, walls and hedgerows line roads, making it impossible for people to see crops and cattle. A poor child in a developing country city will not know the difference between a potato and a cotton plant, or see a cow, because fields are walled from view.
But tourists will not be able to experience the scenery either if it is blocked by fences. If such obstacles are removed in order to attract tourists, benefits will reach the local population as well. The same principle applies to waterfront privatization, which is frequent and profoundly undemocratic. If tourism leads to it, it is a disastrous consequence. An unobstructed and accessible waterfront strengthens democracy and improves the quality of life for the local population.
The Scandinavian concept of Allemansrätten proves the power of such unhindered access. Allemansrätten dictates that anybody has a right to enter private lands, walk through them, and even camp without the owner’s permission. The economic success of ecological tourism, a trend with great future potential, will require such measures.
Finally, the vast number of tourists typically visit from more egalitarian societies. They see through local classist hierarchies, like India’s caste system. All developing countries have local hierarchies and aristocracies that the outside visitor sees as they are: ludicrous. When visitors share this view with their local hosts, it encourages equality.
Ultimately, these travelers bring more democratic ideas and attitudes to extremely unequal developing countries. Tourists’ views may seed democratic change, leading to a more just society—because long after bags are packed and photos are developed, ideas remain.