Third World Tourism

I got a pineapple for 10 pesos, or 40 cents USD. Bananas are 2 cents each.
I got a pineapple for 10 pesos, or 40 cents USD. Bananas are 2 cents each.

I just returned from a country where the internet consists of tin cans connected with bits of string. It is a nation trapped in 1960, the last year it could legally import goods from the free world.

The city air is choked with diesel exhaust from six-bangers built in the height of last century. The resident nationals don’t know that they are frozen in time. Their only window to the outside world comes from five government-curated television stations.

A row of taxis
A row of taxis

The national economy is meager by Western standards, but the citizens are comfortable. The government meets basic needs. Provisions are sold at ration shops at government-mandated prices. Rice is 0.70 pesos per pound, which converts to 3 cents USD. A dozen eggs is 2 pesos, or 8 cents USD. The first six eggs each month are free.

Ration shop. It's like Whole Foods, but cheaper.
Ration shop. It’s like Whole Foods, but cheaper.

Everything is cheap, including wages. The average income is $25 USD per month. They don’t know how much Americans make. The only way to feel poor is to expose yourself to the rich.

Occasionally, they are afforded a glimpse of the first world when overseas visitors pass through their lives. Those who have encountered tourism don’t quite understand it, but want it. Locals have learned that outsiders invariably come with fat wads of cash. They know that in the next year or so, the US ban on tourism will be lifted, and expect floods of first-world money to swarm into their humble universe.

They’re getting ready for this. Women are putting signs on their front doors indicating that the home is a casa particular – a.k.a. bed & breakfast. Bus operators prohibited from transporting non-nationals have learned to drop tourists off just outside city limits. They pocket the higher cash fare.

This sign indicates a casa particular. Visitors can knock on the door and ask for a room for the night.
This sign indicates a casa particular. Visitors can knock on the door and ask for a room for the night.

The problem with third-world tourism is that it creates a mining economy with the sole purpose of extracting money from visitors. There is a pronounced wealth inequality between those who receive money from tourists and those who don’t. It turns women into prostitutes and men into thieves. The main exports are counterfeit goods and STDs. See also: Bangkok. Hanoi. Tijuana.

At best, the end product is a culture devolved into a sea of obsequious pressed uniforms. Then the only homes are hotels and the only industry is hospitality. The main exports are souvenir mugs and inflated self-importance. See also: Singapore. Bali. Cancun. The biggest import is cultural imperialism and the domestic product is resentment.

Maybe isolation isn’t so bad after all.

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