Come find yourself on this beach! Because there’s nobody here and everything’s perfect

On ‘ugly tourism’ and what it means to travel to the Global South

By Wambui Waiganjo

I am intrigued by the theory of fight or flight. When in a crisis, we are left between the crossroads of facing what’s ahead of us or fleeing to safety, and I think of the many ways we find ourselves between these choices. More than that, I am intrigued by the reality that more often than not, only a certain set of people even get to choose.

For example, over the summer, during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and all the horrible sights of murder that came with it, I was not granted the choice to flee. There’s no running from the skin I’m in and the constant spectre of death that comes with it. Even with the pandemic as another crisis, people who experience poverty and disenfranchisement cannot simply decide to flee the rising cases and the mind-numbing lockdown that comes with it.

I read article after article about celebrities, influencers, and well-off people who had the luxury of fleeing to sandy beaches, demanding not to be judged for this decision. They claim that what’s necessary in such difficult circumstances is ‘positivity,’ and in their condescension, they seem to remind their millions of followers that if they had the chance, they too would flee.

But I wonder if they ever questioned this version of reality. I wonder if they thought about who gets the choice to escape and, specifically, if they thought about the citizens of the countries they escaped to.

Did these tourists consider the hotel staff who brought them their piña coladas as they captioned and edited their posts? Did these tourists think about these locals and their fears? About their concerns with the virus? As they gleefully watched the exploited hired entertainers dance to their local music, did they wonder about whether they, too, were tired? Did they ask themselves whether the ‘locals’ or ‘villagers,’ as they’re so called, wished to escape this pandemic as well?

Then, in these moments, I think of Kenya.

The last time I was in Kenya, I was nine years old. I remember my great grandmother’s sugar cane field and how it lined the path up to her quaint home where she’d be bustling between the kitchen and the yard, trying to ensure a constant flow of chapatis to my family congregating outside. I remember the heat and how putting on a seatbelt was like playing with fire, and I would get burned each time. I remember on New Year’s, when I would watch my cousins burn steel wool and spin rapidly to create their own personal fireworks display, and how drunk passersby would stop to watch and cheer them on.

When I think of Kenya, I think of my family and these little pockets of life. But when I tell someone where I was born, I’m distinctly aware that they’re usually thinking of safaris. Of tall giraffes and the ‘jumping village people.’ Sometimes, it’s the missionary trip they did to some poor village, where they describe how they were so loved by the villagers and how grateful they were for the help.

They’re always the ‘villagers’ in these stories, never the people.

Fiona Tung/The Varsity

Considering that the “right to rest and leisure” — for the service workers who serve these tourists — is a protected human right under the United Nationsʼ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I wonder about the rights of the people providing this rest and leisure.

Where is their humanity in the subpar, barely livable wages that they are exploited for in their own countries and in the Indigenous populations displaced to make way for paradise? Where is their humanity in the children whose exposed ribs and empty eyes are used to reflect some sense of beauty in the ugly tourists who come to see them?

It’s a question that I have found myself unable to answer. Iʼve always known about the repulsiveness of tourism and those missionary trip fiends, but it’s only now during the pandemic that I have been able to put into words the true rancidness of it all.

As Jamaica Kincaid writes in “The Ugly Tourist,” there’s a particular kind of ugliness necessary to travel to the Global South to find yourself, or in this case, to escape a pandemic. At the core of it all, whether or not there is a pandemic, tourism in the Global South is an attempt to feel beautiful. And what better way to do that than to go somewhere where you are ‘admired’ as some better kind of being!

It can loosely be related to Hortense J. Spillers’ theory that enslaved women were not permitted the idea of sexuality due to their objectification and enslavement. After all, on these sunny beaches, as you ask your server who is being beaten by the unforgiving sun how their day was, they are not permitted humanity. They can offer no genuine honesty.

In that moment, you are giving them a chance to perform and make you feel wonderful. To help you forget that somewhere in the world, there are people suffering from a pandemic that, of course, does not exist on this white sand.

As your server talks about their long day in a manufactured honesty, you feel splendid and kind because you’ve given them some respite from the very suffering you are causing them. They are aware of this, of course, as they laugh with you and then ask if you’d like anything else to drink. No matter how honest they are, any gaze into their lives is simply an opportunity for you to elevate yourself — not as someone better, but something better.

The last thing on the ugly tourist’s mind is the people who live in these destinations because, to them, they’re not people at all. When those who come to the Global South on voluntary missionary trips come with the intention to ‘save’ the lives of the citizens there, this action is performative. It demands something from the local citizens in return.

I think of the mothers of the starving children used as backdrops for these fantasy beachfront escapes, and how people come to find themselves in the mud of their homes. They take their children’s starving hands, dance with them, laugh with them, take pictures of them, and then discard them back into the ground.

Fiona Tung/The Varsity

To these tourists and volunteers, these children’s lives are not tangibly real. They serve instead as an outlet for escapism. These children are an opportunity to forget the life and pandemic that you can run from, but these children can’t.

To these tourists and volunteers, these children are not human. They are simply jewels, a path to personal enlightenment, the victim begging to be saved. They do not belong to themselves; they are owned in their own home, and they are not people — simply ‘villagers.’

It brings me to Spillers’ idea that through slavery, systemic racism, and the intricacies of the patriarchy, Black women are not awarded the right to humanity or gender. Under the systems of oppression and behind those manufactured smiles, we aren’t fully human.

I am very aware that the only reason I can pretend that I have this humanity here in Canada is because of the social class my parents scraped my family into. Had we stayed in Kenya, I very well could have been that mirror for some kid looking to find themselves in my suffering.

Yet at the same time, I know I still don’t fully hold the same kind of humanity as my white counterparts; if I walk a bit too confidently in the wrong neighbourhood, the spectre of death will pay me a visit. So I’m stuck in this middle ground, middle class, middle state of being as I struggle through this pandemic, and I too feel this urge to escape.

There’s probably a similar conversation being had in the mind of some worker here in Canada. As they also labour for the customers who walk through their door, they might think that at least they aren’t suffering somewhere in the Global South. Then, they dream of sandy beaches, and then they dream of looking beautiful in the eyes of a starving African child.

So fight or flight, stuck between the crossroads, who gets to choose? Who gets the luxury of leaving? And if the ability of flight and the “right to rest and leisure” is something inherently human, then what does it make the citizens of Hawaii, Kenya, Jamaica, and other ‘tourist destinations’ who aren’t able to pause and flee? Who must watch as their homes are sold off as parcels of paradise for the sake of their country’s survival?

Who in that manufactured Elysium gets to be human?