Food Sovereignty Tours: Can “alternative tourism” contribute to food sovereignty?

Katie Brimm, Tanya M. Kerssen and Zoe Brent | 08.14.2014
Bolivia_US farmer with coca farmer

New Mexico farmer Don Bustos (L) with coca farmer Gregorio on a Bolivia Food Sovereignty Tour, 2013

Food First Backgrounder, Summer 2014, Vol. 20, No. 2

Introduction: The beginnings of Food Sovereignty Tours

When Food First founded its educational travel program Food Sovereignty Tours in 2010, it had already organized dozens of trips to destinations like Cuba and Kerala, India—places that had carried out radical reforms to greatly improve literacy rates, access to healthcare and other socio-economic indicators. While the Cold War mentality of the 1980s and neoliberal triumphalism of the 1990s sought to convince us that there was “no alternative” to corporate-led globalization, Food First’s many publications showed how this model was failing most of humanity… and its delegations brought participants to the frontlines of people’s struggles for democratic, locally-controlled alternatives.

By 2010, on the heels of a global food, financial and climate crisis—and in the midst of a burgeoning US food movement—the time was ripe for Food First to create a formal institutional space for its educational delegations. Global Exchange—founded by former Food First staffers Kevin Danaher and Medea Benjamin in 1986—helped incubate our program, modeled on the highly acclaimed program Reality Tours. Thus, Food Sovereignty Tours was born: an educational program focused on helping activists, researchers and concerned citizens to understand an increasingly complex global food system and engage in informed activism upon their return home, while also magnifying the voices of those struggling to carve out alternative, people-centered food systems around the world.

Food Sovereignty Tours quickly began grappling with the many implications of coordinating international (and local) travel experiences, and the ways in which this work invariably intersects with the “tourism industry.”

As a program led by researchers and activists, Food Sovereignty Tours quickly began grappling with the many implications—ethical, political, ecological, etc.—of coordinating international (and local) travel experiences, and the ways in which this work invariably intersected with various facets of the “tourism industry.” This Backgrounder identifies some of the main currents of international tourism and the tensions inherent in this work as part of an ongoing process of critical self-reflection on the following questions: Can educational, justice-focused travel truly be used as a tool to build social movements? And can it avoid reproducing the injustices generated by both conventional and alternative forms of tourism?

Tourism: Capitalism’s Handmaiden?

As the largest export earner in the world, tourism is undeniably “one of the most important forces shaping our world” (Higgins-Desbiolles 2006: 1192). As a global industry, it is the sector experiencing the most vigorous economic growth, encompassing 904 million tourists who spent $855 billion USD in 2007, according to the World Tourism Organization (Gyr 2010). Higgins-Desbiolles and Blanchard (2008) identify the foundations of modern tourism in the early 20th century with the establishment of paid leave for workers and “socialist education” used to foster solidarity among communist countries, which eventually gave way to tourism as a means of advancing capitalism in the post-war “development” decades and then in the neoliberal era. The free trade agreements and deregulation policies imposed on the global South in the 1980s and 90s facilitated the expansion of capital accumulation across borders and eroded the ability of nations to protect their domestic economies from the ravages of global capitalism, including the negative effects of tourism. At the same time, International Financial Institutions like the World Bank continued to heavily promote tourism as a means of generating foreign exchange—in turn facilitating the repayment of onerous foreign debts.

In this largely unregulated “free market” environment, the benefits from global tourism concentrated largely in the global North, perpetuating neocolonial forms of global inequality “with the multinational companies of the advanced capitalist countries retaining the economic power and resources to invest in and ultimately control nations of the developing world” (Wearing, quoted in Higgins-Desbiolles 2006: 1195). Moreover, tourism has transformed landscapes and social relations in destination countries—for example, creating elite tourist enclaves, from which local populations are segregated, except as a source of cheap labor. A growing body of literature links the expansion of corporate tourism—including so-called alternative forms of tourism such as ecotourism (see below)—to the recent wave of global “land grabs,” dispossessing peasants and indigenous peoples from their territories (Gardner 2012; Kerssen 2013).

Sunyoung South korea urban garden

Korean-American activist Sunyoung Yang visits an urban farm on a South Korea Food Sovereignty Tour, 2013

What’s “Alternative” about Alternative Tourism? 

As a response to the many social and environmental criticisms of mass tourism, a number of “alternative” forms began emerging in the 1960s and 70s, such as pro-poor tourism, ecotourism, volunteer tourism, cultural tourism, sustainable tourism and community-based tourism. There is much debate, however, regarding the extent to which these alternatives embodied a genuine paradigm shift or merely palliative reforms meant to appease critics and sustain capital accumulation in the tourism sector. Blackstock (2005), for instance, observes that much of the literature on community-based tourism (CBT) is focused, not on ways tourism can be used to foster community empowerment, but rather on CBT as a strategy for sustaining the industry itself. Most proponents of CBT, she argues, “do not challenge or question the development of a tourism industry, but seek to make tourism more acceptable to the local residents” (41).

There is much debate about the extent to which alternative forms of tourism embody a genuine paradigm shift or merely palliative reforms meant to appease critics and sustain capital accumulation in the tourism sector.

Indeed, many forms of alternative tourism fall short of advocating radical structural change—either within the tourism industry itself or in the broader socio-economic systems in which it is embedded. Nonetheless, it is worth describing a few trends in alternative tourism here—ecotourism, agritourism and justice tourism—which provide important context and lessons for Food Sovereignty Tours’ evolving model and philosophy. Of the three, ecotourism is the best known with the longest history, and has also drawn the sharpest criticism.

Feature image: Oaxaca Food Sovereignty Tour participants in an organic amaranth field supported by the organization Puente a la Salud Comunitaria, July 2014

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