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Study and Research
VOLUNTOURISM: A BRIEF HISTORY OF TOURISTS AS WITNESSES AND ADVOCATES FOR JUSTICE
Dr. Phaedra C. Pezzullo, University of Indiana
For this issue of the Research Forum section of “The Voluntourist,” I am pleased to present a short essay from Dr. Phaedra Pezzullo of the University of Indiana. Dr. Pezzullo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University. This essay is adapted from her recently published book, Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Travel, Pollution, and Environmental Justice ( University of Alabama Press, 2007). Dr. Pezzullo reminds us of the importance of our roles as voluntourists, both as witnesses of the things we see and experience as well as agents of change and advocates of justice.
“Tourism is the gift of shared notice.” --Dean MacCannell
One of the most famous examples of environmental advocacy tourism was recorded by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, in his autobiographical account of John Muir guiding him on a three-day trip in Yosemite Valley.
To some, VolunTourism may seem strange or, at minimum, counterintuitive. Who would want to spend one’s vacation time and money to travel someplace to do what most consider “work”? As those of you who have hosted, developed, or participated in these trips know, however, VolunTourism offers pleasures of its own, including the opportunity to bear witness and to serve as an advocate for justice. Further, while VolunTourism may be new as a growing commercial trend, the ethics of VolunTourism reflect a longer tradition of noncommercial social movement activism—or what I call advocacy tourism.
Environmentalists, for example, long have believed that traveling to someplace can have profound impacts. Significant instances of environmental advocacy tourism in the U.S. occurred at least as early as the camping trips of the Sempervirens Club in the early 1900s, which were organized to “save the Redwoods,” and continued to involve historic events, such as David Brouwer’s Colorado River rafting trips to preserve the Grand Canyon from being flooded. One of the most famous examples of environmental advocacy tourism was recorded by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, in his autobiographical account of John Muir guiding him on a three-day trip in Yosemite Valley. Muir himself, of course, was an avid traveler and tourist. As founder of the oldest environmental organization in the nation, the Sierra Club, Muir often brought people on environmental advocacy tours claiming the pleasure of the experience would transform attitudes towards nature.
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Although environmental advocacy tours began as a means of protecting more traditional environmental areas such as mountains and forests, the scope of tour topics has expanded as grassroots social movements have broadened our appreciation of what is the “environment.” With the rise of communities against toxic pollution, for example, it is not surprising that tours have been used as a form of anti-pollution advocacy since at least the late 1960s. Today, you can find out about or see examples of what activists call “toxic tours” on the Internet at well over a dozen sites, generally sponsored by social movement organizations fighting for environmental justice, like Communities for a Better Environment and Texas PEER.
Giovanna Di Chiro argues that toxic tours are valuable when they transform bearing witness into taking action; more than just looking, she emphasizes the importance of doing something.(1) The two practices, of course, are related. For VolunTourists, action is taken while on the tour. People build houses or trails, help distribute medicine, support local initiatives to foster business, and so forth. Yet, the difference a VolunTourist can make should not be just limited to the period of time while he or she is traveling. Further, sometimes, looking itself can matter.
One of the most effective and recent examples of mobilizing the power of looking for social change is Witness for Peace. Begun in 1983, the organization formed to protest U.S. aid to the Contra war in Nicaragua. The goal was “to establish a permanent North American presence in the war zone”; delegates “would be expected to live with Nicaraguans, share the risks of Contra violence, ‘face death if need be,’ and become first-hand sources of information on Nicaragua alternative to the U.S. government.” As Christian Smith notes, witnessing became “a tactic, it seemed, that transformed people, that disturbed and electrified U.S. citizens into fervent political action against their own government.”(2) Thus, beyond hearing, seeing, and feeling risks through firsthand experience, the witness is an important figure in politics because he or she potentially can take action after returning home, reporting, testifying, and relating to others that which has been witnessed.
In the environmental movement, Greenpeace perhaps is best known for its use of witnessing as an act of resistance. Started in 1971, the organization articulates “green” concerns to a pacifist ethic of “peace.” The landmark event that catapulted the group into the international spotlight drew on the Quaker tradition of “bearing witness” by chartering a boat to protest a nuclear test site on the island Amchitka in the North West Pacific. This advocacy approach involved resistance by confronting firsthand the site of objectionable practices and then publicizing this David versus Goliath interaction through the media.(3)
In the environmental movement, Greenpeace perhaps is best known for its use of witnessing as an act of resistance... The landmark event that catapulted the group into the international spotlight drew on the Quaker tradition of “bearing witness” by chartering a boat to protest a nuclear test site on the island Amchitka in the North West Pacific.
Bearing witness, in this sense, is social and engaged, rather than passive and disinterested. In the act of looking at what many often ignore, the witness risks identification with the fate other people, places, and events. To illustrate this point, Diana Taylor provides examples from her fieldwork in Argentina during the “Dirty War.” In a context of public torture, abduction, and surveillance, Taylor observes, “people dared not be caught seeing” such that “the triumph of the atrocity was that it forced people to look away—a gesture that undid their sense of personal and communal cohesion even as it seemed to bracket them from their volatile surroundings.”(4) In order to challenge such atmospheres of intimidation, bearing witness to atrocities offers a vital mode of resistance as an act of solidarity and an affirmation of the value of human life.
This brief history is not exhaustive. There are many other organizations and movements in the Americas and elsewhere that have used tours as a way of providing opportunities to bear witness and to serve as advocates for environmental and social justice. In this sense, it’s important not to think of VolunTourism as something new or imagined in an isolated boardroom somewhere, but rather as part of a longer history of grassroots efforts that realize tourism is more than the largest industry in the world. Tourism fundamentally is a mode of communication, and it is worthwhile because it offers a profound way for people to share, as MacCannell notes (see epigraph above), what or whom we notice.
I hope you enjoyed this edition’s Research Forum! If you have any questions or comments, please submit your questions to the Voluntourist newsletter, e-mail Phaedra Pezzullo at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out her new book to learn more!
See you next issue!
Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.
Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum. Go There >>>
(1) Giovanna Di Chiro, “Bearing Witness or Taking Action?: Toxic Tourism and Environmental Justice.” In Reclaiming the Environmental Debate: The Politics of Health in a Toxic Culture. Edited by Richard Hofrichter, ( Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 275-300.
(2) Christian Smith, Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 76; 77; 78.
(3) Mark Warford, ed., Greenpeace Witness: Twenty-Five Years on the Environmental Front Line (London: Andre Deutsch, 1997).
(4) Diana Taylor, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1997), 122.
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