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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 96 (Suppl.), December 2004






Mr. Ranjan SOLOMON

Executive Director,

Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism (ECTWT)


The Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism (ECOT), was founded in 1982 as a response to the rapidly rising trend in tourism which, as the Coalition observed, wreaked more havoc than bringing benefits to the countries which the tourists were visiting. ECOT began to seek, among others, the possibilities to counteract the negative impacts of tourism on people and their natural environs by organizing vulnerable populations to take destiny into their own hands. Indeed, ever since is inception, ECOT has sought to serve as a space and rallying point for individuals and groups who want to confront and alter patterns of tourism which are unjust and oppressive. Nevertheless, ECOT has always underlined the need for a constructive and proactive profile through actively working to model and promote new paradigms of tourism that are just, participatory, culturally sensorial, gender just, child friendly, and ecologically sustainable. More recently, ECOT has begun to locate the linkage between tourism practices and human rights and has emerged as an advocate and lobbyist against human rights violations in selected locations. Major innovations within ECOT have largely been in the realm of promoting guidelines in alternative tourism, campaigning against sex tourism, and protecting children in the tourist trade. ECOT has also engaged in some critical analysis of the phenomena of, what is now known, as “Golf Tourism” that so adversely affects the poor in the agricultural sector and with scant regard for environmental sustenance.

But I would like to take you back into the journey that ECOT took since its inception. I do this to outline the contours of our journey. It was in 1969 that the World Council of Churches first convened a World Consultation on Tourism. That was a milestone in the life of the church. And the tone of the debate about tourism was set when Professor James Glasse, a principal speaker at the meeting, raised issues of tourism within the frameworks of theology, pastoral care, and as an ecclesiastical concern. He posed the challenge of evolving an ‘ethics of leisure’ and underlined how it was pertinent to draw up the parameters of a ‘leisure ethic just as much as there is the demand for a work ethic. Another major preoccupation that emerged at the discussions was around the affirmation that all human energies exist to serve God and celebrate God’s gifts of life to humankind. Leisure activities including tourism must similarly be subject to God’s rules and ways.

It was nearly a decade later when another major workshop took place in Manila, Philippines in 1980 on the question of tourism. By then the understanding of issues pertaining to tourism had significantly advanced. Justice had emerged as a central concern. Manila gave birth to ECOT, then known as the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism (ECTWT). The Christian Conference of Asia, the Pacific Conference of Churches, and The Federation of Asian Bishops Conference jointly launched it and defined its ends and priorities. Later, the All Africa Conference of Churches, Caribbean Conference of Churches, Latin American Council of Churches, and the Middle East Conference of Churches joined it.

It has often been asked why must the church be involved in matters related to tourism? Isn’t that a question for economic planners and business leaders to worry about? The answers were distinct. To us in ECOT, modern day tourism is the story of distorted life-styles. It is the recital of stories of abused hospitality, of people deceived day-in and day-out by unscrupulous people whose only goal in tourism is to make profits with disregard for the social consequences to women, young girls and boys forced into prostitution simply because the alternative may simply be poverty or hunger. It is the narrative of people deceived by drugs, gambling, unconscionable consumerism, unrestrained and ruthless competition, and the eventual sense of powerlessness of the victims. Or, for that matter, the venal displacement of farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous persons only to make way for the arrival of a tourist enterprise which could take the form of a five-star hotel, a golf course, or a new amusement park. And there is always the overworked, underpaid worker in the organized and unorganized sector. Tourism, as we have come to know it, so unfailingly also reinforces sexist and imperialistic stereotypes.

Christians must of necessity be conscious of God’s affirmation that we are all made in the image of God. Not one of the features of tourism just described would conform to this affirmation. To recreate humankind in the image of God is an invitation to engage in restoring the brokenness of people and communities caused by the recklessness of tourism. This, in turn, is the unambiguous call to intervene to restore God’s justice to the victim and to transform tourism into a vocation centered on justice and human values. The sole motive of profit accumulation must be discarded and must give way to a value-based enterprise where the benefits of tourism are equitably shared between the various parts of the tourism equation - the tourist, the entrepreneur, and the host communities. This alone will reverse a trend wherein the hosts and their abodes are reduced to being commodities and objectified for the hedonistic pleasures of the traveler.

A new paradigm of tourism is, above all, the quest for a form off spirituality that acquires the traits of a pilgrimage. A pilgrim goes of in search of God and in the pursuit of truth. God’s truth cannot be found outside the ambit of justice and true community. In a world torn asunder by economic divisions, a traveler can make the choice, or be encouraged to chose, to go out in search for people-to-people encounters as part of which each discover the other, understand each other, share with each other what they can and have. This is a pilgrim pathway that can lead to mutuality, solidarity, and to the real discovery of human community. It will be the trail to cessation of abuses of the previous ways of exploitation rooted in greed. It will symbolize the abandonment of the search for profit alone and, instead, instill stewardship values of God’s world of people, the mountains, seas, islands, the air, the birds, the trees - indeed all of God’s precious creation.

ECOT is a community of faith and views tourism as a spiritual question. Leisure-tourism is like all things of God - spiritual. It exists to serve God. And leisure can either be for self-aggrandizement or advance something meaningful to a person’s values in life in addition to self-regeneration. When the right relationship is established between self-fulfillment and social responsibility in tourism, then tourism would be an act of pilgrimage in the service of people and nature. For a pilgrim is not a mere tourist. Three distinguishing features occur to me as pertinent:

The pilgrim treads sensitively on the Holy Ground and spaces they enter - the tourist tends to trample over this sacred space.

The pilgrim respects the host and accepts their ways, even tries to learn from them while offering to share her or his own ways. The tourist often sees the ways of the host as a good commodity best reserved for display at the ‘evening show’!

The pilgrim is humble and patient waiting for it to be time to do things, for the host to be ready too. The tourist can be in a hurry, hasty, even arrogant.

“The person on horseback knows nothing of the toil of the traveler on foot”- so goes an ancient Chinese proverb! To travel through God’s world is to join the pilgrimage to discover the truth about God’s creation - Gods’ people, their cultures, and God’s nature. And where is the truth to be found in our world today? Truth lies in the ashes of injustice, degradation, disempowerment, decay, hopelessness and so on. Third World Tourism, in particular, has managed to dodge these questions. This pilgrimage, which you can call ‘justice tourism’, is a way to seek the truth as seen by the traveler on foot - and to seek God through this truth.

Until tourism becomes an encounter with the dominant injustice of this world, it will stay exploitative. And so, for the church and its agencies, the challenge is to bring to the tourism agenda alternative paradigms that have as their base values of justice, development, respect for cultures, ecological sensitivity. When these things occur, tourism will become the theatre of opportunity for solidarity, sharing and caring, of desiring to return to the place visited not because it was exciting and good fun but because it was challenging and ethically correct to return to continue to support the people you visited and because it was socially responsible to do so. Indeed tourism as a means of solidarity can be the path to justice and understanding. Tourism could thus be a vehicle for building human community, for understanding, for recognizing the many sided gifts of God.

ECOT remains an Ecumenical Movement with a Christian basis and orientation. Today, however, ECOT works with people across the religious divide on an inter-faith footing recognizing that the way forward in dealing with the great issues of our times requires bridging individuals and groups with shared concerns and commitments in building a common humanity. These networks and alliances are the place where each part brings to the rallying point their ‘five loaves and two fishes,’ their social capital as it were, to combine them for the larger good of human progress.

To those of us seeking to advance new ways of people encountering people and creation, the prophet Micah offers us a spiritual archetype, what is good and right to do. ‘Love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God’ we are admonished. It is the call to treat the people and places we visit with humility and respect recognizing the distinct ‘otherness’ of what we encounter, knowing we can benefit and contribute to its enhancement in the event of a genuine encounter. Equally, it is a requisition on us to advocate the pursuance of and craving for justice as the vocation of a traveler.

I want to leave you with one final thought - a wise Chinese proverb which aptly sums up the dilemma and challenge to us in the vocation of the pastoral care of tourism: “The farmer hopes for rain, the traveler for fine weather”!