It is staggering to think that elephants sought higher ground immediately before the Tsunami hit Asian shores on December 26th 2004, while no advanced technology existed in the form of an early warning detection system that could prevent the loss of human life … or so said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Tourism of Sri Lanka. I can’t say for sure. I wasn’t there. I was safe and dry in Varese, Italy at the time, and a long way from Pound Ridge, New York, from where I hail.
I have been honored to be one of the many panelists at the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism Global Summit in Pattaya, Thailand, an organizational conference dedicated to exploring the ways in which tourism can and does promote peace. I was one of the only westerners there and was surrounded by Ministers, Members of Parliament and others dedicated to the concept of sustainable tourism and peaceful tourism.
While I spoke about the strategies that western tourism enterprise has utilized to confront terrorism and natural disaster in the U.S. and Europe over the past few years, my fellow panelists from Sri Lanka, Uganda, Cambodia and South Africa, to name a few, discussed the ways in which terrorism, internal armed-conflict, war and poverty have affected their lives and those of their families and countrymen. Among a group of co-panelists at breakfast one morning, I was the only person to not have held the status of refugee at some point in my life. To the extent I have changed houses or homeland, it has been entirely through choice and a quest for new experience and I know nothing of fleeing for my life or the lives of my children. My colleagues from across the sea, in contrast, have been counting the years, and in some instances, the months, days, hours and minutes of peace.
It is amazing to me that the more I am exposed to through travel and interaction with peoples of other countries, the more ignorant I feel. Like most people, I know that people living in other parts of the world do not share the same standard of living that I do, but I did not know that the single greatest killer of children world-wide is unclean water. I did not know that my colleagues in Jordan get water once a week, but that my female Jordanian colleagues have virtually no “glass ceiling” that prevents them from advancing professionally. I didn’t know that there are still cold-storage containers on the shores of the Andaman coast in Thailand that contain the bodies of unidentified loved ones after the wave hit and I didn’t know that police boats and huge fishing trawlers still lie kilometers from the sea where they lie against buildings, but otherwise upright, as if they are simply dry-docked in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What is sustainable tourism and how can we in the western world assist our brothers and sisters in less developed areas to face problems that affect fragile economies so dependent upon tourism? And how can we, as tourists, promote peace when we travel? So many of us, as individuals as well as public and private enterprise, donate money. Is that the way to assure that families and businesses post traumatic natural or terrorism-related episode continue to survive? It appears, based on what I have seen and heard here, that despite our display of compassion, exemplified by our overwhelming generosity, that this may not be the answer. Houses built with Tsunami donations, for example, but which failed to consult the cultural, physical and spiritual needs of the people, lay vacant. Boats built with Tsunami donations lay idle on the shores awaiting beurocratic clearance before they can be used by Thai fisherman. Tsunami money to Sri Lanka remains unutilized because the Sri Lankan administrative offices charged with administering the money, are located in an area of the country which is governed by a para-military entity not recognized by the U.S. or the United Kingdom.
The best answer seems to be exemplified in the request I heard time and again from His Excellency Akel Biltaji, Special Advisor to His Majesty King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordon, His Excellency. Eng. Ziad Al-Bandak, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Palestine National Authority, Ibrahim Yusuf, Ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia, and James Lu, President of the International Hotel and Restaurant Association, to name a few. The way to be a part of sustainable tourism in each of these countries, is for the average tourist to “come back.” This means — to go back to Bali and to Jordan as soon as possible after the recent bombings, to frequent the hotels that were rebuilt after the Tsunami, but that are not yet at full occupancy, to eat the fish caught by local fisherman served in local restaurants and to buy the handicrafts of the indigenous peoples. The way to be part of the movement of “peace through tourism” is to be an ambassador of acceptance, traveling with an open heart and open mind, and demonstrating respect in our words, behavior, and interaction with peoples of all cultures. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,” said Mark Twain. In this era of terrorism, a reality that Mr. Twain probably never contemplated, truer words were never spoken. As a general rule, we do not hate people we understand, and we have no reason to destroy what we do not hate.
As I walked around Khao Lak in Thailand, an area that was almost completely washed off the map by a wall of water, I was also reminded of the words of Francis Ford Coppola, “Time is the lens through which dreams are captured.” As my lens captured the images of hotels, local businesses and homes in ruins, I feel that it was simultaneously capturing the ghosts of the people who walked in and out of these thresholds. But, it also captured the dreams of the Thai people to rebuild their land. It captured the dreams of lasting peace of the Sri Lankan people whose internal armed-conflict screamed to a halt because they lost almost all their weapons and ammunition in the wave. And it captured my dream for all of us in the Western world to revisit this world of smiles, elephants, pristine shores, Buddhist temples, limestone caves, blue skies and peaceful waters.