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Stewardship, Hospitality Inform Tourism’s Ethics

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Tourism is a form of travel for pleasure involving transactions between vendors and clients for goods and services. While there was an inn at Bethlehem, and probably also at Sodom, tourism as we know it is a modern phenomenon.

Even in the 16th century, the practice of hospitality was giving way to what we now call tourism. In his commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin speaks of hospitality as an “office of humanity” which, although historically ubiquitous, “is unknown to us, and inns now supply the place of accommodation for strangers.”

And Baptists are directly implicated in the rise of the industry, for it was a Baptist missionary born in Derbyshire in the United Kingdom in 1808, who invented the travel agency by hiring a train and charging one shilling for Baptists to travel from Leicester to Loughborough to attend a temperance meeting – the birth of Thomas Cook Travel.

Tourism is also apparently the largest industry in the world, whether by the numbers of people employed or by the income generated. Tourism bodies have developed excellent resources and structures to maintain high ethical standards.

Regions and sectors of the tourist industry have ethical codes of conduct. The peak body is the World Tourism Organization (WTO), which plays a central role in promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism, with special emphasis on developing countries.

The WTO has a “global code of ethics” highlighting problems and issues deemed significant and enduring. The code has a preamble and 10 articles. The preamble is saturated with ethical, justice-oriented language. Its economic foundations suggest a clash between economically rational practices and the high ethical values it espouses.

The 10 articles of the ethics code are generally well crafted and broad in scope.

Article 1 refers to “promotion of the ethical values common to humanity” and indicates that these include tolerance, respect, understanding and harmony. These values reflect particular political and social cultures and are not universally accepted.

Article 2 affirms gender equality and the individual rights of “the most vulnerable groups.” It also addresses the exploitation of persons, especially sexual exploitation, describing such acts as “the negation of tourism.”

Article 3 deals with the desire to “safeguard the natural environment with a view to … sustainable economic growth” – avoiding a more narrow definition. Environmental conservation seems to be a core value.

Article 4 promotes sensitivity to indigenous cultures and artifacts while claiming that such resources “belong to the common heritage of mankind,” reverting again to universalist language.

Articles 5 and 6 call on industry stakeholders to assist in raising the standard of living of host populations and to promote honesty, clarity, security and safety.

Article 7 asserts the right of all people to tourism as a corollary of the right to rest and leisure asserted by Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The code therefore takes the worker’s right to rest and leisure and applies it to consumers of tourist services.

Similarly, Article 8 asserts the right to freedom of movement, properly a political right, to tourists moving between states.

Article 9, on the rights of tourism industry workers and entrepreneurs, promotes significant support for small enterprises, noting that “multinational enterprises should not exploit the dominant positions they sometimes occupy.”

Article 10 deals with implementation.

Thus the code privileges economic issues with several caveats protecting the natural environment and local cultures.

There is virtually no place given to the rights and obligations of tourism industry workers, including fair pay, just employment conditions and other workplace rights.

What can Christian ethics say to such a document or to such an industry?

If there is one major contribution that Christian ethics can make to the practice of tourism, apart from calling on businesses and regulators to more strictly uphold the human rights of tourism industry employees, it is to invest the industry with elements of the rich Christian tradition of hospitality.

The challenges of applying relevant aspects of Christian hospitality to the tourism industry are significant, not least because of the established culture, complex structures and commercial imperatives that have come to characterize the industry in its global and regional manifestations.

And, of course, the focus of hospitality is what is referred to by the industry as the “client” or “customer,” rather than the vendor or their staff. The proper impetus for Christian hospitality is the love and grace of God who in Christ has welcomed the stranger in us and restored our well-being.

Is it possible, or advisable, to “love” the stranger in a commercial context?

How should one balance the interests of indigenous cultures and environmental sustainability with the rights of tourism workers?

What distinct practices should characterize the professional life of a Christian employee, or employer, in the tourism industry?

And what ethical responsibility does the tourist have, either alone or in solidarity with others, in demanding a higher standard of ethics in areas of the tourist industry where justice and mercy are clearly not evident?

Our deepest Christian values and commitments must be allowed to permeate every aspect of political, economic and social life. Failure to do so is a denial of the call to Christian discipleship.

Rod Benson is ethicist and public theologian at the Tinsley Institute (Morling College), a Baptist college in Sydney, Australia. His column is an extract of his paper presented at the Baptist World Congress in July.