Land grabs and displacement: tourism’s dark side

Pristine beaches, delicious seafood straight from the sea, smiling hotel staff and exotic cultural experiences: this is how many of us imagine a perfect holiday in a tropical country.

Travel agencies offer us a range of ever more remote and previously ‘undiscovered’ destinations. Globally, the highest tourism growth rates are currently reported from the least developed countries and small island developing states.

Governments and international development organisations tend to emphasise the positive impacts of tourism on these developing countries, in terms of job opportunities, preservation of natural and cultural heritage, economic growth and intercultural exchange. Most recently, the World Travel & Tourism Council has even claimed that tourism is a major driver of peace in the world.

Yet there is a darker side of tourism that most holiday-makers are not aware of. The indiscriminate expansion of tourism in the so-called ‘Third World’ has often contributed to widespread dispossession and displacement of indigenous communities and ethnic minorities, environmental pollution, conflicts over the use of natural resources, as well as political instability and socio-economic inequality.

The place where our all-inclusive resort was built may have formerly provided livelihoods for a local fishing community which had been forced to move several kilometres inland. The same resort may divert water resources from adjacent communities to fill its infinity pool and irrigate its golf course.

Many local communities in developing countries do not have formal land titles but claim customary ownership rights over land and natural resources that are often not recognised by state agencies. This insecurity of land tenure opens the door for foreign investors and domestic elites to dispossess indigenous communities and minority groups for the purpose of building touristic infrastructure.

National and local governments often declare these areas as ‘special economic zones’ for tourism development and legitimise land deals with foreign and domestic investors by pointing to a range of benefits for the local economy. Yet tourism-related land grabbing does not only result in communities losing their residential area, but also denies them access to their customary fishing grounds, agricultural land, home gardens, mangrove forests, freshwater sources and burial grounds.

On Efate Island in Vanuatu, for instance, 80 percent of the coastal land is reportedly leased by foreign tourism investors, usually for a period of 75 years. Beneficiaries from these land deals are local chiefs, lawyers and land speculators, while most community members – and women in particular – have lost access to near-shore fishing grounds and food gardens, with only few of them finding employment in the tourism industry.

Tourism-related land grabbing does not only result in communities losing their residential area, but also denies them access to their customary fishing grounds, agricultural land, home gardens, mangrove forests, freshwater sources and burial grounds.

In Bali, land owners are taxed on the basis of the value of their land. Due to the effect of the massive expansion of tourism on land prices on this popular Indonesian island, many farm families are now unable to pay the annual land tax and are forced into distress sales to tourism investors. The rapidly-growing water demand of hotels, pools, spas and golf courses compromises the water supply for Bali’s iconic rice terraces and for local residents. Reportedly, 80 percent of the island’s freshwater resources are now consumed by the tourism sector.

After major disasters, tourism is often prioritised as a driver of the recovery process. Yet these catastrophic events are also used opportunistically by tourism investors to grab land from communities that have been temporarily or permanently relocated after the disaster. This has happened in Thailand following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. The governments of these countries were quick to establish no-building zones along the coast – ostensibly to get local communities out of harm’s way – but later exempted resorts and other tourism infrastructure from the buffer zone regulations.

Following political conflicts, such as civil wars, tourism can become a weapon of the victors to consolidate their power in former rebel strongholds. In Sri Lanka, ranked top country for travel in 2019 by Lonely Planet, the military owns and controls more than 30 tourism facilities across the island country, including hotels, golf courses, whale-watching operations, ferry services, a nature reserve and a domestic airline. Many of the military-owned hotels and resorts have been built in areas where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (better known as ‘Tamil Tigers’) had been defeated and where many local communities had been forcibly displaced.

Similarly, in Bangladesh, the military’s business arm owns the majority of tourism operations in the post-conflict Chittagong Hill Tracts, where resorts have been constructed after displacing hundreds of indigenous families from their customary land. Some of the money that goes into these investments has allegedly been earned from UN peacekeeping missions.

The declaration of wildlife protection areas in Eastern and Southern Africa – such as the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania or the Kruger National Park in South Africa, which receive hundreds of thousands of safari tourists and trophy hunters each year – have also involved the massive eviction of indigenous communities. In India, at least 100,000 people have been displaced from national parks – including tiger reserves that attract a high number of foreign tourists – over the past 50 years.

Various international legal frameworks and guiding principles have been invoked by local and multinational advocacy groups in their attempt to strengthen local resource rights and protect vulnerable communities from tourism-induced land grabs and displacement. Yet their calls for greater accountability of tourism operators with regard to the respect of local land rights have remained largely ignored.

Hence, it is up to the individual travellers who want to spend their vacation as ethically as possible to make informed decisions. For example, they could favour community-based tourism businesses over large-scale, enclave-style hotel and resort complexes. Potential tourists should be particularly conscious of possible land rights infringements and displacement issues in countries that are known for weak land governance and have a history of disrespect for human rights, including land rights of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. Prior to choosing their next travel destinations, travellers should gather information from reliable sources, such as ethical travel websites, about land rights concerns associated with particular holiday destinations or certain tourism operators.

Professor Andreas Neef is giving a public lecture on “Tourism, Land Grabs and Displacement” as part of the University’s Spring Week on Monday 25 November at 1.30pm, in the University of Auckland’s Central Library, Lecture Theatre B10. A registration fee is required.

The research report can be downloaded here.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.

With thanks to our partners