Troubles with tourism: does it help or hinder a developing nation?

Tourists of all stripes and guidebooks discovered Asia in the 1970s, whether it was the wanderlust traveler to China's Great Wall or the sun-lust idler on Bali's beaches.

Most of the region's developing nations popped over the 1 -million-visitors-a-year mark, creating a boom "industry" welcomed by officials for its easy income and new jobs. But it also generates a certain wariness over the foreign footprints left behind.

In the next decade, what with ascending airline prices and a possible prolonged economic slowdown in developed nations, most of Asia's travel spots will have to compete more aggressively for a less-open tourist wallet.

Western travelers are expected to stick closer to home while Japan's increasingly wealthy tourist flocks, growing at an estimated 15 percent a year, will fly further afield from the already well-marked sky trails to neighboring Asian nations.

Is tourism worth the trouble and investment?

On three scores, Asia's travel trade has come under fire: (1) its actual cash balance and economic uncertainty; (2) it societal side-effects; and (3) its increasing use by the state for political purposes:

* Economics -- "The benefits of tourism on economic development are not as large as assumed -- they're actually quite modest," concludes Robert E. Wood, a University of Massachusetts tourism expert.

The questionable return on tourism, say many economists, should convince developing nations to go slow, avoiding a boost in inflation or diversion of needed investments in agriculture or industrial areas.

The Philippine government's estimated $410 million in fast-paced financing of high-rise air-conditioned hotel enclaves, for example, and its $150 million for a convention center have been attacked as funneling money away from needed agrarian reform.

Just how many tourism dollars end up in local economies is disputed. The new Asian Institute of Tourism in the Philippines calculates that only 20 to 25 percent of that nation's tourist spending goes into the hands of foreign investors such as multinational hotel developers.

But some items are not included in the balance books. The Phillippines spends an average $10 a tourist just for promotion and advertising. Moreover, foreign tourists to some degree spur Filipinos themselves to travel abroad, taking with them foreign exchange. Also, not calculated is the money paid back to foreign travel agents. And what are the foreign exchange losses from tourist purchases of imported gifts, necessities, or hotel items such as American steak or Russian caviar?

The World Bank, after backing tourism projects to help developing nations earn foreign exchange, all but dropped its support several years ago because of this dubious value and because of the self-sustaining commercial viability of the trade. One exception for international aid is Nepal, where lack of development alternatives leaves it little choice but to draw visitors to its once-forbidden mountain kingdom.

Still, the Philippines now says tourism has moved up from sixth to third in foreign-exchange earners last year, partly because a few export commodities went down. And Sri Lanka's fastest growing and biggest industry is the stream of jumbo-jet Europeans besetting its hill resorts and palmfringed beaches.

Such success, however, can quickly drop overnight. Following the 1979 assassination of President Park Chung Hee, for instance, South Korean tourism showed a "considerably slump," a drop which the government attempted to offset by emergency hotel room rate discounts. Vietnamese troops on its borders and almost yearly coups partially account for Thailand's slowdown in tourist increases. And bombings in the Philippines last year, plus a plea to the Japanese Diet to halt the flow of Japanese male groups to Manila fleshpots, prompted a 30 percent dip in travel trade.

* Social -- "Much as it was unsatisfying to our ego and our moral scruples for a rugged, clean-living society, we nevertheless welcome the contribution made by tourism," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said recently.

Other Asians leaders are not always so frank in putting their public noses up at Western tourists, but concern has grown over tourism's display of new consumption patterns and elite import products to the still-poor masses. And last year the Christian Conference of Asia held a 14-nation meeting on tourism's side-effects on morals and culture.

In Bali, perhaps the most delicate and cherished of Asia's popular cultures, the government has purposely tried to confine tourism to the southern peninsula in hopes to preserving the artistic Hindu village life that draws tourists in the first place. After 30 to 50 percent growth per year a decade ago, Bali's influx of visitors has settled down to a 10 to 15 percent rate, mainly because Indonesia insists that international airlines first stop off in Jakarta.

Unlike other Asian nations, Bali's unique culture of almost constant ceremony and display seems to thrive unchanged before its new audience, strengthening traditions and recycling tourist dollars into ever-more colorful Hindu rites. A new governor has launched a campaign to dig out many nearly forgotten Balinese dances.

"It's as if the tourism pushes the people to do what the people were doing anyway -- only better. The people say, "We have to organize better ceremonies, '" says Bali tourism marketing official Tjok Oka Pemayun.

* Political -- Some observers have questioned whether Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos invested heavily in tourism for its political value rather than for its economic value. His quick shift from democracy to martial law in 1972 shocked Western circles, and immediately the "New Society" adopted imagemaking strategies.

"People misunderstand the Philippines. If we can bring people here, then they can take home favorable impressions," says Asian Institute of Tourism's Dean Jose Mamanzon in Manila.

South Korea and Taiwan, also searching for good press, have found tourism useful in creating political linkages. South Korea was particularly astute in promoting the return of ex-soldiers from the US, Japan, and australia to old battlegrounds -- as well as to bolster the government image.

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