An Interview with Luc Renaud

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Ian McKay: The Wilson Institute’s Syndemic Series is honoured to welcome Professor Luc Renaud of the Université du Québec à Montréal. Professor Renaud is one of Canada’s most noteworthy scholars of the tourism industry. He has looked intensively at the development of cruise tourism in the Caribbean and worked on the potential and pitfalls of tourism development in Haiti and Cuba (subject of one of his documentaries).  He is also interested in tourism in Quebec’s St. Lawrence valley, where he has been both a scholar and activist on tourism issues.  We’ve been chatting about his fascinating recent research on Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine [Magdalene Islands, Québec]. He has also brought a keen interest in Indigenous/settler politics to his research, which he has explored in Northern Quebec and Palestine. Thank you so much for joining us on Syndemic, Dr. Renaud.

McKay: My first question: Tourism is sometimes listed as the world’s largest industry. And yet I notice that academics like you and I who have become interested in tourism often struggle to convince other colleagues who don’t really see it as a significant topic worthy of analysis. What draws you to the study of tourism, and what would you say to those who dispute its global significance?

Luc Renaud: Obviously tourism is a big thing. It’s everywhere. Its economic importance is huge. And we’re all part of that thing called tourism. So, not seeing that – it’s almost being blind to one of the major social aspects of life. It’s easy to see how studying tourism is also studying the way we live.

I think a lot of scholars have discovered the importance of tourism in the last decade or so. Before people thought that people were working in tourism were doing so just for fun. But that changed in the past few years and people now understand the significance of the phenomenon.

What drew me there? I was shocked, travelling over the past 20 years, especially in the Global South, that even though there’s more and more tourism and more tourists, the situation in those countries did not improve at all. That what triggered my questioning and make me want to understand further that phenomenon. That’s what happened to me. I got hooked by this thing called tourism and since then I’ve worked on it for the past 10-12 years…

McKay: I suppose one could simply point to the scale of the phenomenon—1.5 billion international arrivals [in 2019] and, by one estimate, 55 times more travellers now than there ever were in the mid-twentieth century. So global mass tourism has basically taken off exponentially in our own lifetimes. Myself, I would say to sceptics: well, wake up, and look around you!

Renaud: You have to blind not to see the importance of the phenomenon. And that 1.5 billon – that doesn’t cover domestic tourism…. Tourism is everywhere, and we are part of it. That’s what makes tourism important, not just on an economic, but on a social and cultural, level.

People don’t understand that, if you’re having a coffee at a terrasse on the street, and you see one of those double-decker buses, and the tourists see you having a coffee – you’re part of the play, you’re part of the theatre of tourism, even if you’re in your own town and just having a coffee. You’re still part of that. It reaches into every corner of your life.

McKay: And I wonder if it’s those very words you just used – “play”  and “theatre” – that help sceptics dispute tourism’s importance. They can see all the statistics, but they still see tourism as a kind of trivial pursuit, because of its light-hearted, recreational image. They’re not really seeing the political economy of tourism, with millions of people dependent on it.

Renaud: And the real impact that tourism has on the lives of people and on the environment.

McKay: Broadly speaking, and no doubt overgeneralizing a bit, one discerns in tourism studies a division of opinion  between radicals who are wholly critical of mass tourism as one of the most egregious contributors to global climate change and as an economic field that locks entire countries in inferior positions while leaving its workers in precarious positions, and those who are devoted to developing the industry even further. Do I sense in your work a struggle to develop a critical, third path here?

We have what one might call two poles: at one end, people who are inclined to say, “Just shut it down” (which I would have to say has some of my sympathy) and those who devote their lives to building it up.  You seem to be struggling for a more realistic, grounded, yet radical position on tourism. Am I right in the way I’m characterizing your work?

Renaud:  I like to work in between these radical points of view. For me, the people who want to develop more and more tourism are as radical, in their way, as the people who want to eradicate it, which is not possible. I have a good friend, Rodolphe Cristin, who is a French sociologist, and he wrote a book called Manuel de l’antitourisme[1]– the Anti-Tourism Handbook in English – and he’s really, really radical. I’ve had a lot of conversations with him. And I say to Rodolphe: It’s a very difficult stance to maintain, because, as I said, tourism is everywhere, and tourism will always be there. So, even though I tend to be more on the critical side of it, I also know that we won’t eradicate tourism, we won’t stop mobility – it’s here to stay…

And it’s not just about international tourism, but also domestic tourism. They just built a Club Med in Québec, near Charlevoix… and it’s aimed at domestic tourism. So, that’s mass tourism, but in a domestic context.

My stance is that, since it’s going to be there, let’s accept the fact that tourism will be part of our life, and see what we can do about it and cope with it. And try to change things, knowing it won’t disappear.

So, yes, I am in between – but I am very critical. I want to lift up all the rocks and see what is under them….

McKay: In your recent piece in Tourism Geographies, which I really enjoyed, you write: “Destinations must use the industry’s dependence on global mobility as leverage to transform the balance of power in their favour and promote local mobility. They must embrace radical solutions to take control of their territory to favour a transition from ‘Growth for development’ to ‘Degrowth for liveability.’”[2]  You seem to be really attuned to these degrowth philosophies.

…We seem to be seeing many people in these places, looking at overtourism and, like you, saying, “Well, tourists are probably always going to come to places like Venice or Amsterdam or Dubrovnik – what can we do about it?” Do you see a degrowth philosophy taking off in your field?

Renaud: … Even in places like the Magdalen Islands, on a smaller scale, they have a problem with over-tourism – or, let’s say, “high-intensity tourism.” Some destinations, no matter what they do, they will want to be visited by people.

That’s a trigger to say… for this destination, let’s do our stuff, let’s arrange things so our people are OK with the living space they’re in, and no matter what we do, people will still want to visit us. Put the priorities of the locals in front….

McKay: In some ways, you’re pointing out that destinations can have more power than they imagined they had,  that destinations have a lot more power than they thought they did, because the big companies are dependent on them as places people want to go. That gives them a bit of leverage in this huge industry.

Renaud: For me it’s obvious, but when you talk to local stakeholders, they often don’t see it.

McKay: We almost have to say: “You’ve got power in this situation. Use it!”

Renaud: That’s true. That’s what we have to do.  That’s the narrative we try to promote.

McKay: As someone who shares your critique of tourism, I would have said, well before 2020, it’s just ‘science fiction,’ a crazy fantasy, that global mass tourism could ever be shut down. There’s just too many moving parts in this vast world industry – it just can’t be shut down. Millions upon millions of people depend upon it.

Then comes the pandemic and the unimaginable happened. For all intents and purposes, vast swaths of this industry were shut down. For tourism scholars Stefanie Benjamin, Alan Dillette and Derek H. Alderman, here was a moment of opportunity. “Now is the time for academics, practitioners, travellers, and humans to take a pause, reflect, unite, then reset the tourism industry,” they write.[3]

Part of me is warmly sympathetic to what they want to do. And part of me is unwillingly sceptical. This tourism megamachine looks to me like it’s just waiting to gear right back up again. Look at all the ads from companies saying: “Come back to our destination! We’ve love to see you! We’ll race to the bottom to give you whatever you’re after…” 

Do you think that those who dreamt of a different tourism order in 2020-21 were idealistic and mistaken? Is the likeliest outcome simply a return to the status quo – or maybe even a  more intense, more destructive version of it, given how so many people are yearning to return to travel? “I’ve been shut up for two years, and I just want to travel, travel, travel…”

So, regretfully, I can see a stronger prediction being: “The problems that you’ve identified are going to worsen in the 2020s, not improve” – despite the “break” from mass tourism that 2020-2 provided and some scholars welcomed.

Renaud: …It’s not far from the truth. The reason why the statistics for tourism are not the same as 2019 right now, and they won’t be the same as 2019 in 2023, is because the industry is not prepared for the same amount of tourism. They want it, and the tourists are there, but they have to re-start the machine. But eventually, it will go there…

…Even people who are very sensitive to these issues, they still want to travel. Imagine if somebody wants to change the world and still wants to go back to pre-pandemic mobility… “Revenge tourism” is a term some people are applying.

…Things will change. A lot of things will change for sure. I think the numbers will probably be the same as before, or even bigger.

But will we do it the same way? That’s the real question. We can’t stop the flow, but maybe we can change the path of where the flow is going. That’s something we should build on –instead of thinking that fewer people will travel.

Maybe some structural events like wars or fuel price hikes or inflation – there are things that are going to change society as a whole, and tourism also. But if we go back to an economy of growth, we see more political stability, people are going to travel. I’m not the kind of person who thinks people will stay home for reasons [of principle].

McKay: Yet you still hold out hope that – quoting from your article – “it becomes possible to envision a world where the quality of living spaces takes precedence over the production of tourism spaces” – and I love that formulation… –  “and all this in a context characterized by a push to go local, deglobalize trade and promote the sustainable development of tourist territories.”[4]

So, going against our pessimistic sense that the tourism megamachine is just going to start up once again, and maybe even get bigger – haven’t we also learned some really big, basic lessons from the pandemic? This is a quite dangerous machine…. Basically, it spreads illnesses, and with remarkable efficiency. A variant that emerges in South Africa will take just weeks to influence the rest of the world. It’s largely mass travel that is creating that possibility. Covid-19 has been a pandemic brought to you, to a very large extent, by mass tourism.

I wonder if you don’t think that we’ve had such gripping, graphic lessons in the dangers of mass tourism that some of that is going to create a new paradigm eventually, following your degrowth, localist philosophy.

Renaud: …People have seen a different kind of tourism in the past few years, which is more local, which is less dependent on mobility. That’s what we’re seeing…

But, a change of paradigm? I’m not certain. For sure, what we’re hearing right now when we’re talking with people is that they really don’t want to go back to the pre-pandemic situation.

The demand is still strong, the people are still there. How a destination will be able to manage that demand and be able to welcome those people, and do it in the way they want to do it – that’s back to the power of the destination.

People want to travel. We can’t change anything about that. But what we, or a whole community. can do, is to put their approach to tourism on a new footing.

Going in that direction would be interesting. That’s what we’re talking about, in the [St. Lawrence] communities I’m working with right now.

McKay: In the pandemic context, it almost raises that classic question about freedom – the freedom to travel. The protestors in the recent ‘freedom convoys’ in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto – they were, in a sense, also tourists, using their freedom of mobility to make a big political point about liberty.  From their point of view, any restriction on their right to travel would be seen as an infringement on the individual’s right to do with their property what they want to do. If you want to climb Everest with hundreds of other tourists, that’s your business. From that neoliberal perspective, any infringement on tourism would be an infringement on freedom.

But from a degrowth perspective, or one focused on preserving public health, I think that you have to regulate it – somehow – or else the megamachine will overwhelm local communities and imperil humanity once again.

Renaud: …In the Magdalen Islands, the municipality just voted for a new regulation whereby you cannot buy a secondary house and not live in it but rent it to tourists. So, that puts a halt to one of the big problems…

We can change the parameters of how we will invite people to our destinations and the context of their activities….

McKay: In a lot of places, it’s AirBnB that is the target of a lot of critique. In places like Venice and Amsterdam and Lisbon, it’s the “Air BnBization” of downtown cores that has driven property prices out of reach and locals out of town.

Renaud: At the end of the day, tourists need a place to stay. What I’m seeing right now, in Québec, in Paris,  in Barcelona, in other places in the world, is that they have managed to exert some form of political control over the extension of that form of rental. But, as regulation becomes stronger in urban environments, you see AirBnB going to small little villages. It is overwhelming small communities right now So, these small communities will also have to react to that in the near future.

…AirBnB is one part of the problem. Airlines are also one part of the problem…. If there’s no political action on the local level, well, there’s not much that will stop them….

McKay: It’s a bit amazing to me that these sorts of problems are hitting the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, which I always thought of as rustic islands removed from modernity. But – I guess nowhere is truly an island away from modernity any more.

Renauld: The only thing that stops tourists going to the Islands is winter, it’s not a winter destination. Other than that…

We noticed that there is a kind of tourist ‘imaginary’ of the beach, of the tropics….The Magdalen Islands…is an amazing place, tens of kilometres of beaches, it’s beautiful. We’ve seen [with respect to tourism], in the pandemic, that the resilience of the cities during the pandemic was very low. Montreal is an international destination.

But if you looked outside the big cities, in Gaspésie or the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, it was mainly local people going there…. With the pandemic, not being able to travel to New Brunswick or to east coast of the United States, Quebeckers went in a massive way to those [other local] destinations, with their ‘imaginary’ of the beach – sun, sand, and sea. So, the islands are more popular than ever right now. It’s a huge problem for the locals over there.

McKay: Turning specifically to your speciality, the cruise ship industry, it seemed to some of us that, at the very least, this sector would have to be permanently changed by the pandemic, given how prominently such ships as the Diamond Princess and the horrific conditions suffered by crew members figured in the news. It offered such gripping illustrations of the dangers of this form of tourism…Workers committing suicide, or left to rot in ports for months, with nobody caring about them at all. Seniors dying in droves. The dangers of this socio-economic form seem so glaring that they have to be fixed.

Yet, once again, after its pandemic pause, this sector is poised to start anew. You suggest what might be thought a “reformist” program for cruise tourism – smaller ships, less environmental destruction, more power for the destinations the ships visit. Do you think the pandemic changed this sector? Will it mean significant changes for its labour practices or its environmental footprint, given this one of the most environmentally destructive aspects of global tourism? Is at least some of that going to change in the global cruising industry?

Renaud: Like anything else, the pandemic has shown the flaws of many of the aspects of our society. We saw it with the healthcare system, we saw it with the education system. And tourism is also a part of that. It’s true that cruise tourism is not a really good tool for the development of community.

But we also have to understand also that cruise tourism industry is really quite marginal as a tourism activity.  We talk about it a lot in the media – we talk about it all the time. But, if you look at the numbers, especially for ports of call, the economic impact of cruise tourism is very small. (I make an exception here for Caribbean cruise tourism, which is another case.)

What we’ve seen with this pandemic is that, for almost two years, there was no cruise tourism. But overstay tourism persisted. We had a tourism season in 2020 and 2021, while the cruise industry was shut down. So, a lot of the destinations that had both stay-over tourism and cruise tourism learned to live without cruise tourism. They came to understand that they can live without it.

Will we be able to shut down cruise tourism? I don’t think so. Can we control cruise tourism? I think so. And that’s the thing about power for local communities.

Cruise tourism is more mobility-dependent than any other kind of tourism. Cruise companies have to invest their capital somewhere. They invested it in their boats – bigger, bigger and bigger ships­ – but also in space, in their destinations.

For a time, they tried the “cruise to nowhere” theme – where you take a ship and just go on the water and return to their port of departure. But that didn’t do it for the customers. So they need destinations, they need places to go. And, like I said earlier, destinations [are coming to] understand that the cruise ships are more dependent on them than the opposite…

I had this conversation with the mayor of Dubrovnik a few years ago. They made a big statement against cruise tourism (or rather, in favour of changing the way cruise ships will come to their city). People told them, “Well, be careful what you do with cruise tourism –they’re going to be angry and they’re going to boycott you.” And she said: “No, they’re not going to boycott Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is a beautiful city and they will come. They will come and they’ll do what we tell them.” That’s what happened. You can see the same thing happening in Venice right now.

…In Quebec, we have special destinations. …We have the Rocher Percé [Percé Rock]

in Gaspésie, we have Quebec City – those are unique destinations in the world, and people want to come and see them. I’m hammering this point home all the time with local stakeholders… Establish your regulations, explain to tourists what they can and cannot do when they visit us. And they will comply, at the end of the day.

McKay: To your point about cruise tourism being a small part of the sector,  it is an industry with 30 million passengers in 2019, with revenues of $27b USD. But you’re right – it became the poster industry for all the ills of mass tourism.

Do you think, then, that applying your philosophy to the mass cruise tourism industry,  there is a way we could follow your prescription – which is, smaller ships, more power to the destinations, more power to local people? Wouldn’t you have to abolish these megacities on the seas? Say to the three great corporations that control 80% of  this industry, Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian, “We’re sorry, you can’t do that anymore. It’s too environmentally destructive. But – if you want to develop an alternative, you can partner with local communities and maybe develop these small cruise ships, carrying 30 to 50 people maybe …  in quest of knowledge about the world. ”  You’d really be trying to turn tourism away from a neoliberal industry into something much more socially conscious and culturally valuable. Is that doable?

Renaud: There’s a city here on the St. Lawrence, Trois Rivières. So, they just announced last week, or two weeks ago, that they’re cutting off international mass cruise tourism. They made the decision to stop being in a relation with that activity. Their argument was that, on the global scale for them, the economic impacts were quite small compared with over-stay tourism.

[The industry accounts for] 30 million passengers, but most of them are concentrated in the Caribbean islands. More than half of Caribbean destinations receive more cruise tourists than overnight tourists. For them, shutting down cruise tourism is a catastrophe….

[Trois Rivières]  decided to do it, and probably other ports of call will, if not quit international mass tourism altogether, go towards smaller ships. This would allow a better interaction between local communities and cruising companies. It’s possible to do it, because, like I said earlier, they need us more than we need them. It’s very simple. Not that simple to put into action, but still – when I look at the figures, when I look at every aspect of cruise tourism, it’s obvious that they’re more dependent on us (meaning, local communities, destinations) than we are dependent on them….

One of the big arguments of the cruise companies is that: ‘We’re going to visit you, and it’s like free publicity for you, and people will see in one day how amazing your destination is, and will come back for more tourism in future years.” There’s nothing in the scientific literature that confirms that. From what I understand, cruise tourism brings more negative impacts than positive impacts.

If you talk to the cruise tourism companies, they will say the opposite of what I’m saying. But the problem with the cruise companies is that they have zero transparency with their numbers. So, any time you hear something about cruise companies, the problem is that you cannot double-check their facts. They will not allow you to see their numbers. So, there’s no way we can trust those companies. Unfortunately. It would be nice to work with them and have this dialogue with them and try to make things better with them. They won’t allow scholars like me to look at their numbers.

McKay: You did get into one confidential report for Carnival, didn’t you? They commissioned a report during the pandemic. That was really interesting, in terms of what they thought was going to happen. And, in essence, they seemed to be fairly bullish about their chances of recovery. As you point out, they also have very deep pockets. They could almost sustain something like the pandemic, in the hopes that this was just a bump on the road, and we can get back to normal. All in all, the Carnival Report was fairly optimistic, as I recall.

Renaud: It was a very early pandemic report…. If you go on the web-sites of cruise tourism companies now, they offer big promotions to bring back people.

But the confidence in the industry has taken a blow, because of the unsanitary aspects of cruising. So, we shall see. But, it’s true that that paper I managed to find offers a rare insight into the cruise tourism companies. That makes it very difficult to study that industry. When people don’t want to talk to me, or other scholars, that means something.

It’s still talking when you don’t want to talk. The fact that they lack transparency, for me,  shows there’s something going on there.

McKay: I think the pandemic, in a way, lifted the curtain on the cruise industry. I didn’t realized how appalling so many of its labour conditions are. This moment of luxury you’re buying on a cruise is often coming at the expense of somebody who is being asked to work in sweatshop conditions, to be split from their families, to spend months if not years of isolation at sea, and for pretty bad wages.

Renaud: Tourism in the Global South is about that,  also. When you go to Cuba or the Dominican Republic, it’s the same thing. But we don’t see that way when we’re there.

But on a boat, it’s more obvious. We’re close to the back-stage. We can see more easily how those people work. And on a boat, if ever you do go on a cruise one time in your life, even just to see what it is like, it’s very interesting to see how, on those ships that have very bad conditions, you don’t see [the workers] during the day. But if you stay up late at night, you will see them come out of their special quarters and try to fix something and do some cleaning and then afterwards in the morning they go back to working inside the boat where you can’t see them. It’s true.

It’s the same kind of conditions as you find in merchant shipping just here in front of Quebec City. It’s either the Third World floating in front of you, or you are floating with the Third World when you visit a cruise ship. For me, it’s very difficult to accept.

McKay: You have done a lot of work on the Global South­ – Cuba, Haiti, Palestine. Do you have any insights to offer as to whether tourism can offer regimes in the Global South a viable opportunity to address the injuries of colonialism?

In the Cuban case, you have a revolutionary regime that quite consciously tried to use tourism as a way to survive, under the blockade, with some success. They really have managed to struggle in a situation that many people thought would entail regime collapse. Yet, whenever I go to Cuba, I’m struck by the gap between the people who work in the tourism sector and those outside it. Those who don’t work in the tourism sector rather resent those who do, because the latter enjoy a higher standard of living,

Just walking around Havana, it doesn’t look to me like a city that has prospered that much from global tourism. It’s clearly a destination [in your sense], a remarkable city. You can’t replace Havana. There are things in Havana you’ll never see anywhere else. It’s unique. Still, I’d be hard-pressed to say it’s prosperous. If you walk through the downtown core, you’ll see scenes that make you think, “This is a remarkably class-divided city.”

Where would you align yourself on this question?  Is tourism a possible solution for countries in the Global South? Or does it just entrap them, more and more, in relations of dependence on the Global North?

Renaud: In Cuba… that’s what I’ve tried to show in my documentary Playa colonial (2012).[5] There are two societies in Cuba. Of course, it’s very political because the tourism department is run by the defence department. So, it’s very tricky when it comes to trying to understand the situation and compare it to other destinations in the Caribbean.

Still, it’s true. In Haiti, it’s very different, because the country is [fragmented], so there’s not really a government there. The development of tourism there is very unlikely in the near future. And if we talk about Palestine, same thing there….As I’ve shown in a documentary I’ve made about it [Achever les vacances (2014)],[6] from one day to another, tourism could collapse, depending on the geopolitical situation….

…Tourism is not an object outside society. It’s within society. And it only reflects what’s going on at the political level, the social level. So, tourism will go as far as society will go, with respect to addressing the injuries of colonialism. Tourism will not fix anything unless the rest of society wants it fixed.

I see mass tourism as something that will create even more problems in the Global South. Right now, there’s no example of tourism becoming a lever of change in society. It’s just worsening things, at the end of the day.

McKay: As a scholar you cite puts it, tourism is “not a charitable enterprise serving regional development.” It’s basically a business. You’ve got to enter it with your eyes open. Unless you have a very distinctive product, you’re entering into a global business, and your destination might not have any comparative advantage over others. In the Caribbean, from a dismissive North American perspective, sun, sea, sand, are to be found on many islands. One island can replace another…. If a country like Haiti makes demands, or Cuba bargains hard, the industry can just go somewhere else.

I suppose Cuba is a bit different in that there is still a lot of state presence left in the tourism sector…Is that kind of an alternative model, in which at least they siphoned some of the proceeds from tourism and invested them in social programs? Or is that model flawed as well?

Renaud: They’re stuck in this situation of conflict with the United States….There’s an elite in Cuba that makes a lot of money out of tourism. If you go to certain neighbourhoods of Havana, you might imagine yourself to be in Miami, with the boutiques, the shops…You can spend a lot of money in Havana…. There’s this small group of people who make a lot of money. Corruption is there….State-run tourism? I’m not sure it’s efficient or good for the people. You’ve seen Havana and the poverty there.

McKay: Yes.  You can walk down streets in Havana and be powerfully reminded of Karl Marx, but not in the way the regime would likely welcome….You’re walking down incredibly poor streets, with houses crumbling into nothing and trees growing out of old balconies – this must be one of the harshest urban environments imaginable. It’s so impoverished. And then,  right around the corner, you have shops selling you crystal for thousands and thousands of dollars, and expensive wines and so on. Not a full block away: right around the corner. If you wanted a stark exposition of Marx’s research on class divisions in society, you could do worse than go to Havana,  run by a regime purportedly upholding a Marxist vision. You’ll rarely see class lines quite so graphic as the ones a visitor encounters n Havana…

…Yet you can see how, when it comes to arguments of tourism-developers, whether in Trois Rivières or Cuba, or in some many Rust-belt  communities that have lost their industries: “At least you can have something.”

I’ve spent some time in West Virginia and Appalachia, where communities with worked-out coal mines have turned to tourism – some have become all-terrain vehicle trails meccas, for instance. So, in a setting suffering from opioid addictions and all the other consequences of neoliberalism, well, I can imagine the argument for tourism being: “at  least, you’ve got something you can turn to.” Isn’t that the big argument against critics of tourism: “You people can dream about a post-tourism world: but we’ve got to live.” It’s the industry of last resort.

Renaud: It’s the same narrative they have when they want to open a mine or chop down forests: “It’s the only option you have, so let’s do it.” The difference with tourism…is that is that it’s just not a remote mining project you can’t readily see. With tourism, we’re going there, we’re part of it. With tourism, the same kind of neoliberal project, as citizens and as tourists, we are there and we can see with our own eyes (if you want to look – if you’re not in denial) that things are not going well for them. It might be more difficult to understand the actions of Canadian mining companies going to Bolivia or wherever, because we’re not there to see it…

But as tourists, we are literally in the middle and participating in the despoliation of a living space. And we’re still doing that. It’s happening. That’s what’s difficult to accept.

McKay: Do you think Indigenous people are realistic in hoping to use tourism to deliver a cultural message to the rest of Canada and Quebec as well as developing revenues for their communities? I think some are hoping to use tourism as a way to develop a counter-colonialist narrative and, somehow, complicate our understandings of the country we’re living in. Do you see potential there?

Renaud: On an economic level, I think it’s the same as anywhere else in the world. You cannot rely just on tourism for development. That has been shown everywhere, in every kind of context. Even with Indigenous communities in Latin America, even in Canada in the recent past.

Of course, if the tourism industry in Indigenous communities is run by Indigenous people, there can be a positive aspect of it. But the keyword for Indigenous tourism is ‘reconciliation.’ That’s where I see something very strong going on – where people in the local community can take control of the narrative, invite people to their communities, and explain to them how things are going. Even do some anti-colonial education. There I see something very strong.

… Tourism can be a really good tool of reconciliation – as long as everything is controlled by [Indigenous people]. They do what they want to do….

McKay: So this is perhaps one case in which tourism could play a positive cultural role, provided, as you keep insisting, that it’s under local community control. Doesn’t this mean we have to prevent transnational corporations from being involved in it?

Renaud: Yes… There’s a Club Med in Petite-Rivière-Saint-François. It’s a very small community. Some native communities are the same size. You would never see a multinational company like Club Med going to some Indigenous community. No native community would accept that. It happened in a non-native community. For me, it shows that we’re lacking some empowerment here against those big companies on a local level.

The political structures there are different than in Indigenous communities. They can develop some level of sovereignty on their own land that will prevent those kinds of things happening in 2022.

To me, it’s very, very shocking to see a mass-tourism, all-inclusive hotel being built in such a small community near Charlevoix…It’s not going in the right direction.

McKay: Right. Economically, a vast percentage of the profits from that kind of operation leak right back out of the local community to corporate headquarters. So, what has it really accomplished?

Renaud: And the kinds of jobs they provide at Club Med – they’re not the kinds of jobs that will help you to raise your family. You’re not well-paid. Companies have to comply with the Canadian rules, … but still, when you pay minimum wage and you can fire people whenever you want – well, we’re working on these problems,  trying to see what are the consequences of that…

McKay: A lot of us who think about tourism encounter what one could call the “closing argument problem.” That is, the scholar enumerates the many socio-economic ills associated with tourism, documents its strange cultural effects, and evaluates its major contribution to humanity’s global environmental crisis. Yet, when we come to the closing argument, that scholar often vaguely refers to a “we” that is going to confront these issues, force changes, transform the industry. The problem is that “we” is never defined – or, putting it more strongly, likely does not exist. We have this vast megamachine of global tourism. What “we” is going to say: “OK, This has to stop? You have to do things differently, you have to respect the environment.”

Can the world’s largest industry ever be transformed, if one cannot discern any agents with an interest in, and a program for, doing so?

Renaud: …We won’t change tourism unless we change society. It’s not just about changing tourism. Tourism is just a reflection of society…

How can we fight mass tourism, all-inclusive tourism, if people at the workplace are still given just two or three weeks of vacation a year? I understand that people have two weeks in the summertime, or maybe one week in the winter, and they want to have a vacation…it’s simple, efficient, and cheap. And if we don’t transform that situation… it will be difficult to fight mass tourism.

We’ve seen changes right now with teleworking – working from home. Those kinds of structural change may have – will have – an effect on tourism and local communities. If the structure of society transforms itself, it will have an effect on tourism… I haven’t said the word since we began talking, but we live in a capitalist economy…. Tourism is just a reflection of that.

If we have leverage to change the social order, we have leverage to change tourism….They’re linked together. That’s why it’s important to understand – to go back to your first question –that tourism offers us an opening onto society. If you understand tourism, you can grasp a lot of what is happening out there….

McKay: So without a social transformation, we’re likely stuck with mass tourism, until the social order changes, fundamentally?

Renaud: Yes. And what are small communities doing right now? They’re trying to be less dependent on imported food, other things. They realize: “Yes, we can work on a global scale, but we need to have more resilience on the local level.” Whether it’s food or manufactured goods, whatever, small communities need to stick together and try to make the change from below, from the bottom to the top. And I think tourism works the same way.  

If people want to visit you, you have the big end of the stick. And you can make things happen.

McKay: Thank you, Professor Renaud, for this enlightening session. 

Luc Renaud talked with Syndemic on 12 May 2022.

[1]Rodolphe Christin, Manuel de l’antitourisme (Montréal: Ecosociété, 2017): Link to source.

[2] Luc Renauld, “Reconsidering global mobility – distancing from mass cruise tourism in the aftermath of COVID-19,” Tourism Geographies 22, 3 (2020), 679-689, Link to source.

[3] Stefanie Benjamin, Alan Dillette and Derek H. Alderman, “‘We can’t return to normal’: committing to tourism equity in the post-pandemic age,” Tourism Geographies 22, 3 (2020); Link to source.

[4] Renauld, “Reconsidering global mobility.”

[5] Link to source.

[6] Link to source.