“Circular Migration” and tourism

The World Bank, and its regional affiliates, are actively advocating concepts like ‘circular migration’. It means that rich Western economies should open up their labour markets to low-skilled migrants, who will gain seasonal employment and then return home, creating new jobs at home and fostering cultural tolerance in the West.
The logic is good, and the intentions sound but the problem remains. According to Roderick Parkes, a Senior Analyst at the EU International Security Studies, this kind of migration is a product of, and not a response to, the underlying disparities in the global economy. It is no surprise, then, that the new schemes have tended to draw even well-qualified migrants from poor countries into low-skilled work in the West. Moreover, the money these workers remit fuels short-term household consumption rather than public works or new jobs. Rich receiving states also risk seeing their labour rights undercut, although this has not occurred to date.
‘Circular migration’is not the only reversal in development policy practice. Western tourism itself is now being promoted as a vector of global development. Tourism can indeed help spread prosperity, and is second only to the oil industry when it comes to job creation and access to foreign revenues. But its critics argue that this concept involves embracing continued global economic divergence and trying to harness the entrenched spending power of Western vacationers rather than aiming for economic convergence and trying to turn poor workers into tourists.
Just as with circular migration, then, the promotion of tourism has not always lived up to its promise. When Mexico built tourist resorts in its Baja California Peninsula and south, it diligently adhered to international best practices and created ‘integrated communities’where tourists and locals would live side by side. But this ended up displacing the very people it meant to enrich.
Developing economies have even used tourism as a means to block broader political and economic liberalisation. When Egypt built up its tourism sector from a niche industry of USD 300 million in the 1980s to a massive USD 6.4 billion segment of the economy 20 years later, it was motivated by a fear of reforming its established industries and unleashing instability. This approach only invited social discontent and terrorism. A series of attacks in 1992 achieved a massive 43% decline in Egypt’s tourist receipts.
Western tourists have acted as a provocation to locals everywhere from the Gambia to Thailand. With their paid leisure and vacation days, tourists sit at the very top of the development ladder. In countries such as Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Turkey and Tunisia they have been targeted by terrorists highlighting cultural and economic disparities, seeking to gain international media attention and thereby curtail their governments’ability to censor the news, or simply trying to ‘punish’foreign governments for their actions abroad.
Even in leading emerging economies, underemployment is now becoming a cause of instability and resentment. These now accuse the West of using globalisation to create a “global division of labour”. According to this narrative, Western firms keep skilled jobs in the West, and transfer their managers out to affiliates in the developing world; they outsource manufacturing abroad, but carefully hive off their technological know-how; and they use liberal Open Skies deals which are brutally competitive international airline agreements, to keep their nationals circulating and migrants from poor uncompetitive economies at bay.
Reality, of course, is more nuanced. Professor Thomas Wade from Oxford University noted that if the 20th century was characterised by strong economic divergence, with just 10% of countries moving up into the high Western income bracket, the first decade of the 21st century decisively closed the gap. Yet, it is true that most leading emerging economies do owe their recent catch-up to sheer size, rather than to innovative services or tech sectors. Now they are either throwing state aid behind their own multinational firms in a bid to take control of globalisation, or are simply sewing instability to erode the West’s advantages.
In this context, even something as seemingly apolitical as tourism is getting caught up in the reordering of the global economy. Tourists are viewed as a privileged international class of acquisitive investors. According to Professor Thomas Wade, fast growing economies like China will invest massively in providing tourist opportunities for their workers. And, while it would be wrong to see an event like the Flydubai crash as evidence of Russia somehow creating instability through its cavalier attitude towards air safety, it is the case that Moscow has tried to punish geo- political rivals in the Middle East by restricting tourist flows.
This is about geo-economics. For decades tourism remained a largely Western privilege, and poor economies complain that this is evidence of the way the West rolled out a global system which continues to perpetuate its historic advantages. Tourism relies on employers being able to save a few days labour and to guarantee their employees safe passage to their destination. But only employers which control the world’s ‘means of production’in which the cutting-edge technologies foster productivity, and ‘means of connection’ and these sit almost exclusively in the West.
Terrorists may be caught up in the effort to rewire the global economy, too. They are the perennial opponents of Western-style developmentalism, and it is logical to assume that they will receive tacit support from spoiler states or be crushed by emerging economies seeking to emulate the West’s successes. And while it would be wrong to believe that states would base such activities on a narrow economic rationale, some powers may be tempted to believe that they are using terrorists to roll back a whole system of Western cultural and political dominance.
As for migrants, they are not ‘all tourists and terrorists’. But the three categories are not neatly separated either. Migrants may previously have been connected to radical groups offering status and employment. And they may be gravitating towards the tourist lifestyle, not least by developing their own means of connection using smuggler services to cross borders, and seizing the means of production by gatecrashing Western labour markets. Their status, in transition between two extremes, may in turn make them attractive to powers seeking to reorder the global economy.
Simply put, Western governments and firms have embraced a certain model of economic development, which they have steadily rolled out from their own industrialising societies to the rest of the world. Until now, the pattern has been one of dissent followed by progress. But it is becoming contested, and by-products such as terrorism, migration and tourism are emerging with it. Recognising the links between these phenomena should provide a sound basis for a response to an increasingly hostile environment.

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