Neocolonial Tourism: How We Can All Be More Conscious Travellers

Neocolonial Tourism: How We Can All Be More Conscious Travellers

In our post-colonial world, the influence of the West is deep-rooted across many cities. We consider the impact of foreign gentrification and how to travel in a way that promotes meaningful experiences and supports local communities.

a recent trip to Morocco
with friends, I travelled south from Tangier, through several
cities and expansive desert, before winding up in Marrakech.
En route, we’d built up a good rapport with Mohammed, our desert
guide, so we met up with him again in the Red City.

I asked Mohammed for some local recommendations. Since two of my
friends had already purchased several rugs on the trip, he rightly
assumed that the group’s budget was ample and suggested a visit to
El Fenn riad – it’s owned by Richard Branson’s sister, he added.
Something about this irked me. My friend then said she’d overheard
that the riad where we were staying was owned by a French couple.
On top of that, we were about to eat lunch at a restaurant, owned
by someone who heralds from Belgium and is now based in Marseille.
This didn’t sit well. I’d had a wonderful time seeing
, but it felt that many of the fashionable places that
affluent Europeans visit in Marrakech are owned by “the West”. It
felt like a far cry from the rest of the country.

To me, these establishments felt like an echo of the colonial
era. Still with their hands firmly in decolonised
, the French and other former-colonisers are able to
pick and choose what elements of the country and its culture –
raffia baskets or Berber cushions and rugs – they’d like for
financial gain, profiting from the increased tourism to the

As someone from the UK, a country that has had one of the most
privileged positions in history, I feel a responsibility to
understand the impact of colonisation today. Are we repeating and
creating neocolonial behaviours through travel and our
interactions? How can I visit places without engaging in or
continuing these patterns?

I was new to encountering this problem. While I’ve read widely
around the subject of postcolonialism and try to avoid colonial
behaviours in my own engagement with places, this was my first trip
outside of Europe and the US. This experience of
could be considered just globalisation, a component
of neocolonialism. However, globalisation typically manifests in
encountering a McDonald’s wherever you visit or in the fact that
many of the shops that now fill Spitalfields in London look almost
identical to the shops that fill Soho, New York.

By contrast, what’s happening in Marrakech is foreign
gentrification. Like globalisation, it’s a form of neocolonialism.
This is amplified in Marrakech as the city popular with tourists
taking short breaks. It’s been a fashionable destination for more
than 50 years, making it an easy target for foreign gentrification.
I now recall that my early introductions to the city were
photographs taken during the Rolling Stones’ visit in the 60s and
an episode of Absolutely Fabulous mocking the fashion world’s love
of Marrakech. My preliminary exposure to the place was already
through a specific lens as seen from White Western culture.

Foreign gentrification, by which I mean gentrification by those
not based in or from the destination, is revealed in the fact that
a place such as El Fenn is the most referenced riad and the one
that was recommended to me most during my stay. It’s evident in the
American-, English- and French-owned restaurants, luxury retreats
and lodges that have boomed in line with increased tourism over the
past 20 years, making sure that the West continues to financially
benefit from visits to these places. It’s seen in the beach town of

, where new houses have been built primarily to serve
as Airbnbs in response to the new budget airlines operate direct
flights to the area. Gentrification gets conflated with
globalisation as both phenomena hail largely from the West and tend
to succeed on the premise that the West is the epicentre of global

A neocolonial approach to travel is evident in the journeys made
by many of those from the countries of former colonisers to
decolonised nations. For instance, many holidaymakers from Europe
and the US tend to visit coastal Jamaican towns where many White
upper-class people live, rather than experiencing the energy of
Kingston. Looking back, it explains why, in primary school, my
classmates’ families would visit Sharm El-Sheikh over other
Egyptian towns and cities.

One way to avoid such neocolonial travelling is to simply visit
smaller, less mainstream cities, as opposed to gravitating towards
areas filled with foreign-owned businesses. One of the main reasons
we tend to do the latter is the increasingly frequent direct
flights offered by budget airlines. Beyond their damaging
environmental impact, these easily accessible routes have promoted
overtourism and changed how we engage with certain destinations.
Cities often frequented for short weekend city breaks have become
subject to the problem of foreign gentrification: even in Western
Europe, Lisbon
and Berlin are
prominent examples of this. Fleeting trips can sometimes mean that
travellers invest less time in researching the places they visit,
so they gravitate towards mainstream, Western-owned establishments,
rather than engaging with the local area and its people. I see this
happen with trips to the smaller of the Caribbean
islands, too, as well as in the retreats of Bali
and Sri

In smaller cities, it is easier to tap into the character of a
place and therefore enjoy a more meaningful experience. For
example, the least gentrified places I visited in Morocco had been
described in my previous research as boring, dingy and not worth
more than a day trip. Yet in Ouarzazate, I discovered colourful
circular shapes adorning the steel doors that have stayed in my
mind since. The best blanket I found was not in Marrakech or
Essaouira but in the storage unit of a bed-linen shop in

Before travelling to the
, I’d read a criticism by writer and academic Hisham
Aidi that the city’s Beat moment had been its heyday. Tangier’s
famed writers such as Paul Bowles had never learned Arabic, nor
befriended anyone that wasn’t from the West. They lived there in a
closed-off Interzone. This common portrayal of Tangier having past
its prime meant that I had to work hard to convince my friends to
visit the city, never mind spend New Year’s Eve there, as we went
on to do. Tangier was, in fact, the place where we experienced the
best food, late-night cafés, music, architecture, fabric shops and
hammams. It was one of our favourite places on the trip.

If you do visit a major city on your travels, the way to avoid
funding foreign gentrification is to research the ownership of
establishments where you intend to stay, dine and visit. Question
the language used on their social media. Ask why you are drawn to
the place. Are they adapting to appeal to your “Western” tastes?
Indeed in Marrakech, there is no shortage of locally owned
wonderful places to stay, eat, celebrate, but these often don’t
appear in preliminary internet searches. Opt for activities that
are more likely to pull you away from the more touristy
destinations. Research community-run art collectives and spaces
(such as Le18 in Marrakech) where local artists’ work can reach
larger platforms and recognition.

As COVID-19 exacerbates many existing economic struggles on the
world stage, the present decline in tourism has left many out of
work. The reliance on the travel trade as the main industry for
employment and income in many countries is a direct result and
impact of colonialism. It is crucial that when we travel –
especially White people like myself, from countries such as the UK
– we spend our money supporting places run and owned by local
communities or those who call that place home, and not simply
supporting a Western elite that only invests in furthering its own

Discover More
North London’s Warehouse District: Gentrification’s Last Frontier?