Tribal Tourism: Ethical Or Exploitative?

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There are few countries on earth where you can come face to face with cultural traditions nearly as ancient as culture itself, but Papua New Guinea, home to some 850 different tribes speaking 800 languages, is one of them.

So it's no surprise that this exotic land (the world's second largest island, located just north of Australia) -- and many other destinations including Peru, Kenya and even the Pacific Northwest -- draw a fair amount of tribal tourism despite their far-flung locales.

Unfamiliar with the concept?

"It [tribal tourism] is the opposite of going on a cruise ship -- that's experiencing a cruise ship, not another culture," says Tom Wright, a healer in Asheville, N.C. who experienced tribal tourism during a trip to Peru where he took part in an Ayahuasca cleansing ritual with a local shaman -- an experience he refers to as "life-affirming."

Indeed, tribal tourism is about being exposed to a culture completely different from your own, sometimes even being changed by it -- and often being exposed to all the twitching feather headdresses, jangling seed necklaces and, yes, bare breasts that appear straight from the pages of a National Geographic magazine.

But the concept of being exposed to a culture completely different from your own doesn't apply only to foreigners who are thrust into an indigenous environment.

Tribal Tourism

Terry Ward

And as the concept of tribal tourism becomes more mainstream, it raises the question: Is the practice ethical or exploitative?

Dean Cycon -- an indigenous rights lawyer and founder of Dean's Beans, an organic and fair trade coffee company in Orange, Mass. -- recalls a recent trip to Guatemala that put the spotlight on tribal tourism's detrimental effects. "Near Lake Atitlan, there is a spiritual tradition around Maximon, a pre-Christian deity who still survives," Cycon explains.

Traditionally, Maximon was to come out only once a year, during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, when the mannequin-like figure sporting a Cowboy hat and a cigar dangling from his mouth is paraded around the streets of the lakeside village of Santiago Atitlan. During the rest of the year, the figure resides in the homes of his appointed guardians.

"What's happened in the last 15 years is people have started to come and want to see him, even though he only comes out during ceremonies," says Cycon. "But by paying money to the guardians of the image, which is like a mannequin, they get access to Maximon. And by bringing alcohol to the people watching him, they get more access."

Groups of drunk locals are often seen outside the door of wherever Maximon is, says Cycon. And the tourists bring other things, too. Last year, when Cycon was in Santiago Atitlan, he says that he noticed a Mickey Mouse tie jauntily wrapped around Maximon's neck. He was told that Japanese tourists had brought the tie as an offering.

"In one sense there's some humor in it," says Cycon. "But to many people in the community, [Maximon] has been devalued into more of a spectacle than a true religious or spiritual element." "It's a cheapening of the experience that's occurred around Maximon, and his authority in the community has lessened," Cycon says. "The ties people had to him have lessened, and consequently the ties to the traditional ways and ceremonies."

So is it possible, as a well-intentioned traveler, to experience the richness of an exotic culture without cheapening that culture in the process? Samantha Chen, the creator and director of San Francisco-based Ethical Journeys, an offshoot of Ethical Traveler, says yes. "We define ethical travel as simply being mindful of our impact while we travel and maximizing all the positive impacts and minimizing the negative," she says.

"Travel is such a big industry all over the world that a lot of developing countries use it as a way to generate income," says Chen. "And it's important, when choosing a tour operator, to understand how much of their tour costs benefit the local villagers or tribe," she says. It's also important to have a local guide who speaks the native dialect, she says, "not only as a language translator, but as a cultural translator as well."

While it seems like a basic rule for cultural sensitivity, it's worth repeating since so many tourists get caught up in the excitement of a travel moment and forget: "Always ask before taking a picture of homes, native dress, those kinds of things," says Chen. "These people are welcoming you and showing you their culture; show them some respect."

With tribal tourism to exotic destinations often comes a level of comfort below what you might be used to at home. It's all part of the experience, says Wright, recalling his tribal tourism tour in Peru. "We were staying in the same wooden huts that everyone was living in, with open floorboards and open walls. No running water, no electricity, nothing but a bed," he says. "But why else would I want to go to Peru -- to live like an American? I already know how to do that."

Tribal Tourism

Terry Ward

And attempting to live the same way as the locals do is an inherently ethical way to travel, he says. "For the comfy deals, it often takes more supplies -- cleaning fluids and electricity," he says. "It makes more of an environmental impact." Community involvement is another way that tour operators can make a positive impact on tribal villages.

When Travis Marshall, a freelance writer in Savannah, Ga., recently traveled to Papua New Guinea with Trans Niugini Tours, he was impressed by the infrastructure that had risen around the Karawiri Lodge, a rustic hotel built from native materials in the form of a traditional spirit house that sits along the Sepik River in one of the country's more remote interior regions.

"The hotel was on solar power, there was an onsite water purification system, and there was a clinic there that was the only place for who knows how many miles where villagers (and guests) could be treated in case of emergencies," says Marshall. "It was providing a symbiotic relationship for the people who live around there by treating malaria cases."

In addition to offering packages with stays in its purpose-built hotels, Trans Niugini Tours also offers homestays in villages along the Sepik River, with proceeds benefitting the community directly. Villagers also benefit from the tourist presence by selling traditional crafts and performing sing-sings at the Karawiri Lodge and holding cultural presentations in their villages.

"In these cases most of the village participates, and the money is shared among everyone in the village," says Australian Bob Bates, owner of Trans Niugini Tours. "We do no choreography on this, and the traditional performance that they do is left entirely up to them," he adds. And while it was obvious that some of the cultural traditions -- warrior dances, for example -- that Marshall witnessed in villages along the Sepik River were purposely being enacted for the benefit of tourists (and tourist dollars), Marshall says it was a remarkable travel experience for him and one that felt like a responsible approach, too.

"I think Papua New Guinea does a good job of presenting, in the scope of the world, a very unique cultural resource," he says. "They [villagers and tour operators] have taken what they perceive as the most interesting part of their culture to show."

So impressed was Beth Whitman, founder of female-focused travel blog and tour operator Wanderlust and Lipstick, during her first trip to Papua New Guinea earlier this year that she decided to return next year with her own tour group to witness the 50th anniversary of the Mt. Hagen Festival -- a multi-day cultural event that showcases the songs, dance and colorful costumes of the country's myriad tribes.

Whitman says she's been very selective about who will participate in the tour -- a two-week trip that will cost just under $5,000 per person (including most meals, transport, lodging and tours). Whitman is working homestays into the itinerary wherever possible, as she feels "there's a huge benefit to being that close to the locals." She also wants to give back to local communities, she says, and will hire local guides to act as liaisons for her group.

Whitman plans to offer reading recommendations to participants so they can study up on Papua New Guinea prior to the tour. "I really want them to know what they're getting into in advance," says Whitman. "It's not the safest place to visit." But the rewards of a trip to this country, she says, are immeasurable. "Papua New Guinea far exceeded my expectations," she says. "It was beyond anything I could have imagined."

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