Can tribal cultures and communities benefit from tourism

Tribal cultures
Visiting tribal people and indigenous communities has never been more popular – or easier to do. As these men and women that once only stared out at us from coffee table books, glossy magazines and TV documentaries are now accessible to travellers, Responsible Travel asks if, and how, local communities and tribes can genuinely benefit from tourism.

The appeal of ancient traditions
Many people find ancient ways of life fascinating, and often of great romantic appeal. In today's world of concrete, supermarkets, fashions, celebrity culture, stressful jobs and lack of community spirit, the ideal of people living together close to nature in the same way that they have for centuries is extremely appealing. For many there is nothing like bridging centuries of modern development and making a connection with people whose lives are so very different to our own. And those of us privileged enough to have visited, and listened properly, will have discovered that traditional communities often have far more to teach us about our society and our lives than we can teach them about our world.

Preserving culture – who decides?
Although every community is different, many indigenous cultures are extremely vulnerable to outside influences. It has been argued that tribal people need to be ‘protected’ from tourism in order to preserve their unique cultures, and in many cases this may true. However we must remember that all people have a right to make their own decisions about their involvement in tourism, and which aspects of a globalised world they would like to benefit from.

In many cases healthcare and education are a priority, and tourism can provide one way of earning money to provide for this. Many indigenous groups have been marginalised and derided by other communities and governments as being 'primitive'; for some of these, meeting people with a genuine interest and respect for them is important. However, the journey to meeting tourists, and inviting them into their villages or homes is a complex one, if it is going to be done in an ethical and responsible way.

“Cheryl worked with the Maasai for the next year, teaching them the workings of the tourist industry, record keeping, banking, community development, health and hygiene, crafts development and marketing. The villagers' hunger for knowledge and willingness to learn far outweighed any bitterness about the exploitation of the past.” – Catherine Mack, in an article in The Observer about Maasai led community based tourism in Kenya

The key to success
Tribal cultures
Photo by Catherine Mack )
Whilst it is easy to say that we should leave indigenous communities to make their own decisions about how and when to invite tourists into their communities and lives, it’s vital that they are able to make informed decisions. Truly successful community tourism projects are the result of extensive cooperation between a community and a tourism expert, who knows exactly how to facilitate a form of tourism that is led by and empowers the people living in that community. Community based tourism, or CBT as it is sometimes known as, is a two-way street where tourism both provides local employment and income for education, development and conservation initiatives, while at the same time giving both hosts and guests a unique opportunity for cultural exchange.

It is often with the help of an outside facilitator, that the community becomes aware of the commercial and social value placed on their natural and cultural heritage, and is encouraged to become actively involved in the conservation of these resources. As well as learning the necessary skills to run it as a sustainable business, while understanding the pros and cons of tourism.

You can read more about our top success stories in Ethiopia and Bolivia.

When community based tourism works
“The fact that tourists are spending their money to see natural habitats and experience traditional ways of life shows the community the importance of preserving these assets. This understanding will also help keep mass tourism, which often exploits the locals and brings environmental degradation, from entering their communities.”Andaman Discoveries, one of our community based tour suppliers in Thailand

It is quite easy to understand when community based tourism really works. It is when both host and guest are happy, and this will only happen when the tourist experiences the local culture, habitats and wildlife through a community-run initiative, on the community's terms. The guest also has a memorable time, which he or she feels was worth every penny.

Economic sustainability is also key for the community, of course. Opportunities such as homestays, guiding, and handicrafts have created new jobs for women who previously had no employment, yet utilise their existing skills. Tourism experts, such as our community tourism supplier, Andaman Discoveries, have helped village tourism committees in Thailand increase their capacity to ensure ongoing benefit from tourism – both in terms of marketing and interweaving tourism with community development.

What you can do
Tribal cultures
Photos in middle and on right by Catherine Mack )
Travelling to visit tribal and other traditional communities is fraught with difficulties for even the most responsible traveller – although ensuring you travel with a responsible holiday company should mean that many potential issues, such as the acceptance of the community, appropriate local payment etc. has already been taken care of. The best advice is to be sensitive to local people's reaction to your visit at all times, and be prepared to make changes to your itinerary. The critical issue is that you should be confident that the community that you are visiting has extended an invitation to tourists. If you are in any doubt the best advice is not to visit – there is nothing worse than feeling very unwelcome. Too often tourism and tourists simply intrude with little thought. Here are a few other pointers:

  • Travel with a tour company with a proven track record (ask them for their written responsible tourism policy and references) – and a guide who speaks the same language as the tribe
  • If there isn’t one, hire a guide from the local community to ensure that you benefit from their knowledge of what is, or is not, appropriate.
  • Take time to read up on the people you are about to visit in a good guidebook or online.
  • Remember at all times that you are a guest in somebody else's home.
  • Be very sensitive about taking photographs. Put your camera out of the way until you feel comfortable about asking if it is OK to take photographs. Never take photos without asking, and check with your guide whether any payment or gift is expected in exchange for the photographs. Normally, we would discourage offering any payment – but in some communities, such as those of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, there is an established payment system which tourists must adhere to.
  • Ensure that local people benefit from your visit. Shopping for crafts or paying for the services of local guides or for photographs will benefit local people.
  • Ensuring that the money trickles down through the community to those most in need can be difficult. It is often best to put money directly into the hands of people who have been involved in the visit. Ask your guide about appropriate rates, and be aware that paying too little - or too much - can cause problems.
  • In some cases community funds have been created to support the marginalised and projects such as local schools. Enquire about these before you visit, and you might prefer to make a donation to ensure the economic benefits of your visit are spread throughout the community.
  • Consult your tour leader or holiday company before bringing gifts. It is often better to bring something which will benefit the community rather than individuals, such as items for the local school, for example, or sacks of rice, maize or sugar. Generally, any gifts should be given to the village chief or tribal elders for them to distribute, and where possible buy items in country – that way local traders benefit from your money, too.
Written by Catherine Mack