International Travel, Reflections

Does Cultural Tourism Help or Hurt Ethnic Minorities?

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Growing up, I don’t think I had a conscious awareness of race until we moved to Florida, where the ugly legacy of slavery and Jim Crow made race something that was much more obvious. But while race wasn’t on my mind, I had always been fascinated with ethnicity. Not race or nationality, but ethnicity. China’s 56 ethnic groups had long fascinated me, and so after my time in the Guangxi autonomous region, I found myself in the neighboring province of Guizhou. Mountainous and undeveloped, Guizhou is one of China’s poorest provinces. Demographically, however, it is rich in diversity. While there, I visited with the Basha Miao, the Dong, and the Longhorn Miao groups, and over the next three weeks, I’ll be sharing stories from these trips. During these visits, however, I thought more and more about the impact of globalization and cultural tourism on both sustaining and destroying ethnic customs and traditions.

Cultural tourism is broadly defined as tourism that engages the culture, lifestyle, art, architecture, religion, and such of a certain place, and can include activities such as homestays and visits to a place of worship. My interest has long been the tradition that define the people who live in these places, be it their language, clothing, mythology, marriage traditions, or otherwise.

The wonderful thing about cultural tourism is that it exposes so many people to other traditions and ways of living. While not everyone may experience this exposure with an open mind, it is generally net positive for cross-cultural understanding. For ethnic groups whose traditions may have faded with the rise of globalization, cultural tourism often allows an outlet for them to revive their traditions, even if only in performances. And of course, cultural tourism can be a fruitful source of income as well for the ethnic groups, many of whom live in more rural areas without as many economic opportunities.

Basha Miao gun show
Historically a gun-toting people, the Basha Miao are the last ethnic group to be legally allowed by the Chinese government to keep their firearms. But as urbanization has occurred around their lands, the locals tell me their guns are now just for show, whether at traditional ceremonies or in performances for tourists.

For many ethnic minorities, cultural tourists are also audiences for them to show off their ethnic pride. Of the ethnic groups I’ve met during my travels in China over the past decade, those whose ethnic traditions are not as commercialized have often been those who are the most eager to share their lifestyles. They are proud of their heritage and that they have kept it alive, and they have yet to be fatigued by the throngs of tourists.

Longhorn Miao traditional costume
I was rather hesitant about wearing the traditional Longhorn Miao costume, especially as the hairpiece includes ancestral hair. But my hosts were so enthusiastic in their repeated offers that I said yes. They got a lot of amusement from putting the hairpiece on me and from seeing how tiny the clothes look on me. (It’s also why I’m not wearing their traditional shoes — I’m a bit bigger than my hosts and the shoes certainly weren’t going to fit!)

On the flip side, the constant need to discover the next big thing or the next Instagrammable moment, or just to make money, has made it so that some ethnic groups have also been exploited through cultural tourism. Take the Long Neck Karen (or Kayan) in Thailand for example. Originally refugees from Burma, Long Neck Karen women traditionally wore brass coils around their necks to extend them over time. Nowadays they are touted as a key tourist attraction by many travel agencies, part of many packaged tours. Many travelers who have gone have expressed regret, calling the experience akin to a human zoo. It’s even worse when you consider that they are not even allowed to leave their villages. Their brass coils, a traditional source of beauty and pride, seemingly now a figurative metal cage.

Longneck Karen Thailand
I discovered this artwork on my second day in Chiang Mai. After learning about their conditions, I chose not to go to a Long Neck Karen village. I definitely thought about whether their lives would be worse off without tourists’ money, as can be the case in some situations. However, after learning about how outsiders have exploited them for cultural tourism, I decided against it.

Beyond the direct impact on their cultural traditions, cultural tourism and the globalization that comes with it also poses another dilemma. Many of these ethnic groups that tend to be visited on cultural tourism trips are those who live in less developed and less prosperous areas. Cultural tourism has allowed many to improve their economic conditions. As modern technology and services and more money reach them, many have abandoned their centuries-long traditions. After all, why spend an entire year making an outfit when there are ready-made ones in stores? Cultural tourists, myself included, often lament at the loss of such traditions, seeing the smartphones and brand name clothing as a sign that soon there will be nothing left of a previously rich culture. Yet are we to keep these ethnic groups in poverty and away from the ease brought by modern inventions simply in the name of tradition? Or, if we are to be more cynical, just so we can visit them and see how their culture differs?

These are questions that gnawed at me while I was in Guizhou and that resurfaced now and then as I continued my trip around Asia. I don’t have a solution to offer, only that we should do our best to approach cultural tourism with respect, open-mindedness, and an eye for long-term sustainability. Regardless of whether they are willing participants showing off their cultural pride, offering up their culture and traditions to make their families’ lives better, or part of a larger tourism business, they are fellow human beings with storied traditions that we should respect and honor. And hopefully we can help them keep their cultures alive without holding down the bearers of those traditions.

Before I sign off, I want to leave you with two thoughts for consideration:

  • The PDA Hilltribe Museum in Chiang Rai focuses on the hilltribe peoples of Thailand but also had an interesting poster about the ethics of riding elephants. While not the same, animal tourism and cultural tourism have some similar ethics questions. The poster says: if we don’t support them here in the more rural areas of northern Thailand, the mahmouts and elephants will have to go to big cities and do tricks to make a living and feed themselves. Are they not better out in forest camps?
  • The Longhorn Miao Ecomuseum in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou has a list of principles regarding ethnic cultures. Of them, these two stood out to me:
    1. “The people of the villages are the true owners of the culture. They have the right to interpret and validate it themselves.”
    2. “When there is a conflict between tourism and preservation of culture, the latter must be given priority. The genuine heritage should not be sold out, but production of quality souvenirs based on traditional crafts should be encouraged.”

I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on this topic. Does cultural tourism help or hurt ethnic minorities?

I really liked this response from Nuraini at Teja on the Horizon, originally shared in response to a Facebook post of this article. 

“I think it depends on whether the community in question retains autonomy in the process. In different communities on different paths, the same tourism offering could be a source of pride and legitimisation of their culture, or a trap holding them back from evolving. For me, it should have very little to do with what the tourist feels like seeing. Cultural tourism should be about the culture of the host, as they are today, and without removing their autonomy to decide how they want to be tomorrow.”

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Cultural tourism - does it help or hurt the ethnic minorities we visit?

10 thoughts on “Does Cultural Tourism Help or Hurt Ethnic Minorities?

  1. Really interesting post and I’m glad to read it. I’ve been concerned about this for years and have also actively not been on some tours or taken some trips because of my discomfort with turning a culture in to a tourist show.

  2. Back in the 80’s I was on a safari in Kenya where one of the stops was at a Masai village. Our van and several other vanloads of white tourists sat on rows of logs while a group of young Masai men rather listlessly performed a traditional dance that normally would have preceded a hunt: something they don’t do anymore. Ever since then I’ve avoided this kind of tourism. It strikes me as exploitative, and I think in many cases the people performing or producing crafts are earning very little compared to what the tour companies earn. It seems to me that we need to research carefully how these experiences are organized: are the indigenous people themselves truly in charge and profiting from sharing their culture? If not, stay away!

    1. I agree. If it’s not run and owned by the people, there’s just too much risk of exploitation. I want to encourage those interested to go learn and interact with these ethnic minorities, as many of them love sharing their culture. But there’s a lack of information about a lot of these ethnic groups, esp. the smaller, less known ones. We just have to ask a lot of questions.

      At the Basha Miao Village I spoke to some locals and were told that while an outside group was involved (as is the government), the villagers have a lot of say. Their income, while dependent on the role they played in the village tourism affairs, often was much more than they could earn in nearby towns. Not perfect, but a start.

      I really like how Rainforest Expeditions built one of their Amazon lodges in conjunction with an indigenous tribe, and then after a pre-stated amount of years, transferred ownership to them. One of the main reasons we stayed with them instead of a cheaper alternative where we weren’t as sure about the impact on the local communities and the environment.

  3. I really don’t know if it helps or harm, I think we can’t generalize it to all communities. Some may get the benefit and some communities like “Jarawa” tribe from Andaman Island had a bad impact on them. In their case, they lived me complete isolation for centuries and they have no immunity system developed and due to this they easily get an infection from us which can be deadly for them. Or there were stories of people exploited them as they live naked or semi-naked. Thankfully Indian govt had put some strict rules.
    I personally feel that we should research and then go on these trips. If these help community then one should help them by visiting.

    1. Agree! It’s definitely a case by case basis type of question. I learned about the Jarawas of Andaman Island fairly recently (I think in the past half year) and was fascinated but also very glad that the Indian government put up restrictions. Back in the 19th century there were all these World Expos in western countries where natives of African and Asia (i.e. Congolese pygmies) treated like zoo animals, and sometimes it feels like there are still many pockets of that these days.

  4. What a brilliant post! I agree 100% with the response you added in the bottom – it’s all about local people leading the process, making informed decisions and feeling like they can truly share their culture without having to stage or pretend, or be exploited by the industry. As travelers/consumers it is important to question our own intention to participate in cultural tourism, research responsible and sustainable opportunities, and only support ventures that are designed with the local people in mind!

  5. Unfortunately the exploitation of the Kayan Long neck women is only one side of the story , a side of the coin that the media loved and received a lot of attention, as a result many people boycotted these villages. The other side of the story, is that a lot of the Long neck would prefer tourists to visit them because it means more income for them. Unfortunately this side of the story and the voices of the Kayan women themselves have gone unheard. Until this recent article and film was published – http://www.atimes.com/article/forget-boycott-come-visit-us-long-neck-kayan-says/

    1. Hi Melissa,

      I agree that there’s more than just one side of the story. I actually had it on my to-dos this week to update this post with some info I found in my notes for another post I just published, and I think that info encapsulates it best. This is from an ecomuseum for a hilltribe minority in China:
      “The people of the villages are the true owners of the culture. They have the right to interpret and validate it themselves.” AND “When there is a conflict between tourism and preservation of culture, the latter must be given priority. The genuine heritage should not be sold out, but production of quality souvenirs based on traditional crafts should be encouraged.”
      I think it is important that the Kayan have a voice in it themselves, though as with anything, there may be divisions within the Kayan people as well. The question is whether tourism has become more important than the preservation of culture in this case.

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