Exploiting Local Cultures

My last introspective post spoke about my love of meeting locals and travelers abroad. Like me, many people travel to ‘see the people,’ and yet this is not always as well-meaning as it seems. In some scenarios, it can bring back the old scars of colonialism and exploit those who live in the countries to which we travel.

 A very thoughtful cow in Cambodia...

A very thoughtful cow in Cambodia...

Specifically I’m thinking about the day tours that appear on the tourism bulletin boards in less developed countries. In France, no one ever decides to trek into the mountains to go watch the Alsatians dip bread in cheese and ski and go about their lives (at least not that I’ve ever heard of). But if you are in Thailand, there are tons of advertised outings that include a visit to a hilltribe’s village.

While I’ve never been on a tour or experience quite like I’m describing, I have met many travelers who have. And usually this comes from a genuine curiosity about the culture and people of the country. These travelers have similar travel styles to me--they want to go deeper than just the food and architecture to understand a country. So it is with good intentions that they can unknowingly hurt the local populations. But I believe that if they were aware of cultural exploitation, many travelers would try to travel more responsibly.

Looking into organized cultural trips, there are a few factors that stand out as enforcing power hierarchies. Tour guides, entrance fees, and souvenir shops among a small village are the obvious mark of the sale of a culture. There are less obvious signs: moments when tourists are offered amenities above what the actual residents have access to or restrictions on their lives. This may include restrictions on use of modern technology or maintaining of certain cultural traditions, even if they are partially fabricated (i.e. the people cannot use their cellphones in view of visitors). These cultural tours stem from a history of colonialism and imperialism to make profit off of the ‘quaint,’ romanticized culture of a people.

 A craftsmen from Austria who he can sell his goods directly to travelers, decide when to book art shows, and whose lifestyle is not overly eroticized or trivialized. 

A craftsmen from Austria who he can sell his goods directly to travelers, decide when to book art shows, and whose lifestyle is not overly eroticized or trivialized. 

Although I did not go on a tour of the floating villages in Cambodia, I heard of a particular agency that exploited local communities. They offered rides in a motorboat between local houses on stilts. Firstly, they charge an ‘entrance fee’ in addition to the cost of the boat and guide, thereby making profit off of tourists actually watching the people of the village. This company was run by Cambodians, but not by villagers and this agency had no problem eroticizing their own culture. Because the money does not go to the people of the village, the local children are motivated to stay out of school to beg for money from the tourists. Even more sketchy are the  surprisingly expensive bags of uncooked rice one can purchase ‘for a local family.’ This type of tour does not benefit the actual people you are visiting, nor are you really visiting them as the tourists do not speak or interact with the locals. It in essence is a photo op that does not benefit those featured in the pictures.

Those from developed countries come from different backgrounds than the people they are trying to learn about. Thus they may have never lived without a refrigerator or access to modern technology and commodities, and they do not necessarily understand the difficulties that these populations face.  These developing populations do not often have a choice in their lifestyles. If someone offered a woman in Cambodia an electric stove and showed her how to use it, would she still cook over an open flame? Whereas, the traveler who bends over her, snapping pictures of her bare hands flipping food, does have a choice. They have the comforts provided by an advanced social security net and a developed economy. But there is still nostalgia for a more ‘simple’ time. Here is the deep scar left behind from colonialism trivializing some cultures and creating a hierarchy. This hierarchy still exists today, so when a tourist is viewing life in a developing nation they should be aware and considerate of history. While appreciating and learning about the culture is important, one should not romanticize the culture or forget the times of genocide, invasion, and other injustices.

Similarly, imagine visiting a Native American reservation. As you buy their goods and watch them go about their lives, are you thinking of the movies you watched growing up, where they went to battle on horses and Pocahontas sang about the colors of the wind? Or are you thinking about the genocide they experienced or the stolen land that you live and walk on everyday?

 A typical household near Siem Reap, where there is no trash disposal service. It's not often you see pictures like this amid the temples, monks, and smiling children. 

A typical household near Siem Reap, where there is no trash disposal service. It's not often you see pictures like this amid the temples, monks, and smiling children. 

It’s hard to define exploitation of cultures or to create hard and fast guidelines for what is exploitative and what is not. I have not always been ethical in my travels, and still make plenty of mistakes. The key is to become aware of the choices we have abroad. When we learn about a culture and people, it should not be a manufactured experience. Here are my best tips for learning about cultures and people while minimizing their exploitation:

  • Research tourism companies, check where the profits are going, and who is in charge--with the goal of supporting companies where the profits go back into the community.
  • Try venturing outside city and tourist centers without a guide or organized tour.
  • Consider whether you are simply taking token photos and buying souvenirs to show off at home or if your actions motivated by a curiosity of the culture.
  • Have you asked for permission before taking photos? Are you actually experiencing the lifestyle or viewing it through the lens of a camera?
  • Have you considered staying in the area for an extended time?This could be through a workaway, homestay, or another way to get to know the people.

As I continue to travel, I try to consider the guidelines above and be aware of how I treat the residents of the country. As a traveler, I have the good fortune and ability to visit places unlike where I was raised. So it is important to me to try not to intrude or disrespect my hosts. Others should do the same, to create a truer understanding of our world and show appreciation for hosts who share their culture and country with us when we travel.

Keep your eyes wide, your mind open, and your suitcase packed.