Human Zoos: Tribal Tourism or Voyeurism?

Picture this.

Every single day, new faces pass through your village. They gawk at your clothes and then try them on for a practised pose before the camera . They snap pictures of everything from the latrine to the sleep quarters to you going about your daily tasks in a rehearsed candid – a literal film roll of your life.

They are greeted by performances you put up – the original cultural significance of which has become watered down with each passing day and gotten lost amid their shallow awe. They talk about how your life makes them realise in actuality ‘how lucky they are’ and in that moment, you’ve never felt more separate and alienated.

And then they leave, going back to their own lives with a little more appreciation having experienced ‘a different lifestyle’ for a couple of days.

The next batch arrives – your village runs like clockwork, autopilot.

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I cannot do this topic justice but I try anyway.

My visit to China’s rural Miao village served as a wake up call for me. We interacted with the friendly villagers, donned quirkily colourful traditional garb for treasured photographs, slept on makeshift bedding, had traditional meals cooked from the same pig we watched be slaughtered, relieved ourselves (after much squealing) in a wooden shaft in an outhouse and became farmhands for a week of backbreaking labour in the mountains.

The Miao village women

For us, what seemed like an educational cultural immersion was daily life for the Miao villagers.

Intriguing as it was to live a lifestyle worlds away from our own, the reality was that daily life for them meant busloads of strange new faces treating their world like a hotel to check into or simply a zoo enclosure to visit on a whim.

Explaining a rise in ethno-tourism is the keen desire for authentic, lived experiences. Nothing wrong with that in itself, it’s an appealing, fresh take on travel experiences surely. It’s no longer difficult to chart a tour into the countryside or up into the mountains to brush shoulders with these villagers and indigenous tribes.

Yet we live in a self-righteous bubble. As far as tribal tours go, tourists descend on these indigenous people armed with the ‘empowering’ notion of cultural exchange, exposure and appreciation.

These days, even schools have students make planned trips to villages and tribes to teach the kids English or to build them a house or to leave behind another mark of urbanisation we somehow deem so important.  

We are disillusioned if we believe these original intentions remain. While financial support does come in part from tour agencies and tourists themselves, the reality is that tourist dollars largely land in the pockets of travel agencies with a comparatively lesser margin to be claimed by the tribes.

The Kayan people of Thailand in particular, are confined to tourist villages owned by landowners to whom the money ends up with. In fact, many of the ‘long-neck’ Kayan women are Burmese refugees who cannot own land or do proper work.

Under the tight control of these landowners, the women are confined to their villages – made to grudgingly smile for tourists almost as photo props and live based off the meagre profits from their handicrafts.

The objectification and dehumanisation these tribes are put through by camera-wielding tourists prove abhorrently exploitative. Ethno-tourism is more than simply a window for a fleeting glimpse into a different life – not just an outlet for your colourful Instagram boasts about cultural enlightenment and greater appreciation of your life.

The argument was never to completely abolish or ban tribal or ethno-tourism but to bridge the gap with a learned cultural sensitivity.

Care enough to actually learn about their way of life, beyond simply snapping prized photos and only gracing the surface of an entire forgotten culture. Do your research into responsible private tour guides in lieu of mass tour groups that descend upon villages like a pack of photo-hungry wolves.

It’s a fine line to walk between ethical, eye-opening ethno-tourism and distasteful voyeurism. Admittedly, a visit to rural villages and indigenous tribes sound like an immensely enlightening experience, but only if you respect the traditions and culture of a people who are like us – not simply attractions for the Gram.

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