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Developing Tourism in Indigenous Communities





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Most communities have things they want to preserve and things they want to change.  As an indigenous community commences with the task of developing tourism as part of it strategy for achieving its goals, one of its first task is to identify what are those goals.  They are the stakeholders so they need to control all elements of the process and outcomes.  Goals generally fall into one of two groups; things that should be preserved, and things that should be changed.  Along the way the challenge is to manage the process so the things that are desirable for preserving aren’t corrupted and changed and the things that are intended for change stay in focus and are in fact changed.

The characteristics that the community wants to preserve can be meta-physical and/ or physical, and the characteristics that they want to develop (change) can similarly be meta-physical and / or physical.  Examples of non-physical things that a community might want to preserve are values (i.e. respect, equity, and democracy), ethics (i.e. honesty, transparency), language, and non-verbal elements.  Examples of physical things that a community might want to preserve are historic sites, architecture, cuisine, natural heritage (pristine forests, unpolluted waterways, flora, fauna, etc.), economic diversity (traditional crafts people, traditional agricultural and its diversity), and  visual culture.  Examples of physical things that a community might want to develop are infrastructure, social programs, human capital and economic activity.  It can be valuable to list and inventory by category, and even plot on a map, every that should be "preserved" and "developed".

After a community selects their goals they will probably also want to seek a trusted outside perspective:  At one point San Francisco was ready to completely scuttle its cable cars.  China abandoned and let the Great Wall deteriorate for centuries and Africa has let its natural environment degrade.  In all three cases protecting the asset wasn't seen as constitute “development”, but in all three cases, it is now realized that the asset is more valuable committing resources to protecting it than it would be if it was abandon.  It is not always easy for an indigenous community to see the value of its architecture, culture and history, and it might not be an immediate priority to protect from a heritage perspective, but it might need to be worth preserving in the short term for its economic value and in the long term for cultural value.  Ironically, sometimes an outside an outside perspective call help chart a path.

After the goals are clearly defined the community can start to develop it tourism strategy.  There are roughly three choices; “S” tourism (sun, sand, surf, sailing, snow, skiing, s*x, etc), nature tourism and cultural tourism.  “S” tourism, because it tends to be so closely related to Western hedonism is the hardest to engage in and still control the “preservation goals.”

While often seen as two sides of the same coin, nature tourism and cultural tourism are very different: While cultural tourists look in towards the village, nature tourists look away from the village.  Nature tourism is pretty well understood; look for wildlife, bird, aquatic, and /or environmental resources and figure out how to show them off to the visitors.

Culture tourism has often been approached the same way:  Look for the cultural resources that can be packaged, package it and show it off to the visitor.  Unfortunately, too often this, in fact, changes the character of the culture and creates a form of voyeur tourism.

A better approach for cultural tourism is to try and integrate the visitor into the way of life of the community as it is.  The communities interested in cultural tourism need to look for ways to make their guests part of their regular activities. For example: everybody regularly eats meals.  It is not only a great opportunity to experience (and validate) the local cuisine, but also to have an egalitarian experience sharing a resource and basic survival activity, and it is a great time for conversation and bonding, sharing stories about life, personal and community history, and values. Too often tourist eat separate and different from their hosts, while the hosts eat or wait nearby – when they could have easily shared the experience with their guests and easily enriched everybody’s experience. Generally there are other opportunities to incorporate culture-focused guest in regular activities so that it is mutual beneficial.  Because most members of the community don’t have prior experience with this kind of activities, communities interested in developing this segment of tourism generally would benefit from community workshops or training focused on developing these ideas.

Regardless of the type of tourism, it can be a Trojan horse, introducing new, powerfully seductive attitudes and behavior towards alcohol, drugs, materialism, tobacco, s*xual exploitation and class.  The stakeholders (community) need to have their act together or they will find themselves over whelmed by machine.  Be very careful what you wish for!

To Responsible Travel, Tourism, Cultural Programs, Improving International Understanding



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