Saying “No” to Tourism: A Community’s Right to Choose

By Tammy Leland, International Program Director for Crooked Trails

“Tourists come and shove a camera in our faces,” local community member Grimaldo Ramos tells me. “Imagine if you were sitting in your home and strangers came in and started taking photos of you. You wouldn’t like it.”

Since Crooked Trail’s inception, it has been our educational mission to teach tourists how to be environmentally and culturally sensitive travelers.  We do this by offering a set of ethical guidelines and by teaching classes at universities and public places.  One of these guidelines points out the importance in respecting our hosts when they say “No” to sharing their traditional knowledge, lives and homes or to selling their culture like a trinket for consumption.  For indigenous people, who rarely have the opportunity to fully participate in and benefit from tourism, there should always be the right to say “No” to the tourist invasion and environmental and cultural destruction it can bring.  However, this seldom happened, until now!

In March of this year, the Tinacu Nation of the Colombian Amazon said “NO” and banned tourism in their small community of Nazareth.  This area of the Amazon is rich in animal and plant life and full of cultural intrigue.  But according to The Guardian the Ticuna “were tired of tourists who didn’t spend any money and show little respect for indigenous people”.

A Burmese long-necked hilltribe woman - how does she feel about the tourism in her village?

Last year roughly 35,000 tourists visited the area to have their authentic “Amazon Experience” rich with native culture.  Community leaders recognized the influx of tourism was not a benefit to their community and those who were benefiting were larger Colombian and Western tour operators.  Taking control of their own destiny, the community installed a permit process for any tourists wishing to visit the community.  Without it, you don’t get in.

Hooray for the Ticuna!  A victory for indigenous people everywhere!

Or is it?

As tourism grows to incorporate remote areas of the world, many indigenous communities still struggle with the invasion.  Unfortunately, they do not always have the right to say no.  Such is the case for some of the ethnic minorities living in the northern hill country of Thailand.  Without land rights and proper citizenship papers, these communities suffer the assault of tourists everyday.  Vans pull up, ten to twelve travelers enthusiastically jump out, snap some photos, buy a .30 cent friendship bracelet and then speed off to the next community leaving a cloud of dust and humiliation behind.

Crooked Trails was founded on the premise that tourism does not have to threaten the cultures and environments of popular destinations and fragile regions. Therefore, we work with communities like the ones in northern Thailand helping them gain the education, skills and financing that they need to participate in positive tourism.

As an educational nonprofit, we create cultural exchanges that make positive contributions to host communities and have lasting effects on our travelers. We only work in communities that have invited us and on community development projects chosen by the people we visit. Our commitment to community empowerment supports the efforts of indigenous people to preserve and protect their environments and confront the challenges of their rapidly changing surroundings.

Next time you travel to a community, make sure you are invited and that tourism benefits the communities you are visiting.

Photo by DearTerisa by Creative Commons license

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