The truth about tribal tourism

written by Rebecca Hallett

updated 11.12.2020

Travelling is all about opening your eyes to new places, people and ways of life. But unfortunately, sometimes we’re so eager for an exciting experience that we can’t see the effects of our choices, and it’s all too easy to stop thinking about them once you’re back home.

While tourists are increasingly aware of the need to consider the environment when they travel, and to be aware of animal rights violations, fewer are informed about their impact on indigenous people. Here, we explain a little about what tribal tourism is, and why you need to take great care if you’re considering it.

What exactly is tribal tourism?

Tribal tourism is visiting a place in order to see or meet the indigenous people who live there. “Ethno-tourism” and “ethnic tourism” are sometimes used to describe the same thing. As the name implies, this isn’t the same thing as an expedition for anthropological research, but a trip for recreational purposes.

Why are people interested in this kind of tourism?

For some people, it’s an educational opportunity – travel is a way of learning more about the world and yourself, and meeting new people can be a part of that. Others feel that, in our globalised age, they’ll have a more memorable, authentic experience of a place if they see its indigenous cultures.

And for others still, it’s simply a voyeuristic exercise: they want to see people whose appearance and way of life look very different to their own.


Guarani tribe in jungle, Brazil © Shutterstock

What positive effects can it have?

Tribal tourism can have a lot of positive effects. Done sensitively, it can help people learn about and appreciate different ways of life. For indigenous communities, it can facilitate cultural exchange and celebration. And for those that are struggling to maintain their livelihoods and traditions, it’s also a way of educating others about their situation, earning some money and playing an active part in the maintenance of their culture.

And what about the negative aspects?

Tribal tourism can cause immense damage – and sadly, more often than not, this is the case. There are profound economic, environmental and cultural effects of this kind of tourism, with each usually worsening the other.

These issues are complex, and you should make sure you know what’s going on before participating in any sort of tribal tourism. The Mursi tribe in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley are one example. Following forced resettlements and depletion of the resources on which they depend, they have been forced to use tourism to help make ends meet.

Vehicles full of tourists will arrive in Mursiland, then briefly stop to take photos before heading back. There’s no meaningful exchange, and most Mursi do it grudgingly. Aware that these visitors don’t want to emulate their way of life, to learn about them or to get to know them – they just want an exotic souvenir – this makes many of the Mursi feel frustrated and exploited.

The irony is that many of the Mursi’s adornments aren’t part of how they usually dress or decorate themselves, but have been added to better fit the images tourists have come to expect. It’s hardly an enriching experience for either side.

But what about when it’s a true wilderness experience, not on the tourist trail?

You may come across tour operators promising to show you uncontacted or little-contacted tribes, but this doesn’t mean you’re having a pure, untarnished encounter. In fact, these cases are usually even more damaging; in the worst-case scenario, you could bring diseases which can devastate entire communities. Even if you don’t, you may be diluting their culture, infringing on their land rights and putting yourself in a very dangerous situation.

Often these experiences turn into unsavoury “human safaris”, as with the Jarawa in the Andaman Islands, India. The Andaman Trunk Road cuts through their territory, and despite committing to closing it, the Indian government has not yet acted. The road has opened up the Jarawa reserve to poachers and settlers, but also to tourists.

As well as concrete threats to their livelihood and even lives – there have been reports of Jarawa people being attacked and abused, as well as outbreaks of disease brought by outsiders – visitors sometimes treat the Jarawa like animals rather than humans. Tourists are promised a look at the Jarawa, and some especially unscrupulous tour guides and even policemen have taken bribes for ordering Jarawa to dance for tourists. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated case.

Maasai, Kenya © Thomas Brissiaud/Shutterstock

Maasai in Kenya © Shutterstock

But what if I want to help these people? I could bring food, clothes or money.

This is a dangerous idea. It can be extremely patronising to assume anyone needs your help. But if tribal peoples do need supplies, you’re probably better off working with or donating to an aid organization – getting an irregular supply of randomly chosen items does no long-term good to these communities.

You need to ask yourself if you actually want to be as effective as possible, or if this is an exercise in making yourself feel magnanimous.

So is it possible to visit tribal peoples ethically?

There are ways to have a memorable, enriching interaction with indigenous groups, but you can’t expect to just show up, shove a camera in their faces and drive away again.

Instead, look for depth in your travels, try to stay a little longer and actually meet people. If you take a more holistic approach, meeting indigenous people as part of a broader trip, you’re also likely to have a much better time. This would probably be called community-based tourism rather than tribal tourism, and is growing in popularity.

If you’re not sure about including a visit to meet tribal people to your trip, you can start by asking yourself a few questions:

What do I want to get out of this – to just see people, or to meet them? To take something from them, or to share something with them?

What kind of language is the tour operator using? Look out for words like “stone age” or “primitive” and steer clear of those using such terms.

Who has the power in this exchange? And how do I know that? Who will my money go to?

Have I done my research about these particular people in this particular area, and do I know this visit is safe and enjoyable for both them and me?


Tribal village in Papua New Guinea © Shutterstock

Do be careful not to conflate different issues, too. For instance, just because somewhere sells itself as an ecolodge or green destination, doesn’t mean they’ve taken indigenous land rights and welfare into account. The Rainforest Alliance explains the difference between green tourism, eco-tourism and sustainable tourism, and many of the same concerns apply when considering the tribal or community tourism.

Are there any good examples I can consider?

More and more places are starting to cater to ethical tourists, which is great – but you do need to make sure they practice what they preach. A few well-regulated examples are:

Aboriginal Australia, Australia: Aboriginal-owned and -run tours throughout the country. Definitely no walks over Uluru here.

Local Alike, Thailand: Offers community-based tourism in hill-tribe villages of Chiang Rai province.

Il Ngwesi Lodge, Kenya: Ecolodge and rhino sanctuary in northern Kenya, run by the Maasai who own and manage the land.

Kapawi Lodge, Ecuador: Ecolodge and reserve in the Amazon rainforest, near the border with Peru, run by the Achuar people.

Cofán Survival Fund, Ecuador: Ecotours and nature expeditions in the Amazon, owned and run by the Cofán.

Guna Yala archipelago, Panama: The Guna people have kept control over their lands, deciding tourist numbers and owning and running many of the tourist businesses on the islands.

Where can I find out more?

As people seek out new travel experiences, it seems likely that this kind of tourism will continue to grow in popularity. Thankfully, there are several groups campaigning with and on behalf of indigenous peoples, helping them amplify their voices in a crowded tourism market and protect their rights and dignity. At the forefront are Survival International, who spearhead campaigns such as the Andaman Trunk boycott, and Tourism Concern, who work to encourage responsible tourism in all areas.

Tourism Concern have a growing database of reliable, ethical businesses in their Ethical Travel Guide. The Rainforest Alliance’s Green Vacations list is another good source of recommendations for sustainable accommodation and tour operators in South America and Central America and the Caribbean.

Top image: Guarani tribe in jungle, Brazil © Shutterstock

Rebecca Hallett

written by Rebecca Hallett

updated 11.12.2020

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