In the pause created by the pandemic, many have started to ask some of the big questions about how the tourism industry operates – and one of the key debates, especially in the age of selfies and overtourism, is wrapping our minds around our responsibility to showcase culture in a way that is both responsible and respectful. This was the topic of a recent session during Africa Travel Week Virtual, run in association with WTM Responsible Tourism on the topic: “Whose diversity is it?”.
Perhaps one of the most problematic issues when it comes to cultural tourism is that often other more dominant cultures are the ones who have the largest control over how it is showcased and accessed. As Uwern Jong, Experientialist-in-Chief for Outthere UK & Malaysia says, “Many people appropriate other people’s cultures in a way that is not as respectful as it should be – often for financial gain and to the disadvantage of others.”
Shining the light specifically on Kenya is Judy Kepher Gona, Director and Senior Consultant for the Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, who says for far too long, the world has been caught up in the misconception that everyone from Kenya is Maasai – when in fact there are more than 40 tribes in the country. She says the Maasai culture has been appropriated by so many, that it’s quite normal for a hotel at a coastal destination, for example, to insist that their staff dress and dance like Maasai in the evenings to put on a show for tourists, regardless of their cultural heritage. Furthermore, she says, it is common to go to museums that house artefacts from communities collected over the decades, but the interpretation of these items is not done by the people themselves – so instead you get, what she refers to, as “descriptive culture”. “Today we have a lot of presentation of culture, but little interpretation of culture because it has been appropriated by those who are not the original owners of that culture,” she says.
The reason behind this imbalanced relationship is that the tourists tend to be the one with all the power. But as Aziz Abu Sarah, Explorer at National Geographic & CEO Mejdi Tours, points out, the opposite should be true. “We are creating conflict between travellers and locals because it isn’t about mutual respect and learning from each other. In a true exchange, both of us learn about each other, but that can’t happen if you just put on a show that fits into a single narrative,” he says.
The appetite for cultural experiences is there though, which can unfortunately lead to further abuse of communities. For example, Gona says it is no secret that there is a thriving black market of Kenyan driver guides taking clients to stop over at cultural centres or villages but they hand over only a small percentage of the money he gets for this service to the villagers. “There are communities who have appropriated culture and set up centres where tourists can come and pay for a performance or show. They are so proud of the photograph they have with a local Maasai but they don’t even know his name. That’s how impersonalised these cultural experiences are and it has become so normalised that travellers don’t know any better,” she says, adding that experiences to visit the large informal settlements in Nairobi were similarly exploitative.
Another obstacle, says Sarah, is that there is a misconception that tourists don’t travel to learn or be educated – and that they only want to have fun. “Yet these same tourists will drive for three hours from Ubud to the Gate of Heaven and queue for hours to get a photograph – what is so amazing about that? They are obviously seeking something, but we need to overcome the influencer and social media effect. Maybe we need to redefine what is fun and interesting about travel – is it really standing in line for hours for one photograph?”
But perhaps the tide is starting to turn. Sabu Siyaka, Founder of Ubizo Events & Tours in South Africa, says travellers have shifted away from traditional tours, and instead want to get involved in a hands-on way. Largely, this shift has been due to greater empowerment of local guides, who now have more responsibility in the design of the tourism experience. “Now, you will find tour guides in the township who are designing and developing these products themselves, rather than someone who stays outside of the township,” he says.
And if there was one thing that travellers should do to make sure they are being cultural respectful on their journeys? “One of the most important things we should pack when travelling is emotional intelligence,” says Gona. Before you ask a question or take a photograph, turn the situation around and think about how you would feel if someone were to ask the same of you, she says, adding: “People want to feel appreciated and respected – they are not just objects or attractions for the traveller.”