Why indigenous peoples’ land rights are fundamental for a successful tourism practice.

The article was written by Cecilia Manduca, a recent MA in Tourism, Environment and Development graduate from King’s College London.

The relevance of Indigenous Peoples’ land rights is paramount also under the tourism point of view. This article is going to show how successful tourism for indigenous people is highly dependent on the recognition of indigenous territorial rights and how this security can to maximise economic benefits and to minimize negative environmental and cultural impacts [1]. In order to argue that the positive or negative ethical and economical implication of indigenous tourism depend on the level of the recognition of indigenous territorial rights, I will present several case studies. It follows the importance of stimulating awareness in travellers, as well as Tour Operators and Governments, in order to prevent any actions that may further threaten the land rights’ situation and, in turn, the benefits that the tourism industry could bring to Indigenous people.

What is indigenous tourism?

Tourism can be a ‘double-edged sword’ for indigenous people [2]. On the positive side, tourism promotes cross-cultural exchanges and reduces prejudices [3]; it enhances feelings of pride in indigenous people [4]; it improves the livelihoods of indigenous communities by differentiating income sources [5]; and it can be a mean to empower indigenous population, who may benefit in terms of self-determination rights [6]. On the negative side, the cross-cultural exchanges between non-indigenous and indigenous cultures may impose permanent changes to the latter [7]. Moreover, indigenous culture and products may become commercialised, as tourists pay for them as tourism attraction [8]. The commodification of culture often leads to stage, or sometimes sacrifice, authenticity in exchange for tourism profits [9]. Finally, due to the limited length of the cross-cultural exchanges, both sides may not have the opportunity to actually benefit from each other [10]. In conclusion, despite its positive impacts, tourism should be not considered as a panacea for indigenous problems [11] and it is extremely important that tourists are aware of its pros and cons when approaching an indigenous tourism destination.

The issue of indigenous Land Rights

Land rights allow indigenous people to settle in territory that belongs to a nation state, upon which they recognise a historical, religious and economic authority, because of a continuous use and occupation throughout time [12]. This authority is called ‘ancestral title’ [13]. Indigenous people consider themselves not the owner of a territory, but its custodians, whose subsistence depends on the land resources [14]. The issue of land disputes arises because indigenous lands are important to governments and international corporations not only for their natural resources richness and the deriving economic benefits, but also from the point of view of tourism. In fact, indigenous people usually live in less developed and more natural areas [15], which are a tourism attraction. Consequently, a majority of issues stem by the creation of natural parks in areas that are owned by local communities, such as the increase of the level of poverty and marginalisation of indigenous people. Examples of this are Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, Australia [16] and the Maasai-Mara Reserve, Kenya [17]. Given the growth of tourism and its economic interests, land ownership is increasingly critical for local communities to gain positive economic and social impacts. Therefore, the international community has begun, since the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development to stress the importance of indigenous presence in natural park and its role as conservationists [18]. However, in the majority of the cases, even if indigenous people have de facto rights on protected areas, their rights have not been recognised as de jure, thus they cannot be compensated [19].

Case Studies

The Guna People of Panama (Pereiro, 2016)

After the revolution of 1925, the state of Panama recognised the Gunas and gave them autonomy over their territory in the Guna Yala [20]. Nowadays, tourism is by far one of the most profitable economic activities in the territory, and all of the structures are owned and self-managed by Guna people. Moreover, in order to foster a sustainable growth of tourism and to avoid the deriving cultural and social changes, Guna authorities stipulated the ‘Statute of Guna Tourism’. It regulates issues such as carrying capacity, tourist guides and fiscal system for tourism control. Tourism is perceived by the majority of Guna people as a successful activity, because it provides substantial income and it does not threaten the community’s territorial authority. For instance, when in 2007 the community felt threaten by outside business, the Secretariat for Tourism Affairs approved a new regulation which aims to protect Guna’s sacred places and natural resources, with bans and restrictions for non-Guna tourism operators.

The Djabugay Aboriginal people of the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns, Australia (Dyer, et al, 2003)

This example from Cairns, Australia shows that without territorial ownership direct economic benefits are uncertain, as well as authority in the decision-making process about tourism products. In fact, Djabugay Aboriginal people are equity members and employees of the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, where tourists see representation of traditional heritage in dance performances, museums and handicrafts. However, even though some Djabugay people are part of the Board Management, the community lacks of decisional power in terms of shareholding and voting majority. Also, most Aboriginal employees lack the skills necessary for managerial position, and the training system of the park has not been satisfyingly implemented. Consequently, the Djabugay people believe that their culture has been, to an extent, misrepresented and commodified, due to decision taken by non-Djabugay managers. Therefore, the Djabugay people are interested in minimising tourism socio-cultural costs and gain the economic benefits, but the lack of territorial autonomy and decisional power limits them. Indeed, Aboriginal control is critical to Indigenous people cultural sustainability [21].

Native people of Barrow, Alaska (Hillmer-Pegram, 2016)

Indigenous regional and village corporations govern upon the Barrow area, with different levels of land rights. In the recent years, tourism in North Alaska has grown and accordingly has the number of visitors in Barrow. Therefore, the town has increased the number of accommodation structures and attractions in a way that would benefit the whole community. For example, the largest hotel in Barrow is owned and managed by a Native corporation, and the Iñupiat community benefit from the profits as a shareholder. Furthermore, the hotel aims to educate tourists about the values of Iñupiat traditional heritage, promoting pride and cultural sustainability among the community. Another example is the town museum. In fact, it is owned by a Native corporation, which main source of income is taxation on mineral extraction and which profit serves as a form of cultural promotion and education for tourists. Therefore, through land control, the Iñupiat people have been able to obtain economic benefit, cultural sustainability and control over tourism.

The Hani people of China (Chan, et al, 2016)

This case study is another example of how the importance for indigenous people to secure traditional land is reflected on environmental and cultural sustainability. In Southern China, the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the cultural value of the rice terraces built by the local communities at a very high altitude and on steep slopes. The delicate environment is protected by the Hani, who have the skills and knowledge to ensure the conservation of forests, sustainable water supply and the preservation of rice terraces. However, with the increase in popularity of the Honghe WHS, government and private investors recognised the tourism potential of the area. The Hani villages increased in value, therefore the gentrification of the area has led to the displacement of Indigenous people. This happened because the Hani have been offered money in exchange of typical houses and because the price inflation led by tourism has made the area too expensive for them to live in. However, if a larger scale (maybe state-led) displacement were to take place, the Honghe environment would suffer, as would the Hani culture. This case study exemplifies the choice between outside economic interests and ethical behaviour of respect toward indigenous people and, thus, the environment.

 The Inuvialit People in Artic Canada (Notzke, 1999)

The special relationship that indigenous people have with the land could results in ethical dilemma, as with the Inuvialit people in Artic Canada. Indigenous people have land ownership and rights to natural resources, which allow them to continue their traditional land-based economy, including substantial hunting. However, with the increase of tourism in the area, new challenges rise for Inuvialit people. For example, even though there are some tourists that consider whaling and hunting an attraction, the majority could be disturbed by these practices and this, in turn, could harm the Inuvialit’s rights to hunt. Therefore, another challenge is how a traditional practice, perceived as unethical by most tourists, cannot be compromised by tourism while still allowing the benefits of tourism to occur.

How can the empowerment of indigenous people be critical towards securing land rights and protecting the environment?

Few studies found that there is a correlation between indigenous people empowerment throughout tourism and conservation of natural area. In fact, participation in tourism decision-making can strengthen cooperation and social cohesion in the indigenous community, which reflect on the more effective management of the tourism industry and the environment. This in turn positively impacts the relation between local people and institutions [22]. Moreover, indigenous people would oppose any threats to biodiversity if the community is receiving enough benefits from an organization whose main interest is the environment [23]. In addition, when ecotourism is strictly connected to land rights, it can ensure the protection of natural areas from disruptive activities and colonization. Examples can be found in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska and in the Kakadu National Park, Australia and in Nepal and Peru [24]. Finally, community-based tourism fosters a degree of empowerment in indigenous people in an economic, psychological, social and political perspective [25]. This empowerment in turn lead indigenous people to a stronger political influence for land rights acquisition and management, hence more economical and ethical benefit from tourism.

Even though there are authors that believe that corporations and governments benefit the most from tourism instead of indigenous people [26], tourism can still provide indigenous people with positive impacts, such as pride, income differentiation and social cohesion. Furthermore, the case studies presented above stress that the economical and ethical implications of indigenous tourism need to be understood throughout the complex issue of territorial rights, which involves different interests (e.g. money and biodiversity) and impacts the economic and ethic influence of indigenous tourism. For instance, there is enough evidence to claim that the more control indigenous people have over the territory, the more they could benefit from tourism. Likewise, the more empowered they become by dealing with tourism, the more they will succeed in securing rights over the areas upon which they have an ‘ancestral title’. This empowerment, in turn, would enhance the interests of indigenous people in the conservation of protected areas [27]. This reflects the argument of Fletcher et al (2016:1116) ‘the greater the security of tenure, economic capacity, level of Indigenous control, understanding of tourism and engagement and ownership, the more authentic the tourism product and chance of success’. Consequently, campaigning efforts towards securing land rights for indigenous people are of utmost importance for the developing of a more sustainable, just and empowering tourism industry that would create benefits for indigenous people. It is therefore critical that tourists willing to visit indigenous people destinations are aware of the problems they may face and that try to choose sustainable tour operator or tourism practices that would not create any harm to the indigenous population. On the other side, Tour Operators should act alongside the ILO declaration principles and try to promote and develop a tourism destination that respects indigenous peoples’ land rights and the natural resources within.


[1] King and Stewart, 1996; Fletcher, et al, 2016
[2] Whitford and Ruhanen, 2016:1082
[3] Mathieson and Wall, 1982; Mowfurth and Munt, 2015
[4] Dyer et al, 2003
[5] Mbaiwa and Stronza, 2010
[6] Weaver, 2009
[7] Greenwood, 1989
[8] Ryan, 2010; Whitford and Ruhanen, 2016
[9] Altman, 1989; MacCannel, 1973
[10] Mathieson and Wall, 1982
[11] Altman, 1989
[12] Slattery, 1987
[13] Johnston, 2013:10
[14] King and Steward, 1996
[15] Goodwin, 1996
[16] Altman, 1989
[17] Johnston, 2013
[18] Poirer and Ostergren, 2002
[19] King and Stewart, 1996
[20] Howe, 2010
[21] Altman and Finlayson, 1993
[22] Stronza and Gordillo, 2008
[23] BCSNet, 1999
[24] Becker, 2003; Orlove and Brush, 1996
[25] Weaver (2010)
[26] Johnston, 2013
[27] Haller et al, 2008



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