Look beyond … that glossy image and see the ‘cultural trap’!

culture1Helen Jennings, Tourism Concern writer, comments on a thorny cultural issue:

Many of you might have noticed glossy pictures appearing to promote indigenous tourism in exotic places. This is part of something we may call ‘the cultural trap’ for indigenous peoples. For many of these groups that are struggling for recognition of their rights, these images can be useful but also misleading. They provide valuable publicity, yet the images of their culture are still often carefully and rather narrowly selected.  It is still difficult for indigenous peoples to escape from images that denote ‘backwardness’, a stylised past, or even worse, the ‘primitive’. While governments encourage the involvement of their indigenous peoples in tourism for obvious economic reasons, they are not always fair or keen to provide the full picture. They seek to cherry pick images that highlight the most striking and glamorous aspects of these often marginalised groups. For their part, the indigenous peoples involved, while grateful for any exposure that might be given to their culture and traditions, appreciate that this may be gained at some cost.

How best might indigenous peoples be represented in any travel brochure? This is ‘a $64,000 dollar question’ to which there is no easy answer. Pictures chosen are often those that perpetuate ‘traditional’ images, such as those linked to notions of peacefulness, spirituality, and living in harmony with nature – essentially the ‘noble savage’. This represents obvious manipulation for commercial reasons, but can become more sinister when images selected run counter to how indigenous peoples are actually being treated in different countries. Then it becomes a matter of further exploitation.

A recent example of poor practice may be found in the case of the bushmen of Botswana. The matter has been picked up by specialist groups such as ‘Survival International’ and even reached the pages of the BBC and The Daily Telegraph. Many have called for tourists to boycott the country until treatment of the bushmen by their government improves. The mistreatment of the bushmen by a succession of Botswana governments goes back a long time. In the 1980s, for example, around 5,000 bushmen were forced to leave their ancestral lands in a programme of ‘voluntary relocation’. It is claimed that they were provided with better access to modern healthcare and education, but the methods used to force them to move were harsh and aggressive to say the least. Stark contrasts have emerged, for marketing material depicts bushmen hunting in traditional ways, yet we now know that such hunting is prohibited.

The problem of use of photographs extends beyond travel brochures. The book Before They Pass Away by British photographer Jimmy Nelson, published in 2014, aroused a storm of controversy owing to its stylised and glamorous images. Whilst the photographs were beautiful and dramatic, the book was criticized for its ‘false and damaging’ portrayal of indigenous peoples. Jimmy Nelson claimed that he wished to present an ‘ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world’, but this did not meet with approval by many of those he claimed to be representing. Critics pointed out that indigenous peoples are far from dying out and do not need this kind of patronising ‘support’.

Honest treatment of indigenous groups should surely be matched by realistic representations of how they are currently faring in society. In order to achieve this ethical stance – something that most western liberal charities desire – would probably entail real progress for indigenous peoples, who all too often find themselves In impoverished and poor surroundings. Moreover, such marketing should surely be in the hands of the indigenous peoples themselves; only this will guarantee honest transactions for tourists.

A ‘good tourist experience’ will only be ensured when indigenous peoples themselves control all aspects of the experience. This is something that is being enshrined in a number of ‘codes of practice’ that some countries are developing for their regions. These encompass such elements as heavy involvement in the development of marketing materials, properly trained tour guides, carefully regulated sites where decisions about what to share and with whom are clearly in the hands of the hosts.

Helen Jennings  has an MA in Indigenous Studies from The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø).


About the author

Leave a Reply