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Cultural Tourism - Visiting the Remote Tribes of the World in Search of Understanding

Jun 3, 2008
The various tribes of the world that have managed to remain unscathed by the ravages of civilization are precious repositories of eco-friendly life styles. These earth-friendly cultures are as fascinating as the intricacies of the Universe itself. Increasingly, those looking for respite from too much civilization are drawn to these pre-historic caches of human life. As a result there have been instances where tourists rush in where locals fear to tread, and invariably leave a trail of destruction in their wake. There's more to be gained from cultural tourism if it is approached with a certain amount of sensitivity that may be termed responsible tourism.

In past centuries cultural or tribal tourism was often motivated by sheer curiosity and had a voyeuristic element which failed to appreciate the down to earth lifestyles of the tribal people. There was a decided feeling of superiority and relief at not being "uncivilized savages" themselves. Others felt an overwhelming need to civilize the "savages" or bring them into the folds of religion. So, for whatever reason, there was a pressing need to interfere in these indigenous lives to make them better.

Fortunately in the last few decades this trend has been overtaken by a healthier attitude marked by a genuine interest and responsible mindset, tinged with respect and appreciation for the subject. A quest for understanding has taken tourists to the remote corners of Africa, Americas, and Asia to discover information regarding alternate ways of life. Anthropological studies and television documentaries have kindled an ever increasing interest in cultural tourism, fanned even more by tour companies and state governments that see new economic opportunities in their backyards. Celebrities contribute their mite by bringing new places to the attention of the world either by adopting kids or touring these remote lands. Cultural tourism has surely arrived, even grown by leaps and bounds. How does this affect the tribes themselves, if at all?

In the northwest region of Namibia, live the tribe of Himba. They inhabit the wilderness of Kaokoland and have done so since time immemorial. The Himba women adorn themselves with a great deal of jewellery and elaborate braids, taking a lot of pride in their femininity. They rub their bodies with a mixture of ochre, butter, and fragrant herbs to give their skin a translucent perfection. The Himba lived off the fruit of the land in isolation till the tourist descended on their idyllic hideaway. With the best intentions in the world, they introduced candies to the children and liquor to the men, besides a whole lot of processed food all around. Now Western modernisation has swept the Himba young into its fold, while only the old timers cling to their traditions.

The San, or the Bushmen, are another tribe that have lived in Namibia for at least 30,000 years. They can now be visited as one of the highlights of a safari in the Etosha National Park. The Owambo people, who live in thatched dwellings in a fenced kraal with a sacred fire in the centre, are another attraction.

In the heartland of Australia live the majority of aboriginal tribes such as the Arunta, Arrarnta, Yolgnu, and Aranda, who have persisted in the rhythm of their pre-historic cultures to this day. Marked by a considerable amount of ceremonies, rituals, songs, and dances, their culture has survived intact in certain areas where outsiders are forbidden to watch them. However, European colonisation has robbed other tribes of their identities and totally destroyed at least some of their tribal sanctity.

The central and north-eastern states of India have a wealth of ancient tribal cultures that continue survive as their people live more or less the same lives led by their ancestors. There are strongholds of ancient cultures thriving in the remote interiors that are untouched by modernity. The government has taken steps to preserve these as national treasures, and so you have areas like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh where about 70% of the population belong to various tribes. There are a number of organized tours that take tourists there. You can interact with the local tribes and take part in their ceremonies at select opportunities. These tribes are quite willing to share their lives with outsiders but think twice before adopting foreign cultures, which helps preserve their cultural integrity.

Tourism that takes you to the backyards of other people, whether it's an Amish village, Native American Indian sites in North America, or the aboriginals of Australia, is best done with the same respect and responsibility we would show when we lean over the fence for a friendly chat or enter a neighbour's kitchen for a cup of tea. We most certainly would not pluck her prize roses, walk all over her vegetable patch, or leave with her pet goldfish. Responsible travel is merely taking these good manners with us when we visit another community and remembering our common humanity while striving for understanding of a culture so different from our own.

Tribal people have customs, rituals, sacred places, and holy days that we may have no idea about. Even the local people who do not belong to the tribes might be quite vague about details. The governments may not publicize these issues for fear of driving away tourist dollars. Tour operators just do their jobs. So it is pretty much up to us as responsible travellers to ensure we take into account these factors and aim to tread lightly on our planet with respect and understanding.
About the Author
Justine has been a journalist for 20 years and is a contributor to Just The Planet, the online luxury travel magazine for independent travellers. Read more articles about peace through tourism and more travel features.
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