Now more than ever tourism is booming, as successive generations of people young, old, rich, poor – but mostly white – are setting out to see what they class as the “wider world.” Each individual sets off with a different idea of what they’ll find when they breach their borders or fly over their shores, but many share the hope that they’ll experience cultures different from their own, and that they’ll learn from this experience.
These journeys can be transformative: new links are created between disparate communities, people from each different place share their different skills, and globalization suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.
These are beautiful stories, but too often they’re told by people like me – white westerners. Travelers return home and tell us their stories, from their perspective. That’s great, but it’s only one side of the story.
Bani Amor believes we need to hear the other sides of the story. She runs a blog on decolonizing travel culture; looking at why the travel industry lacks diversity, and ways in which the situation can be improved. She explains why she started everywhere all the time:
“Travel culture needs to be decolonized because marginalized communities shouldn’t have to hustle their cultures to make a buck, white people shouldn’t rip them off to make a buck, and for the simple fact that people from a place should be in charge of the stories written about that place.”
The problem can be summed up with a parallel – how would we all feel if the only people who were writing about feminism were men? Travelers are increasingly interested in cultural authenticity, but the tourism industry too often curates cultures – only showing people what they think they want to see. Often this is a caricature of people’s real lives, missing the nuance, the politics, sometimes even the humanity.
One perverse example of this cultural caricaturing: in 2013 a South African resort built a network of shacks where moneyed guests could experience all the authenticity of a slum without forgoing home comforts like WiFi and under-floor heating – costing half the average local monthly salary. The resort was the worst extreme of a controversial trend called “slum tourism,” where travelers attempt to better understand poverty and inequality through visiting poor neighborhoods across the world.
What do the estimated one in eight people who live in slums worldwide think of this? In a 2010 New York Times article Kennedy Odede, at the time a university student, described the experience of being visited by tourists in the Kenyan slum of Kibera:
“Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.
“I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.”
These are extreme examples (much of this is more insidious), but they bring light to the fact that tourism is inextricably linked with the global, post-colonial reality of inequality. Bani explains:
“Together, the tourism industry and travel media help foster a culture of travel where (mostly) white, moneyed descendants of colonizers descend on (mostly) poor countries of color for vacation, which keeps Indigenous peoples dependent on neo-imperialist relationships fostered by an unstable tourist economy.”
So how can travelers and travel culture work to balance the scales? Bani argues the first step is to invite people from all walks of life, the world over, to join the dialogue; making it more varied, more real, and ultimately richer.
“It’s a waste of potential that travel media platforms are not spaces that address what it’s like to travel while trans, or disabled, or undocumented, or with dark skin.”
And, whenever you travel, always be aware of how you fit into the world around you.
“As I travel, I’m constantly in conversation with the ways that I’m privileged and the ways that I’m oppressed, and what that means in the historical and present context of the place I’m in.”
What do you think? Please share your voice in the comments below.
By Jo Eckersley
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