Society is going through an unprecedented crisis. COVID-19 paralyzed much of the economic activity, with the tourism sector being one of the most affected. The post-pandemic scenario is still uncertain, but without a doubt, the preferences of travelers will be challenged by this global situation:
* Will pre-pandemic trends accelerate?
*Will destinations with more developed health systems predominate or will experience in “exotic” countries be chosen?
*Is this an opportunity for the growth of alternative tourism?
New trends in tourism demand
In an article published by National Geographic in which different professionals in the area were interviewed, it is stated that the current situation has made a dent in the way in which trips are conceived. Therefore, it could be assumed that the traveler will begin to demand greater sustainability in the destinations they visit. Trips become essential for mental health and local communities will become more relevant by diversifying the offer of destinations. These assumptions are not arbitrary but are in accordance with studies carried out by the UNWTO (The World Tourism Organization is the United Nations agency) in 2019, they affirm that the following trends were established in the preferences of travelers:
-Tourists are increasingly looking for meaningful trips that contribute something to their personal development.
- People aspire for travel to be a source of inspiration and knowledge.
- Travelers demand more sustainability and responsibility towards the environment and local culture.
The confirmation of these trends responds to the growth and strengthening of the so-called "Alternative Tourism" that can meet the new demands of the sector since the concept encompasses different types of tourism focused on sustainability, the integration of local populations, and care for the environment. Differentiating itself from its most extreme opposites: mass tourism, commercial tourism, and traditional tourism.
Now, within alternative tourism we can find Ethnographic tourism, also called rural community tourism. This subdivision within alternative tourism became relevant in 1980 when several academics pointed to community tourism as one of the most hopeful when it comes to helping rural populations to empower themselves economically, socially, psychologically, and politically. One of the first studies on this phenomenon was carried out in the 1980s by Peter Murphy in "Tourism: A community approach", the author wrote about the development of tourist activities in small communities in British Columbia and Yukon where participants interact with local inhabitants and the environment.
Community tourism seeks to take the traveler to experiences in which they live a cultural exchange, visiting towns that maintain their traditional way of life, with little Western influence. These interactions invite the visitor to actively participate in community activities, empathizing and learning about ancestral ways of life. The activities are carried out in harmony with the environment due to the close link and the forms of production that the communities maintain with their surroundings.
The traveler who chooses this type of adventure stands out for his curiosity, for his desire to meet and exchange with cultures whose customs are alien to him. It positions itself in an active role in coexisting with different ethnic groups and is concerned with their preservation, as well as their environment. Because the vast majority of traditional towns live in remote places, with difficult access and/or lack of infrastructure, travelers who visit them are willing to give up comfort to reach them. It should be noted that those who demand these activities prioritize the authenticity of the experience, not content with activities that simulate or exaggerate a situation. As for the age range, it is quite varied.
Is community tourism economically accessible?
The answer to this question will depend on the destination you want to visit and the type of trip you are looking for. It is not the same to carry out this type of activity on a specialized tour than on a backpacking trip. The needs in terms of services and amenities vary according to the profile of the traveler and their budget. In many cases, the entrance to a community must be done with a local guide. Generally, these towns are further away from urban centers and it is necessary to spend several days getting to know them. Visiting communities with these characteristics requires significant logistics, making the average price of the tour more expensive. An example of this situation is a visit to the Mentawai tribe in Indonesia, where the closest tribal village to a city is several hours away by boat and then walk through a thick swamp. To share with this extraordinary culture it is necessary to have guides authorized by the government who take care of bringing food, arranging lodging in the house of a member of the tribe, acting as interpreters, and taking care of transportation.
On the other hand, there are towns with better access, facilitating their visit for those who want to explore them independently and reducing costs. A particular case occurs in the Burmese state of Kayah, where more than 7 ethnic groups live together and live in rural towns with good land connectivity. To get to know them, you only need a cell phone equipped with GPS and a motorcycle, since the guides are not necessary and the overnight stay in the tribe's costs are considerably reduced.
Tourism as a double-edged sword
It is important to emphasize that reality does not always match expectations. When working with rural communities it is important to measure the impact that tourism generates there economically, culturally, and psychologically speaking. Mismanagement of this activity can lead to accentuating the problems that need to be corrected.
The non-inclusion of the communities in the planning of the activity leads to a widening of the economic gap. Likewise, the cultural encounter must be taken care of so that visitors do not end up imposing their customs, destroying what should be preserved. In the same sense, the philosophical position with which a trip of these characteristics is planned will be decisive at the time of its execution, it is not the same to consider taking photographs of certain tribes with body modifications as a primary objective than to propose a genuine and respectful exchange with them. It is necessary to take into account that the behavior of the tourist towards the local inhabitants modifies the perception and attitudes of the latter towards future visitors.
To mention a successful case of ethnographic tourism, we can analyze the work of Tesfa Tours, in the region of Tigray and Lalibela in northern Ethiopia. This company founded in 2010 works with more than 20 communities, which provide guide and lodging services to visitors. Through training and investment, it was possible to establish the necessary infrastructure to develop different circuits that value the cultural wealth of the region. Although the initiative was taken by a foreigner, today the communities manage themselves, allocating 55% of the profits to community needs and focusing on economic, environmental, and social responsibility. It is remarkable how such a project can generate positive impacts in various aspects, both social and environmental.
Ethnographic Routes in Africa
New technologies have made information more accessible. The world, formerly fraught with mysteries and uncertainties, is now better understood. On the other hand, advances in transportation made it possible to reach previously unthinkable sectors at a lower cost. Carrying out an adventure to discover jungles or tribes was a matter of life or death reserved for the most intrepid explorers who, in addition to courage, possessed the material means for such a difficult undertaking. Nowadays, far from losing its attractiveness, the fact of knowing remote places is possible for more people.
There are still places in the world that maintain their essence and are open to receiving those who wish to venture out to explore them.
The African continent has many of the last frontiers that Westernism has not yet been able to penetrate. Beyond the popular safaris in the south of the continent or the pyramids and Medinas of the North, the collective imagination sees this piece of land as a place plagued by war and poverty. Far from being the reality, Africa offers the possibility of embarking on routes that take travelers to meet the most surprising cultural and natural landscapes, passing through the vestiges of the ancient kingdom of Kush in North Sudan to the pristine primary forests of Gabon.
If there is a country that brings together all the elements mentioned above, it is Ethiopia. Located in the Horn of Africa, it is the only one that managed to remain sovereign against the colonizing claws of Europe. This country is home to one of the oldest forms of Christianity, which has little to do with the Roman Catholic Church, and whose religious sites are true architectural feats dating from before the 11th century. Cave-shaped churches that rest on the tips of dizzying cliffs or monolithic monasteries are just some of the archaeological riches of the country, which, as surprising as it sounds, continue to be the places of pilgrimage of this ancient culture, still in force. The previously mentioned monuments are scattered throughout the North and Center of the country, while in the South the culture changes remarkably. In the Omo Valley region live
more than 8 ethnic groups with significant differences between them, making this place one of the richest and most diverse in Africa. The vast majority of these peoples are semi-nomadic, their main economic activity being grazing and, to a lesser extent, planting sorghum and corn.
Another great country that has a lot of potential in terms of community tourism is Tanzania, with 120 different tribes living in the country. Tanzania is the 4th most culturally diverse country on the African continent after Nigeria, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a melting pot of cultures, ranging from the Hadzabe, the last Hunter-Gatherers in East Africa with less than 1000 members left, to the pastoralists Iraqw and Masaai. This diversity is reflected in the languages spoken by the representatives of each ethnic group as well as in the customs and traditions of each tribe. There is still a lot to be done to introduce those off-the-beaten-path cultural routes as an alternative to the popular northern circuit safaris.
Tours of these lands captivate the most exquisite of travelers, making it possible to live together and participate in tribal traditions. It is necessary to mention that unfortunately the little tourism that the region receives is not always carried out responsibly, having an abusive treatment towards the local inhabitants of whom many times only a photograph is sought. This behavior is changing the relationship between visitors and locals, who gradually get used to the fact that tourists are only there to photograph them. For this reason, it is not always easy to achieve an intimate and genuine approach. However, it is not impossible, if one shows that their intentions go beyond a photograph, the chemistry of the relationship changes and it becomes a really pleasant experience for all the participants.
These destinations are operated by a handful of agencies and receive little influx of visitors. Due to the lack of general infrastructure, it is advisable to seek advice from experts if you wish to tour the region.
Is globalization imminent?
Everything seems to indicate that the world in which we live has fewer and fewer virgin spaces left, distances are shortening and global culture, marked by ambition and consumption, threatens to destroy the forms of life with a closer link with nature. Faced with this discouraging panorama, YES, actions can be generated that change the course of history and tilt the balance in favor of those who for centuries have been marginalized, persecuted, and even massacred.
International organizations like Survival fight for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world by giving them a voice, creating indigenously managed natural areas, and defending them against companies that threaten to destroy their lands.
On the other hand, the tourism industry cannot be oblivious to this situation. Being one of the fastest-growing industries globally, it has the power to contribute to the empowerment, recognition, and inclusion of rural and indigenous peoples. This possibility covers both operators, agencies, and travelers.
The UNWTO addresses the issue in the document "Recommendations on the sustainable development of indigenous tourism". There all the edges to take into account when working together with indigenous communities are fully developed. The possibility that the industry has to contribute to the conservation of cultural diversity, being intimately linked to the conservation of the environment, is no less. The damage caused so far is big, but the possibility of generating a positive change is in our hands, either by being conscious tourists or by putting together products that take into account the original people.
Photo by The Image of Africa