The tribe has opened for business, but is 'cultural tourism' ethically okay?

It’s a blurry line, but visiting and voyeurism don't have to go hand in hand

20 October 2019 - 12:00
By AND Yolisa Mkele
Tourists take part in a traditional dance on the Tiwi Islands, Australia.
Image: Tourism NT/Cait Miers Tourists take part in a traditional dance on the Tiwi Islands, Australia.

What is the point of travelling? Why spend clumps of money and time flying to different parts of the world? Corny Instagram captions will tell you it has something to do with broadening your horizons, but I suspect the truth is far less Mark Twain than that.

We humans are easily bored, and a quirk in our brains does drive us to seek out the new, strange and different. There is nothing inherently wrong with that but, where travel is concerned, one of the lines between right and wrong seems to have been blurrily drawn between tourism and voyeurism.

Take Australia's Tiwi Islands, for example. Most visitors would be moved by the aboriginal people's culture and customs - it's built into us.

Until very recently, relatively speaking, homo sapiens were nomadic. We bumped into each other, learnt from each other, and then kept moving. We are designed to be impressed, or at least intrigued, when we meet members of the species who are different from us.

Today, most of us have become sedentary and, in that iteration, our intrigue can look like peeping-Tom syndrome.

At Australia's Uluru (aka Ayers Rock), for instance, that manifests in hordes of tourists popping in to ogle the natives and their odd rituals before tramping across their sacred sites to get a good selfie from the top of a world heritage site.

The problem of voyeuristic travel is rooted in respect. When you go on safari, the game rangers go to lengths to explain that you are in the animal's territory. Lacking the appropriate amount of respect is likely to get you hurt.

Cultural tourism risks turning into a "human safari" because the tourists have little in the way of natural predators.

If you are flying anywhere for fun, you are part of the global elite and most likely have only a vague idea of consequences - something having predators makes you acutely aware of. Not having to worry about how they are going to survive, most of the travelling classes have, through a lack of necessity, forgotten how to deal with people who don't come from the same cultural milieu.

Many travellers come from places where the value of a thing or experience is based on its usefulness to them. For example, a selfie on a sacred site equals Instagram likes. That which doesn't fit into that equation, ie the holiness of said site, is neither here nor there.

Combine that with the fact that capitalism requires people to make money in order to subsist and it is easy to see how communities can sell their cultural capital and how, once they've bought it, tourists can feel entitled to treat it however they want.

Taking trips to visit 'the natives' is like visiting McDonald's to see how another culture's food tastes

Tourism and voyeurism, however, don't have to be brother and sister. Like step-siblings whose parents divorce, the two can actually go on to lead very different lives.

The idea of travelling is to immerse yourself in new experiences; to see things from a different perspective. That won't happen on heavily commercialised trips - taking trips to visit "the natives" is like visiting McDonald's to see how another culture's food tastes. You'll only get a real sense if you engage with people and open yourself up to new (potentially unpleasant) experiences. The same is true of travel.

There is nothing wrong with visiting the Tiwi or any other indigenous peoples, per se, so long as your purpose is to learn, be open and genuinely experience new things.

If you're just going for the 'Gram, rather just type "Bathurst Island" into your Google Earth search and ogle the Tiwi from your couch.