Tourism is a massive multi-billion-dollar industry that has a nasty habit of placing luxury, convenience and frivolity ahead of respect for Indigenous Peoples and indeed, their basic rights.
Sometimes, Indigenous Peoples are turned into tourist attractions, such as the case with the Jarawa in India, the Karen in Burma, and the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii (where visitors can view “real life” Polynesians for a big fee). There are many other such examples around the world, and throughout history.
Meanwhile, many museums continue to display life-sized figures as well as actual human remains for paying customers. Companies of all shapes and sizes also frequently co-opt traditional cultural items and clothing ; while other others commodify villages and ceremonial sites. Others still, exploit indigenous knowledge systems and beliefs, such as with the ever-growing hysteria surrounding 2012–the “Apocalypse Industry” as it’s being called, for which the Traditional Mayan Peoples have been purposely left out. Real Mayans who speak the truth, it seems, aren’t good for business.
Then there’s the exploitation and sale of indigenous land, which we pay particular attention to, here at IC. In many cases, private citizens and companies just buy up indigenous land for tourism purposes. Other times, they weasel around laws and manipulate communites into giving land up.
On another hand, Indigenous Peoples themselves are also increasingly turning to tourism–that is, eco-tourism–as a source of funds in these trying times. Many such eco-tourism projects are run directly by Indigenous communities, which is great; however, this too has a share of risks, especially for communities that continue to live outside the colonial world. As observed by Katie Bresner in Othering, Power Relations, and Indigenous Tourism: Experiences in Australia’s Northern Territory, increased tourism often results in “the gradual erosion of the social fabric, acculturation, and irreversible destruction of natural habitats. It can also “easily become a kind of cultural voyeurism in which the local indigenous population is reduced to little more than a human zoo.” For this very reason, some Indigenous Peoples have wholly rejected eco-tourism, because the risk is just too great.