In recent years there's been a heated debate surrounding the issue of tourists visiting poor communities in developing countries – what some have dubbed "poverty tourism." It is wrong to, in a way, turn poverty into a tourism attraction? Does the experience turn tourists in more conscientious, compassionate people with a better understanding of the world, or does it dehumanize the poor, essentially treating them like a zoo exhibit for foreigners to look at and photograph?
The tone of the discussion has ranged from scholarly and methodical to downright outraged. Many are rightfully seeking complex explanations and solutions for a decidedly complex issue. However, for the purposes of this blog post, I'd like to take a simpler approach and distill some of the information out there into straight-forward and useful advice for the average traveler. For more in-depth information that will give you a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the issue, I highly encourage you to visit the links at the bottom of this article.
There is nothing inherently wrong with visiting communities in the developing world. Travelers who embark on these types of trips might want to have an authentic experience, discover a different reality, and go beyond typical tourist areas and meet "real" local people. Good intentions aside, here are a few guidelines you can follow to avoid unintentionally exploiting and dehumanizing the people you are visiting. The common theme here is respect.
1) We'll start with an easy one: don't photograph people or sacred grounds without getting permission first. That's just good manners!
2) Better yet, put the camera away altogether and engage with the people whose home you're visiting. You'll be surprised how far a smile and a friendly greeting can go. Even if you don't speak the language (note that it never hurts to learn some key phrases to prepare for your trip), it's a good idea to go with a local guide who knows the community. Introduce yourself, listen to the people's stories, and learn about their life and culture.
3) Go with a small group. This will make you more likely to interact with local people instead of the others in your tour group and minimizes your impact on the environment and important monuments.
4) The traveler's primary intention should be to learn and discover. Do not go with a sense of superiority or the intention of "saving" or "protecting" anyone that hasn't asked for your help. While you might see a village family that lives in a small hut in the jungle and consider them poor, they are probably quite content, even if their material wealth doesn't measure up to what you're used to. Not all riches are physical, after all.
5) Unfortunately, there might come a time when you do witness people who are truly suffering. Those who are hungry or sick may ask for your help, particularly in cities. It is your choice to give or not – but be aware that begging schemes can actually exploit the people you're giving money to, especially if they are children. Your contribution could go to a criminal gang or abusive parents, or encourage people to beg rather than pursue other options. You simply do not know what happens to that money after it leaves your hands, or the long-term ramifications of your gift. If you really want to help, support a local nonprofit organization that is working to alleviate poverty in the area. They have the knowledge and capabilities to help people in the short and long term and without unintentionally causing harm.
6) The best way to help and empower the people you are visiting is to book tours and accommodations with businesses that are owned and managed by the community – also known as "community-based tourism." Choosing community-owned businesses financially supports local people in a way that is sustainable and on their own terms. It gives them control over how their story is told, how many people visit their home, and how profits are divided and used. Check out these examples on our website to learn more about community-run tourism businesses: Posada Rural Cerro Biolley in Costa Rica, Tres Lagunas Ecotourism Center in Mexico, and Casa Comunal La Granadilla in Nicaragua.
Interacting with people who have a completely different background from your own is never easy. There's always the possibility of misunderstandings, or of good intentions gone wrong. You can try your best and still end up offending someone – but that doesn't mean you should stay at home and never see what else is out there in this big, crazy world. Do your research beforehand, embark on your trip with the desire to learn and a sense of humility, and you'll get by just fine!
- "The Poverty Tourism Debate: A Compilation Post," Good Intentions Are Not Enough.
- "Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance" by Aaron Ausland, Staying for Tea.
- "The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism" by J.B. MacKinnon, Utne Reader.
- "Is Community Tourism a Good Thing?", Grassroots Journeys.
- "Slumdog Tourism," by Kennedy Odede, New York Times.