In 2010, Kate McCulley quit her job to embark on a 6-month backpacking trip to Southeast Asia. At the same time, she launched her blog Adventurous Kate in order to document her travels. That trip turned into a full-time career as a travel blogger, with Kate having now visited 74 countries and all 7 continents.
Kate has seen a lot in these past 8 years, and in her blog articles she wrestles with the complex social and environmental issues that she affronts in her travels. As such, when I saw through her social media that she was coming to visit Kenya, I knew I had to arrange for her to visit KCIC to talk about sustainability issues in the tourism industry.
Sustainability in travel is a three-pronged concept, encapsulating the environmental, social, and economic impacts that one’s travels can have on the local community. In part 2 of this series, we’ll be tackling issues of social sustainability in the tourism sector.
Check out Part 1 here: Talking environmental sustainability in the travel industry with Adventurous Kate
The “People as Props” Phenomenon
The cultural exchanges that occur between tourists and residents can be very enriching for both parties. However, unchecked tourism can also have negative consequences. In the context of the developing world, travelers sometimes unintentionally act in a way that is exploitative to the local community. In particular, it happens far too often that African voices are not heard, and visitors to the continent can perpetuate stereotypes about Africans through the photographs they share from their travels. Such stereotypes include ideas of Africans being “exotic” or impoverished, for instance.
For instance, during her trip to Kenya, Kate encountered some disturbing moments when her tour group was visiting the Maasai Mara. Upon arrival, some Maasai people greeted them with a traditional dance, and then half of the tour group immediately started taking selfies with them. They hadn’t even learned the names of their photographic subjects.
As Kate explained, “The Maasai are are absolutely stunning, and I think many people see them as being ‘exotic.’ The men especially so- with how tall and lithe they are, and their beaded necklaces and bright red checked clothing. I think when people see them, they automatically feel like it’s their right to just collect the image. I’m not quite comfortable with that.”
“I don’t like people being seen as props. I think it becomes a grey area- do I photograph them while they’re performing for us, since this is how they make a living? But am I being sensitive to their culture?” Kate remarked.
When asked about where she would draw the line, Kate said, “There’s one thing that I definitely think is insensitive, and that is selfies. I think if you’re going to take a selfie with someone, you need to at least have had some kind of experience with them,” she explained.
“Poverty Tourism”: Raising awareness or exploitation?
Another area of ethical concern arises when tourists visiting the developing world participate in so-called “slum tours.” On the one hand, such tours can raise awareness about the issues plaguing those communities; on the other hand, it can be seen as exploitative and essentially “poverty tourism.” How might you feel if you were living in a slum, for instance, and someone came to tour your neighborhood and say, “wow, look how poor and sad these people are?”
“I think many times the tours can be exploitative,” Kate began, “but I also think sometimes they can be very helpful to the community if they are raising money for a certain organization- if they’re helping the local kids, developing art, etc. There are a lot of companies out there whose money goes directly into the community, and they don’t keep any of the profits.”
“I think if you’re going to do a slum tour, you should examine your motivation. Ask yourself, do I want to take this selfie with this person because I want to show off to all my friends on Instagram? Do I want to go to this poor neighborhood so that I can take pictures of myself and look important? Or am I genuinely trying to understand?”
Overall, a recurring theme in our discussion was the need for tourists to have more meaningful interactions with locals. Instead of using locals as photo ops, it is more beneficial for both parties to at least have a conversation with each other. That way, stereotypes about the local population are diminished, and they are given a real voice.