The Two-Faced World of the "Cultural Tourism" Industry

Tourism is a very powerful industry for the developing world. A country's tourism industry can be one of the surest ways out of poverty. The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reports that despite the global economic downturn, tourism continues to be one of the world's leading industries, bringing in nearly $1 trillion in receipts annually. When done correctly, tourism promotes increased social understanding, infrastructural development, and higher income in the developing world; however, sometimes poor areas are exploited by contracted tourist companies looking to make a profit.

As an economic development worker in rural Panama, much of my work deals with helping people in my community develop small business ideas — ideas almost entirely related to tourism. In my role as a tourism consultant, the goal is to promote and develop a tourism industry without compromising the cultural integrity of the community. And so I find myself often wondering what is the benefit of devoting so many resources to maintaining culture in poor communities?

It is important to consider the possible “negative” effects in cultural tourism development. Large numbers of tourists entering a community can dilute the authentic behaviors and practices of an indigenous people. Overexposure to visitors from the developed world risks assimilation to Western practices and behaviors. Furthermore, it is likely that increased interaction with the developed world would only cause a greater distinction between the privileged and the non-privileged.

How much do the members of these developing communities benefit from maintaining their current cultural practices and behaviors? While it seems clear that cultural tourism benefits developing countries overall, it is more difficult to see the benefits within the poorest parts of such countries.

The problem is, the factor that attracts the cultural tourist to a poor community is also what ensures that poor communities remain poor. For example, over the past decade a substantial number of Emberá tribes (an indigenous tribe in Panama) have been able to establish their culture as a significant aspect of the Panamanian tourism industry. Many of these tribes give tours of their villages to tourists from all over the globe. 

In many ways this is a triumph of tourism in the developing world. However, because these communities do not possess the means to fully manage such an operation (mainly, transportation to and from the community, advertising, and communication), they are forced to partner with outside agencies that take up to 80% of the fee charged to each tourist. Companies have an incentive to keep these communities living in poverty, because it is a significant aspect of the cultural attraction. If tourists arrive with a stereotypical expectation of what the indigenous tribe will be like, and they see members of the tribe wearing Nikes, they may be skeptical of the tribe’s authenticity. This is presumably bad for business.

There is no clear solution to this discrepancy between the success of cultural tourism and the benefits awarded to poor communities. After all, communities like the Emberá do benefit more through their relationships with larger tourism companies, as they see a greater number of visitors than they would without such partnerships. When I asked a fellow development worker what her Emberá community thinks about all of this she answered, “Well, for now, we have a 'no shoes' policy during tours.”

Photo Credit: micrognostic