Cigarettes To Kids, Making Them Dance: How ‘Tribal Tourism’ Is Exploiting India’s Tribes

Posted on April 9, 2016

By Ritika Potnis:

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain, near Lanjigarh in India's Orissa state February 21, 2010. Vedanta has denied allegations that its planned bauxite mine in eastern India would violate the rights of thousands of poor indigenous tribes people, saying that all its projects are conducted within the law and using international best practices. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause (INDIA - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS ENERGY) - RTR2AN9U
Image credit: Reuters/Reinhard Krause.

In February, earlier this year, the government of Odisha decided to once again allow foreigners to visit areas with a tribal population after a gap of three years. In 2012, Odisha barred access to tribal areas for foreign tourists after tourism websites used pictures of scantily dressed Bonda and Dongaria tribals in a bid to attract tourists. The kidnapping of two Italian tourists by Maoists the same year also led to the decision to curtail access. The state government barred ‘physical proximity’ of tourists to tribals and entry into their homes. It asked collectors not to allow entertainment of tourists by tribals while banning them from clicking their pictures or shooting videos.

In the past decade, India has seen a revolution in tourism, and tribal tours have become extremely popular among tourists from all over India and abroad. As per the 2013 survey by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, tribals form 8.6 percent of the total Indian population.

Tourism in India is a booming industry as it accounts for an average of around 6.7 percent of the nation’s GDP. In 2012, Indian tourism generated 6.4 trillion rupees as calculated by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

‘Tribal tourism’ as defined by Terry Ward, journalist and travel writer, is “a new form of travel in which tourists visit tribal villages in order to be exposed to a culture completely different from their own.” In India, states of Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Nagaland, Himachal and Chhattisgarh see maximum tribal tourism. Tribal tourism has been instrumental in creating various financial opportunities for the tribes living in the hinterlands. It has helped foster awareness about the indigenous people in India, many of whom face oppression, lack of opportunities and social exclusion.

While tourism may seem to be doing good for the society, it also is creating social and psychological consequences for the tribals that are more detrimental than beneficial. In the past decade, many tourism companies have mushroomed offering tours of tribal areas.

The thing is that these ‘tribal tours’ offering travel agencies are money making giants that do not take a culturally sensitive and ethical approach to tourism. They work on mechanical business principles such as ‘Unique Selling Point’ to run their businesses and do not bother about social consequences. As reported by The Guardian, some agencies are willing to ‘force’ contact with Mashco-Piro (isolated indigenous tribe in Peru’s Amazonian rainforest), if the customers are willing to pay enough money.

History has seen the far-reaching consequences of indigenous tribals interacting with tourists. In Andaman and Nicobar, since the Grand Andaman Trunk Road connected the city to the hinterlands, Jarawas, a pre-historic indigenous tribe came in contact with the tourists. According to reports, tourists would give naked Jarawa men and women money, throw empty water bottles at them, and some offered cigarettes to small Jarawa children. This led to the Jarawa children becoming addicted to smoking and the adults dancing naked in exchange for money.

Research studies have reported the consequences of reckless tourist activities in tribal areas. These include culture-shock, exploitation, objectification, humiliation, undermining one’s culture and an increase in inter-tribe conflicts. The question still remains: what can be done to make tribal tourism ethical and protect the indigenous tribes from exploitation?

‘Responsible tourism’ that is guided by ethical practices and cultural sensitivity is the need of the hour. Visitors must be educated on the negative impact tribal tourism can have on the indigenous communities. Travellers participating in any form of tribal tourism should be sensitised about the community they are visiting. On a more formal level, the government must lay down fundamental rules regarding activities carried out in tribal tourism. Rules should also delineate the role of travel agencies and companies and the extent to which they can participate in tribal tourism activities. Moreover, every tourism activity in indigenous and protected areas must be monitored and sanctioned by a team of professionals that will evaluate the risks of the same.

The Hornbill festival of Nagaland is an excellent example of tribal tourism. This festival is an initiative of the Government of Nagaland to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Nagaland and its people. People from all over the world come together in the first week of December to take part in the celebrations. This festival is one of its kind because it opens up the areas with ‘restricted entry’ into protected areas for visitors without compromising on ethics and traditions.

Similar ethical tourism festivals are catching up in the rest of India. The Daman and Diu festival, and Maharashtra and Odisha’s tribal tourism initiatives are slowly moving towards responsible tourism.

Carefully formulated tribal tourism can act as a powerful medium towards social and economic inclusion of tribals. Similarly, it would also provide for the tribals to have a sense of belonging to the nation and live a life of dignity and respect.

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