Tourism, human rights, and who is in control

By Barbara Miller

Lead articles in the travel sections of the Sunday August 24 issues of The Washington Post and The New York Times raise some interesting questions about tourism in relation to indigenous peoples.

Both articles offer food for thought for anthropologists who work with indigenous peoples to protect, preserve, and “manage” their cultural heritage and for cultural tourists who want to avoid harming indigenous peoples and fragile environments. The articles also provide a useful source for classroom discussions around issues of heritage, rights, and responsibility.

The Washington Post article is about possible human rights abuses of Padaung women in northern Thailand. Their necks are elongated by wearing a stack of brass coils. They have long been an attraction to outsiders — photographers, journalists, tourists, and other voyeurs. Human rights activists and some eco-tourist company owners have expressed concern that unscrupulous businessmen are keeping Padaung women in “human zoos” across a wide area of northern Thailand.

The author of the article visited one village in which the women told him they are paid to live there and wear traditional clothing including their brass rings. It’s a village created for and sustained by tourists. The author asks: “So it is unethical to visit the long-necked women?” (p F4). The author notes that the women he talked with said that their life in the fake village where they earn money is preferable to poverty.

The New York Times article on the Navajo highlights the value, to indigenous people, of controlling tourism including the narrative conveyed to the tourists in terms of the complicated concept of “authenticity” and the profits generated from tourism. The contrasts with the situation of the Padaung women are clear. While the Navajo in this article are also putting parts of their culture on display for outsiders, they are in control of what to make publicly available and how, including an emphasis on respect for heritage and environmental concerns which responds to a new generation of tourists.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Padaung could be liberated from the “businessmen” and become in charge of their heritage and its consumption by outsiders?

Image: “Padaung Village,” licensed under Creative Commons from Flickr.

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