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date: 07 May 2021

Tourism and Indigenous Peoplesfree

  • Michelle MacCarthyMichelle MacCarthySaint Mary's University


Indigenous peoples worldwide are affected by, and engage with, tourism in a number of ways. On the one hand, tourism may be oriented to facilitate direct interactions between Indigenous peoples and foreign tourists, often referred to as cultural or even “primitivist” tourism. In such cases, Indigenous people may or may not have much agency in how that interaction transpires and how much profit they directly derive. In other cases, such as ecotourism, reserves or other protected areas may be made more or less inaccessible to Indigenous people who may have ancestral claims to it, with infrastructure built to facilitate tourists’ visits and restrict or prohibit Indigenous use. Tourism behaviors may be disrespectful, intentionally or not, of Indigenous sensibilities. Tourist visits may be embraced by Indigenous people as an opportunity for economic development and cultural expression or rejected as an invasion of privacy, denying people dignity and respect by being objects of the “tourist gaze.” Many scholars from anthropology, sociology, human geography, and other related disciplines have sought to address some of the issues and concerns regarding the relationship between tourism and Indigenous peoples, drawing on examples from around the globe in order to illustrate the multitude of ways in which this relationship operates. Ways that Indigenous peoples’ relationship to tourism may be explored include contexts such as tourism to visit ancient monuments and UNESCO-listed world heritage sites, tourism in search of cultural differences, cruise travel and luxury resorts, and ecotourism. A variety of implications and potential tensions that may arise through tourism involving Indigenous peoples are explored.

Setting the Stage for Indigenous Tourism

As one of the world’s largest industries, with well over one billion international tourist arrivals worldwide per year and growth rates of 7 percent in 2017, according to the World Tourism Organization, tourism is a major means by which people interact across borders (UNWTO World Tourism Barometer 2018). Indigenous peoples worldwide are affected by tourism in several major ways. In many instances, the tourism industry in its constant expansion appropriates Indigenous peoples’ land and resources, creating tensions and escalating inequalities. In some cases, however, Indigenous peoples may have a role to play (with various levels of agency and power on their own part) in welcoming people into their homes and on their land for the purposes of ecotourism (in which pristine environments, usually with rare and endemic species of plants, birds, or other living organisms are attractive to tourists), or because the people themselves and their way of life are of interest to tourists in what has been termed cultural or “primitivist” tourism (Stasch 2014).1 What is more, the graves and monuments of the ancestors of Indigenous people, local festivals, and ceremonies may be recognized as “marketable” from a tourism perspective and promoted to encourage tourist visits, which may or may not be considered disruptive or disrespectful from an Indigenous perspective. So-called “Indigenous tourism” development refers to tourism in which Indigenous people and communities are directly involved (in varying degrees) in the industry, whether as owners and tour operators, as porters and servants, as hosts in village stays, or as performers of cultural identity. Major reviews of Indigenous tourism focus on issues like sustainability and agency (Carr, Ruhanen, and Whitford 2016; Whitford and Ruhanen 2016). This articles seeks to address the complex and varied relationship between tourism and Indigenous peoples, drawing on global examples in order to illustrate the multitude of ways in which this relationship operates.

Before doing so, however, it is necessary to address what is meant here by “Indigenous,” as this is a contested term that may be strategically deployed in various ways. As Dove points out, popular use of the term Indigenous tends to focus on notions of “being native,” while formal international definitions (e.g., the United Nations) focus more on historic continuity, distinctiveness, marginalization, self-identity, and self-governance (Dove 2006). Merlan notes both “relational” (i.e., relations between “Indigenous” and “other”) and “criterial” (i.e., meeting set criteria) approaches to indigeneity (Merlan 2009). Government policies in most settler nations have historically sought to oppress, assimilate, and even eliminate Indigenous peoples. While some attempts at reparations, or at least recognition of past wrongs, have been made by governments in the early 21st century, inequalities persist and Indigenous peoples continue to face racism and other barriers.2 As minority peoples around the globe struggle for recognition and equality, the rise of indigeneity as a political and sociocultural designation results from the intersecting development of identity politics and universal human rights laws and principles (Niezen 2003). While anthropologists may question both the validity of the concept of indigeneity and the wisdom of employing it as a political tool, they are at the same time reluctant to deny it to local communities (Dove 2006, 192). The increasing global importance of indigeneity as a category is reflected in the development of its definition by the United Nations in 1986 and by the International Labor Organization in 1989, and by the United Nations declaration of 1995 to 2004 as the “Indigenous peoples’ decade.” There are often identity politics at play in determining the status of indigeneity in many parts of the world in terms of who legitimates claims, access to and interest in “traditional” knowledge and ways of life, and access to programs, social services, and rights that derive from having official status as Indigenous. Minority ethnic groups may seek formal recognition as Indigenous peoples, while majority groups may deny any such special status. What is here referred to as Indigenous tourism involves tourism activities in which Indigenous people (as self-identified and as officially designated) are directly involved, whether by managing such tourism or through one or another aspect of their culture serving as the essence of the attraction, or both (Hinch and Butler 2007). In the latter case, Indigenous peoples themselves may be marginalized while others profit from touristic interest in cultural difference.

Tourist infrastructures and marketing often rely on idealized notions of “natives” living in harmony with nature and with a unique history and material culture. As Whitford and Ruhanen point out, Indigenous peoples have had a long relationship with tourism, dating back to as early as the mid-1800s when, for example, the Sami in Scandinavia and ethnic minority groups in Asia were already becoming the objects of curiosity for adventurers and “discoverers” (Whitford and Ruhanen 2016). At the same time, Indigenous guides, porters, and servants worked for colonials in Africa, and Aboriginals in Australia began allowing visitors to experience cultural ceremonies. Meanwhile, some First Nations people in Canada were assuming roles as guides, hunters, and interpreters to assist early travelers and immigrants in the region; later, they began producing and selling tourist objects (especially in the areas surrounding Niagara Falls) to satisfy travelers’ desires for Indigenous souvenirs. A few decades later, the establishment of colonial rule in Kenya (first by Germany and then by Britain) and the subsequent development of transport and communication infrastructures resulted in the emergence of a tourism market primarily comprising elite Western travelers seeking to enjoy and explore “primitive” and “uncivilized” Indigenous tribes (Béteille 1998). Also in the 1880s, the “romantic, ethnographic, mythological representation of Indigenous culture” motivated travelers to undertake a three-month journey by ship to New Zealand to experience the natural wonders of the region as well as Maori cultural performances (Meadows 2001, 43); or to seek out “authentic Indigenous peoples” in destinations including the “paradise” islands of the Pacific representing “latter-day Gardens of Eden” (Harrison 2003, 4; Harrison 2004). Many such motivations and representations continue in the 21st century, but arguably Indigenous peoples have (at least in some cases) managed to claim much more autonomy and agency than was possible during the colonial period. Nonetheless, as this article illuminates, many issues remain and the experiences of Indigenous peoples with tourism vary dramatically from case to case.

It should be noted that Indigenous peoples can also be tourists. Depending on particular social and economic circumstances, Indigenous peoples (especially those in wealthy, if unequally so, regions like North America, New Zealand, and Scandinavia) may have opportunities to visit other places within their own region or nation, or may go abroad for work, study, visiting relatives, and for leisure. However, as a result of historical and ongoing discrimination, marginalization, and structural inequalities, Indigenous peoples around the world are often less well-off than their non-Indigenous counterparts, with fewer opportunities to engage in leisure travel. Thus, this article focuses primarily on the flow of visitors from wealthy socioeconomic situations (where indeed, it is the more privileged members of society who tend to be able to have the means to afford domestic or international leisure travel) to those who are generally disadvantaged in terms of power and wealth in their societies.

Tangible Heritage: Ancient Monuments and Indigenous Peoples

The remains of monumental architecture representing pinnacles of achievement and advanced engineering of ancient peoples are frequently marketed as tourist sites, with infrastructure designed to introduce visitors to the lifeways of ancient Indigenous peoples. Many of these sites are designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which designates a list of World Heritage sites. Such a listing validates a given site as significant and generally increases both public knowledge of the site and the desire to consume it as a touristic object. For example, the site of the Cahokia Mounds, a 1,000-year-old city and State Historic Site in Illinois with UNESCO status, sees more than a quarter of a million visitors annually. As Doershuk notes, while the Mississippian peoples who built Cahokia had largely disappeared from the area by the end of the 16th century and initial management plans made little space for the inclusion of participation from recognized American Indian tribes in the region, revised management plans do call for some (though limited) involvement and partnerships with Native American organizations (Doershuk 2018). This stands in contrast to another UNESCO-listed Indigenous historical site in North America, the site of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (HSI) in Alberta, Canada. Here, Blackfoot-speaking peoples whose direct ancestors utilized the buffalo jump remain the primary resident population, and “accordingly concerted efforts to significantly and continuously involve the perspectives, concerns, and ideas of native Blackfoot-speaking people have characterized the management of HSI to the present day,” though the Government of Alberta retains ownership and ultimate control over the site (Doershuk 2018, 54; Susemihl 2013).

While not all major ancient monuments have living Indigenous descendants of their original builders who maintain a vested interest in such sites and their surrounds, many do. The major archaeological sites representing ancient civilizations in Central America (the Maya sites like Copán in Honduras and Tikal in Guatemala) and South America (Inca sites like Machu Picchu in Peru) are some of the major tourism attractions in these regions, and many of the people living in the areas near such sites are recognized descendants of the great prehistoric civilizations responsible for their construction. These monumental sites represent only a small blip in the larger prehistory of these regions, but as tangible and dramatic examples of monumental architecture and especially with UNESCO status, they are the most visible and best known. Across Latin America, indigeneity refers to people of pre-Columbian ancestry, as against those of European descent and with Spanish as their primary language. As with all categorizations of indigeneity, there are gray areas and contestations about identity, but the peoples formally recognized or self-identifying as indígenas can number as high as over 60 percent in Peru, for example—a country that exemplifies one kind of relationship between Indigenous peoples and tourism in the region.

The city of Cuzco, as the “gateway” to the Inca city of Machu Picchu, is one of the most popular touristic destinations in South America. Tourist traffic at Machu Picchu has grown steadily since the early 1990s, topping one million visitors annually for the first time in 2012. Most of these visitors base themselves in the city of Cuzco before and after trekking to the site along the famous Inca Trail, or taking local transit. The 15th-century ruins of Machu Picchu, discovered in 1911, exemplify astounding feats of architecture and engineering in a spectacular natural setting and are a UNESCO-listed world heritage site. The descendants of the Inca people are among the 4.4 million Quechua-speaking indígenas living in Peru in 2020. Indigenous Quechua speakers make up approximately two-thirds of the population of the Cuzco region, but live mostly in dispersed settlements in the interior, while Quechua-Spanish mestizo (individuals of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry) bilinguals, along with some Spanish monolinguals from the coast, make up the urban population of the city of Cuzco and of the smaller provincial and district capitals (van den Burghe and Ochoa 2000). As van den Burghe and Flores Ochoa point out, while it is the Inca ancestors and living Indigenous denizens of the region that interest tourists, it is the local non-Indigenous elites who often control businesses and benefit the most from tourism, while Quechua-speakers remain poor and marginalized. Local reverence for the Inca past is reflected in the painstaking preservation and display of Inca architecture and also manifests in pride in speaking fluent Quechua. Tourists predominantly come to engage in cultural tourism related to the Inca past and the continued Indigenous presence of the region, and even those who come ostensibly for other purposes—such as adventure tourism (hang-gliding, river rafting, mountain climbing, and hiking), ecotourism (jungle tours in the Amazonian lowlands to the east of Cuzco), or “mystical tourism” to commune with the spirits of the mountains—do so in the context of the pervading Inca theme of the region.

If Indigenous history (reflecting but one of many periods and peoples of Peru’s past) and the picturesque local dress (colorful fabrics, distinctive hats), music (pan flutes), and food (fried cuy, or guinea pig) are of primary interest, local indígenas have varying levels of involvement in and interest in the tourism industry. While local elites are more likely to run tour operators and own hotels, restaurants, and buses, Quechua speakers participate in many ways, including creating handcrafted objects (woven textiles, dolls, and ceramics), acting as tour guides and porters, and running small market stalls; these are hardly the most profitable and desirable jobs, but tourism does perhaps open up possibilities for engagement in this industry should one choose to participate. There is often handwringing about places like Cuzco getting “spoiled” by tourists, and this can be well founded; the small mountain town and historical site of Machu Picchu were not designed with traffic of over a million annual visitors in mind. In 2017, the Peruvian government introduced a set time slot for permit holders to visit the ruins of Machu Picchu in either the morning or the afternoon, which they hoped would ease congestion, and quotas were set ostensibly to mitigate damage to the site (though the new system, in fact, slightly increased overall numbers such that UNESCO has threatened to place the site on its endangered list) (Choat 2017). While outcomes have been mixed for indígenas in the Cuzco region, it would be simplistic to categorize tourism as “good” or “bad” in this case (and most others), but rather as complex and multifaceted.

Just as cultural difference, ancient monuments, and natural phenomena become objects of tourist attraction, Indigenous peoples’ material culture is often fetishized (e.g., in North America in the form of beaded leatherwork, dreamcatchers, and jewelry). Despite histories of oppression, some individuals and communities have found a sense of self-respect in their identity as Indigenous, and sought to revitalize aspects of culture that were in danger of being lost, such as language, as well as material culture such as carving, weaving, and other crafts. Some communities have developed ways to engage productively with tourism in order to open opportunities for economic development while maintaining and reviving Indigenous art forms, ceremonies, and ways of life. In other cases, non-Indigenous entrepreneurs have tried to profit from the appropriation of Indigenous material and immaterial culture for tourism purposes. Peru is one such place where material culture (weaving, embroidery, knitwear, etc.) is seen by tourists to reflect and embody “indigeneity” and is a significant aspect of the tourism industry, and in Canada, Indigenous peoples are recognized for arts such as Inuit soapstone carvings and model “totem poles.” These are sometimes handmade by Indigenous artists, but may also be appropriated and even mass-produced by non-Indigenous entrepreneurs (Fionda 2018).3 There is a tendency to distinguish between “authentic” indigenous art and arts (implying historical continuity and their manufacture for local consumption) as against “tourist art” (implying “trinkets” for decoration rather than use, made explicitly for touristic consumption, with the former elevated and the latter derided, if nonetheless popular) (Errington 1994; Graburn 1976, 1984, 1999; MacCarthy 2015a).

This issue of authenticity has been discussed at great length in the literature on the anthropology and sociology of tourism, both in terms of objects and experiences (e.g., Cohen 1988; Cole 2007; Kaeppler 1973; Kim and Jamal 2007; MacCannell 1973; Shiner 1994; Taylor 2001; Wang 1999). While some scholars have proposed that this issue is only something tourists are concerned with in their “quest” for authentic radical cultural difference, it is argued here that contestations over what is and is not culturally authentic may just as well be issues which Indigenous peoples themselves grapple with, especially as they engage with tourism and other aspects of global economic exchange and ideas about “modernity” as opposed to “primitivity” (MacCannell 1973; van den Burghe 1994; MacCarthy 2013, 2015b, 2016a). This is closely related to concerns about cultural commodification in terms of objects, but also in terms of experiences like dance performances or village stays, which are common activities in tourism in which visiting cultural others (especially Indigenous others) is the primary touristic attraction.

In Search of a Radical Cultural Other

It is impossible in a short survey article to adequately convey the range of circumstances and experiences of cultural tourism based around Indigenous peoples, especially as they are seen by tourists to represent a sort of “primitive” alternative to their own Western ways of life. The rich literature, which is beyond the scope of this article to adequately engage, includes anthropological work on tourism in the context of Bedouin nomads (Bille 2011; Cole 2003; Dinero 2002); Korowai tree house dwellers in West Papua (Stasch 2014, 2016); ni-Vanuatu land divers on Pentecost Island (“the original bungy jumpers”) (Cheer, Reeves, and Laing 2013; Taylor 2010); Iban longhouse communities in Borneo (Yea 2002; Zeppel 1997, 1998a, 1998b); Maasai “warriors” in Kenya (Bruner 2005; Bruner and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2005); and many, many others. These works engage in a variety of ways with issues such as encroachment onto Indigenous land by resorts, concerns regarding conservation management, active engagement by local communities in providing “cultural experiences” to tourists, unmet expectations and frustrations with tourism’s limitation as a magic bullet for development, and the politics of being Indigenous in the first place. In many cases, such as the Maasai performances Bruner describes in Kenya, these are rather explicitly an extension of colonial power relations, with wealthy white elites hiring Maasai to perform “the noble savage” (Bruner and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2005, 33) and serve mostly white, foreign visitors.

In Australia, despite a long history of racism which continues to the present day (2020), aboriginal culture is nonetheless marketed as a tourism drawing card. Mass-produced “aboriginal art” and painted digeridoos and boomerangs fill the shelves of every tourist shop, capitalizing on the (relatively recent) international appreciation of the original art produced by Aboriginal artists, also sold in high-end galleries. Mass tourism to the region began in the 1960s, with over 300,000 domestic and international visitors as of 2016–2017.4 Tourists are encouraged to visit sacred places like Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, in Australia’s Northern Territory (NT). For years, visitors frequently climbed the rock, equipped since 1966 with a safety chain for tourists’ convenience, as part of the “experience” of visiting it, despite local Indigenous peoples’ strong belief that the site is sacred and such acts disregard Indigenous peoples’ rights. The NT’s population is about one-fifth Aboriginal, and the site of Uluru was vested in Aboriginal ownership in October 1985, after a prolonged political struggle in which a condition of the land grant was that the national park be leased back to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (Altman 1989).5 This grand monolithic feature in the vast outback region of Australia is of vital cultural and religious significance to its Aboriginal custodians, the Anangu. Given the sacred nature of the site for Anangu, many consider it problematic and disrespectful, as well as potentially dangerous and destructive, for visitors to climb Uluru (du Cros and Johnston 2002).6 Notably in October 2019, Uluru was permanently closed to climbing, an outcome long sought by the local community. Tjukurpa, the Pitjantjatjara word for law, environmental history, knowledge, religion, and morality that is the basis of Anangu values and accounts for much of their intangible heritage, provides the guiding principles for the management of the park. Anangu custodians of the site try to promote alternatives to climbing the rock, such as the following ranger- or self-guided walks provided in a park brochure issued in the official Parks Australia Visitor Guide, June 2018:

Walking reveals the natural beauty and rich culture of Uluru. You will be following the footsteps of the ancestral beings that shaped the landscape. By choosing to walk around Uluru instead of climbing, you will be respecting Tjukurpa and Anangu wishes.

While many tourists lined up on the last day that the climb was permitted (Allam and Bowers 2019), some scholars suggest that rather than being a disappointment to tourists, limiting access to culturally and spiritually significant sites (whether at Uluru or Machu Picchu) may actually heighten tourists’ sense of authenticity and enhance their experience of the site (du Cros and Johnston 2002).

While the rights and wishes of Indigenous Australians have finally been recognized, this comes only after a long history in which Aboriginal people were granted little agency in determining the course of tourism development, paralleling a more general pattern of settler–government intervention in the lives of Indigenous people (in Australia as elsewhere). In other cases, local Indigenous communities have had greater agency in directing the course of cultural tourism planning and implementation, at least for a period of time.

Amantaní and Taquile Islands, located on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca in southeastern Peru, became in many ways case studies for indigenously motivated and managed tourism without government or nongovernmental organization intervention in the late 1970s and 1980s. From Puno, the regional capital, tourists typically book a two-day excursion that first stops on the “floating islands” of the Uros people, where they learn about life on the island of totora reeds and are invited to buy local handicrafts. The trip continues to the island of Amantaní, where visitors are assigned to a family who will serve as their cultural guides and hosts for their overnight stay. Each evening the community holds a party for the tourists, who are dressed for the event by their host family in the festive clothing of the islanders. Villagers from across the community attend the gathering, where Amantaníans play music and perform “traditional dances” with the tourists and pose for pictures. The next morning, visitors continue on to Taquile Island for a few hours’ visit, including lunch at a family-run restaurant. Visitors may visit the island’s municipal building with its small museum or a cooperative textile-weaving facility, where they can purchase the handwoven textiles for which the island is famous. Indeed, these extraordinary textiles were proclaimed “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2005 (Cherro Osorio and Best 2015). Amantaní and Taquile seem to provide the tourist with “the essence of Indian Peru: Quechua-speaking potato farmers, wearing beautiful clothing, set high in the Andes mountains surrounded by a spectacular lake, with adobe brick homes, and few modern conveniences” (Zorn and Farthing 2007). But while a visit to Amantaní brings visitor and host into close contact, Cheong notes that “throughout the entire visit to the Taquile Island, minimal interaction between islander and guest occurs besides an occasional nod” (Cheong 2008, 57).

Taquile and Amantaní, like other Andean peasant communities, are organized on the basis of the pre‐Columbian Ayllu (Quechua for a corporate kin group) system. The islands’ residents subsist on farming, fishing, and herding, with tourism a secondary, but important industry. The communities on both Amantaní and Taquile Islands are based upon ideals of communal responsibility and benefits and have systems of rotating plots of land for crops, in which each family ideally owns land so that all receive benefits from the season’s harvest, as well as other forms of tourism-related cooperative ownership (Cheong 2008, 7). Community decision-making is participative; service is voluntary and rotative (Zorn and Farthing 2007, 677). Taquile Island is often considered a model for what is sometimes called “communitarian tourism” in Latin America: a locally developed, owned, and managed enterprise with community-wide distribution of benefits (Zorn and Farthing 2007, 674; Mitchell and Reid 2001). As landowners and with sovereign rights as Indigenous peoples, residents of Taquile and Amantaní have (at least in its early stages) been able to retain greater control of tourism in their islands than many other Indigenous groups.

In response to tourist demand, which has grown steadily since the island became known to international tourists in the 1970s, Taquileans created various community and family-based businesses, including the billeting system wherein tourists are housed with different families on a rotating basis, a crafts cooperative and store where islanders could sell textiles, individual- and family-owned restaurants, and a local museum. Prices are fixed by all members to avoid harmful competition, with a small percentage of 5 percent retained for cooperative maintenance, and private sales to tourists are prohibited by community law, in keeping with islander traditions of equality and fairness (Mitchell and Eagles 2001). Apart from a small grant in the late 1970s, Taquileans, who had virtually no access to bank or personal loans, assumed all the associated costs and risks without assuming any debt. In 1978, sixty-eight families were authorized to take in overnight foreign guests. By August 1982, the number had risen to 207, or nearly every family on the island (Zorn and Farthing 2007, 678–679).

As Gascón (2015) describes, given the earliest successes on Taquile Island, Amantaní residents trusted that if they offered a similar experience, tourists would arrive in great numbers to the benefit of all residents. With this expectation, they set out to replicate the model set by neighboring Taquile. Most families prepared a room in their dwellings to house tourists. With government support, a Handicrafts Hall was built in 1979 for each family to sell their handmade textiles and baskets. Two new institutions were created to guide and organize the new tourism activities: the Maternal Center and the Community President’s Office. The former, controlled by women, managed the sale of handicrafts through the Handicrafts Hall. The latter maintained the infrastructure, including the cleaning of hostel rooms and the care and improvement of roads and archaeological sites. However, by the 1980s, the Amantaní residents became concerned by a scarcity of tourists in relation to expectations, and the control and seizure of the tourism industry by a small group of locals. While tourism to the island has since increased, Gascón suggests several reasons why it lagged behind nearby Taquile Island, including Amantaní’s greater distance from Puno, Taquile’s highly successful early marketing campaign, and the islands’ demographics: at three times the population, Amantaní would also need three times the number of tourists to enjoy the same distributed benefits as Taquile.7 Further, as Cheong (2008, 7) notes, Amantaníans have struggled more than their Taquilean neighbors with cooperative and communal distribution of benefits as a result of their inherently more stratified social structure such that the distribution of benefits tended to be less equitable.

Taquile and Amantaní, then, represent what is often pegged as “grass-roots” tourism: locally driven and controlled. Taquileans, for the most part, report positive outcomes from their involvement with tourism in the forms of increased income, skills, and social status (Zorn and Farthing 2007, 674). Those who study the community agree that success was due to factors including strong local structures which preexisted tourism (i.e., the ayllu kin group system), community-wide benefits distribution, favorable legislation, NGO assistance (one small but important grant), and public and private partnerships. The early experiences of Taquile Island residents with tourism, which were largely seen by the local Indigenous community as positive, are often taken as a model for how tourism can be done right. As Cheong suggests,

By placing the control of industry in the hands of the indigenous communities, tourism has the potential to empower a community that has, like many other indigenous communities, been historically disempowered within a narrative of colonial oppression, state-endorsed inequality and lack of access to resources in a market-based economy. On Amantaní and Taquile Islands, tourism that is sustainable is founded upon community-control and facilitates the corresponding ability for self-determination.

(Cheong 2008, 8)

However, when the government abolished the law that provided the islanders a monopoly on transportation in the early 1990s, this autonomy and control over tourism was lost (Cheong 2008, 7). Enterprising tour agencies quickly moved in and islanders today have only minimal control or power over tourist arrivals, with outside brokers increasingly determining the nature of tourism while claiming much of the revenues generated. Not only in Amantaní, which never saw the economic success that accrued to Taquileans, but also the latter now find themselves confronted with an increasing number of outside travel agencies not only trying to control the number of tourists but also restricting the amount of time they spend there. As a result, Taquile Island is currently experiencing a period of change with a reduction in control over tourism and modifications to their way of life. The most significant change is a decrease in their communitarian work, with less people participating in the different associations (Cherro Osorio and Best 2015, 348).

While places with UNESCO status (Machu Picchu, Cahokia Mounds, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park) or established regular visitor traffic for an Indigenous cultural experience (Uros Islands, Uluru) are popular, there is a broad fascination among many would-be travelers (and the media) with “uncontacted” “tribes” in places such as Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Amazonia, where “first contact” for some Indigenous peoples was relatively recent.8 A very few places have managed to exempt themselves from tourism through a combination of their own resistance and government protection. For example, in November 2018, the death of missionary John Chau on North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal, was widely reported in the international media (Griswold 2018; Safi 2018). Sentinel Islanders have refused interaction with any visitors, and the Indian government has long made attempting to visit the island illegal in order to protect the residents who have made clear their desire to remain undisturbed by outsiders. Such rights are now enshrined in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which states that Indigenous people have a right to self-determination and autonomy. In the nearly South Andaman and Middle Andaman Islands, the Jarawa people present a cautionary tale to the human rights violations potentially created through commodifying Indigenous people against their wishes. Jarawa communities live in a 1,028 km forest reserve, but the presence of a logging road through their territory has meant that they have been largely unwilling participants in a kind of tourism that has been called a “human safari” (Chamberlain 2012; Dobson 2015). In the early 2010s, hundreds of tourist cars lined up every day on the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), which winds through the reserve. In 2013, India’s Supreme Court banned tourists from taking the ATR after a video shot by a journalist showed policemen forcing six Jarawa women to dance for tourists. The court reversed the decision after the state administration submitted a notification promising that no tourist or commercial establishment in the area would be permitted (BBC 2018). While a number of rules against interactions between Jarawa and tourists have been instated, many media reports suggest that they are not enforced. According to Survival International, hundreds of tourists continue to pass through the Jarawa reserve on a daily basis. In this instance, Indigenous people are given no agency and are clearly exploited by unethical and even illegal primitivist tourism.

In other cases, such as in PNG’s Trobriand Islands, Indigenous people may welcome tourism and have a reasonable degree of agency in directing primitivist tourism encounters. While the island of New Guinea (which also includes West Papua, politically designated as a province of Indonesia) has been governed by a variety of colonizers (Dutch, German, British, and finally Australian), settler populations were always small and Indigenous New Guineans have remained in the majority, even if they were not generally in positions of power and governance prior to PNG’s independence in 1975. PNG also has the distinction of being one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse countries in the world, with over 800 distinct languages. The extreme diversity of Indigenous peoples (as well as ecological diversity, from coastal beaches to rugged mountain peaks and valleys to volcanic islands, and boasting rare endemic species like several birds-of-paradise) makes it a desirable destination for hard-core cultural and environmental tourists, but the country’s widely reported law and order problems, lack of infrastructure, and high prices limit the number of actual tourists. According to statistics available from the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority, total arrivals in PNG in 2016 were just under 200,000, but of these only 37,621 were identified as tourists arriving by air, and another 19,123 visitors traveled via cruise ship (PNG statistics as of June 2018), as compared to the 4 million annual tourists to Peru. This gives it the additional cachet of being, as the Lonely Planet website puts it, “untouched by mass tourism.”

The Trobriand Islands are considered a safe place to travel relative to the risks to personal safety that a potential tourist may encounter in large urban centers in PNG. Visitors travel independently by the regularly scheduled commercial flights arriving several times a week via the provincial capital of Alotau, by small group tours with a handful of Port Moresby (the national capital) and internationally based tour operators, or by cruise ship or yacht. The Trobriands have a particular history in the discipline of anthropology, being one of the quintessential case studies in understanding not only exchange (especially with reference to the exchange of shell valuables in Kula), but also magic, family life and sexuality, and political leadership. Many tourists are aware of the most (in)famous works, especially Malinowski’s The Sexual Life of Savages (Malinowski 1929), which idealized (misunderstood) notions of promiscuity and sexual freedom and have led to the Trobriands’ characterization as “the Islands of Love.” This is part of the broader primitivizing tendencies in tourism promotion as well as in travelers’ own expectations in traveling to “untouched” places like PNG, based on representations in travel guides, in National Geographic, and on adventure programming such as Survivorman or Tribal Wives (MacCarthy 2016a). Trobrianders themselves are well aware of, and indeed proud of, their exotic reputation and consider themselves to have “more culture” than their dimdim (foreign, especially white) visitors, though many cringe at their reputation as licentious and oversexed (MacCarthy 2013, 2016a, 2016b). Nonetheless, traditional and more recently innovated dance forms, including some hotly contested bawdy performances and lyrics, are mainstays of the tourist experience of the Trobriands. Visitors may either stay in one of two simple local guest houses offering a bed, generator-powered electricity, and running water, or opt for a village stay in a bush-materials house, with simpler amenities (a mat on the floor covered by a mosquito net, a kerosene lamp, and a bucket shower). Those who opt for the latter inevitably feel they have had a more “authentic” cultural experience and congratulate themselves for their fortitude (MacCarthy 2016a, 120, 130–131; 2016c).

In the Trobriands, tourists who make the long, challenging, and expensive journey are rewarded with a sense that they have experienced a radical cultural otherness and learned something about themselves in the process, according to the author’s extensive research and many hours of interviews with visitors.9 Some were disappointed by signs of “modernity,” such as the use of mobile phones (which came into use when a cell tower was constructed in 2010), Western clothing, and corrugated iron roofing on some houses, but most felt that they had traveled there “just in time,” before modernity and globalization had fully “destroyed” cultural difference. Tourists reflect on the fact that tourism may “spoil” people’s cultural uniqueness, and point to things like the use of money as morally questionable and likely to “corrupt” what they idealize as a harmonious gift economy that operates entirely outside the market. Still others were dismayed that things were not exactly as they had read about in “old books,” as two European women commented to the author. Regardless of individual variation in the perception of cultural authenticity in the Trobriands, in almost all cases, the attraction to the place in the first case was cultural differences and idealization of a radically different way of life, a primitive throwback to simpler times, characterized by a gift economy, a lack of capitalism, a subsistence lifestyle, and visual markers of simplicity (traditional dress, homes made of bush materials, ceremonies and performances like traditional dances)—many of which are expectations of travelers visiting Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world as well (e.g., Cole 2007; Stasch 2014; Robinson and Connell 2008; Garland and Gordon 1999).

In Trobriand tourism, the author would argue that Trobrianders themselves have, and feel they have, a fair amount of agency in managing tourism to the islands (excluding, perhaps, cruise-based tourism). While there are outside operators, like the Canadian-based Eldertreks, who organize approximately twice-yearly trips to PNG, including several days in the Trobriands on their itineraries, all overnight guests to the island stay in locally owned and operated guest houses (as there are no other options!), and most engage directly with local people. Trobrianders enjoy performing traditional dances in full regalia, and local audiences for such performances usually far outnumber tourists. While there is no direct control of tourism numbers, arrivals are limited by the thrice-weekly, expensive flights on the small twin-prop PNG Air flights from Port Moresby via the provincial capital of Alotau. Trobrianders, in general, welcome tourism (and tourists) and wish for more of them to come, though some are far more skeptical. Most Trobrianders the author worked with appreciated the opportunity to showcase their unique cultural identity as well as the opportunity to perhaps earn some much-needed and hard to come by cash in a place where the vast majority of residents are subsistence gardeners with no regular income. This is not to say that tourism in the islands is entirely smooth, and there are clear colonialist and even evolutionary undertones in many visitors’ perceptions of the islanders’ way of life.10 But for the most part, Trobrianders do not consider themselves disempowered or exploited by tourists and seek to facilitate encounters in which they can both showcase their identity and ideally benefit financially from doing so. Indeed, in some cases in can be argued that both tourists and Trobrianders see the latter as holding the upper hand in interactions, as tourists try to navigate what they see as the complicated gift-based economy they encounter there (MacCarthy 2015b).

For Trobrianders, living in a heterogeneous society like PNG, they are amply aware of their uniqueness from not only foreigners, but from other Papua New Guineans. They recognize that if anthropologists, documentary filmmakers, and TV crews regularly come to document them, it is because they have a strong and special culture that is lacking elsewhere. Most Trobrianders are fiercely proud of their identity, and yet there are many contestations where traditional culture (especially in terms of dress, in which women’s breasts are exposed), dance (some of which are explicitly erotic in nature), and magic and sorcery is opposed by Christian ideals, and indeed Christianity (in “mainline” forms, but also particularly in newer charismatic movements) permeates social life across PNG (for a fuller discussion of some of these contestations, see MacCarthy 2016b, 2017a, 2017b). Many tourists see missionization as a scourge and a destroyer of culture, while most Trobrianders see a need to balance their customs (and tourists’ interest in them) and their faith (MacCarthy 2013). Further, while at least some Trobrianders are hopeful that tourism can help lift the islands from the poverty and lack of infrastructure that plagues them, many recognize the inherent inequality that only a few select people benefit substantially from tourism, while others receive nothing. This is perhaps even more pronounced, since large cruise ships began visiting the islands in 2013, disgorging up to 2,500 passengers over several hours into two selected villages of a few hundred inhabitants.

Cruise Travel, Luxury Resorts, and International Tour Operators: Exploitation and Exclusion

Cruise ship travel and luxury resorts are, in general, the types of travel that permit the least meaningful interaction between tourists and Indigenous people, while having perhaps the greatest impact in terms of sheer numbers and pressure on the local environment and social systems. Cruise ships often carry several thousand passengers and crew, who can opt to come ashore for daytime excursions while having most of their food and drink, as well as their beds, on the ship. This means that their spending on shore is limited to a possible snack, souvenir, or a local tour, while the vast majority of their expenditures are paid to the cruise operator. A mass of visitors thus often descends on small communities for a short time on a regular basis, with little direct benefit to the local communities. Nonetheless, on days that ships arrive in the Trobriands, for example, people flock from all over the island with handmade wood carvings and other locally crafted items (as well as some commercially produced ones) in hopes of making a sale, while those few with access to resources such as a generator and refrigerator make a fine profit on selling cold beer.11 Ultimately, local expectations are more likely to be frustrated than satisfied by the boom-but-mostly-bust nature of cruise ship tourism, with business-as-usual prevailing on the many days without cruise ship arrivals.12 There is often resentment on the part of those who do not benefit from tourism toward those who are seen to do so, and this may lead to disharmony; in the Trobriands, those living inland frequently complain that those living in the coastal village receiving cruise ships are “money-faced” and selfish, eschewing the Trobriand ethos of sharing and material egalitarianism (MacCarthy 2019).

The Canadian North regularly sees the arrival of large cruise ships such as Crystal Cruises’ Serenity, with a capacity for more than 1,000 passengers and over 600 crew. In a 2016 article in The Guardian reporting on the maiden voyage of the ship through the Northwest Passage13 and stopping at remote communities in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, Robin McKie reported that “Inuit leaders fear that visits by giant cruise ships could overwhelm fragile communities, while others warn that the Arctic ecosystem, already suffering the effects of global warming, could be seriously damaged.”14 Similar large cruise ships dock in villages throughout the globe, especially on the shores of Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Pacific islands and coastal communities, offering both the promise of economic development for remote communities and similar arguments stressing their detrimental effects.

Encroachment and Dispossession for Luxury Tourism Developments

Large-scale luxury resorts may encroach on Indigenous land, usually with some kind of legal documentation allowing them access to the land in exchange for payment, but this is frequently contested as it can be difficult to ascertain which individuals have the right to make such agreements, and kin networks are often invoked in various ways to either profit from or disrupt such arrangements. In some cases, large-scale relocations have been negotiated, usually with detrimental long-term effects on Indigenous communities (much as forced migrations of Indigenous peoples in colonized countries have done historically in the United States, Canada, and Australia, for example). One illustrative case comes from Yalong Bay in Hainan Province in China, where Li people, a recognized ethnic minority, were displaced by top-down policy decisions that would develop major resort infrastructure on the island, which is recognized as their ancestral homeland. Designed primarily for the huge domestic tourism market, the “backward” Li people were not considered an attraction in themselves, but rather an inconvenience to be removed from the seaside location such that starred resorts, condominiums, and golf courses could be constructed. Wang and Wall (2007) describe the rapid and aggressive development of the region wherein the interests of the communities that were “in the way” of development were disregarded. Some compensation was given to those displaced, but this was inadequate and relocation was in no way optional. In China, the government has a high level of authority and local participation in issues such as relocation for tourism development is not encouraged or considered desirable. Among Li people themselves, Wang and Wall argue that “limited formal educational experiences resulted in a lack of knowledge, confidence and the desire to be involved in the planning for their displacement,” a situation further exacerbated by a lack of political will and indifference to the outside world (Wang and Wall 2007, 78).

In North America, there is a de facto assumption that with the exception of government-designated reserves as detailed in treaties, Indigenous peoples do not have legal claims to public or private land (although this is, in some cases, being successfully contested). This is what facilitates such developments as the Sun Peaks Resort, a luxury ski and golf resort near Kamloops, British Columbia, on what is considered by many (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) people to be unceded Secwĕpemc territory. The mountain is known to Secwĕpemc people as Skwelkwek’welt and is a culturally significant part of their traditional territory, and they rigorously oppose resort development. Cooke (2016) examines the resort and Secwĕpemc claims in a political ecology context, foregrounding the settler colonial context in which it occurs. While for leisure seekers, the resort offers a tamed version of nature (groomed ski runs in winter, groomed fairways and greens in summer), for Secwĕpemc, it is an important high alpine hunting and gathering ground as well as a site used for specific ceremonial rites of passage (Cooke 2016, 229). Aboriginal title was never formally extinguished by the Crown, but the land was appropriated anyway. Much of the public discourse centers around the resort’s contribution to the local economy, but such development at the same time denies Indigenous people the right to use their own land to meet their own subsistence and spiritual needs. Cooke describes how “as it stands, there is no epistemic ground upon which this land can be valued in anything other than capitalist terms. It has been so deeply folded into globalizing flows of people and capital as a tourist destination that Secwĕpemc opposition can only be seen as ‘standing in the way of progress’” (Cooke 2016, 234). She suggests the need to examine processes of place making as simultaneously potential forces of exclusion, forces which make no space for Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and valuing place (Cooke 2016, 236).


Ecotourism takes as its central focus an interest in the natural environment on the part of visitors, whether in old-growth rain forests, intact coral reef systems, or the frozen arctic tundra. Natural wonders like waterfalls, volcanoes, mountain peaks, and white sand beaches may be desirable sites for ecotourism. Some ecotourists seek particular biomes (like tundra, desert, or tropical rain forest) and the particular flora and fauna therein. Some may focus on sighting rare specimens of birds, amphibians, or other creatures, or collecting the “Big Five” on safari in Africa (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo). In many cases, whether or not visitors have any direct interaction with Indigenous people, they may be conducting their “explorations” on Indigenous peoples’ present or past territory (they are in some cases dispossessed of parts of their land in the name of creating a national park or natural reserve). Usually, ecotourists have an explicit desire to have a positive impact on local communities by patronizing local services and respecting the customs of the destination hosts (Hinch 1998; West and Carrier 2004). In some instances, Indigenous peoples may be of interest to ecotourists as they are seen to live in harmony with their natural environment. They may serve as guides, porters, and tour operators, among other positions in the tourist industry, and they may or may not have a voice in determining policies and best practices.

In the far north, Inuit have long been romanticized for adapting to harsh, frozen environments. Both this way of life and the environment itself (with species like polar bears, musk-ox, and caribou) attract a small but significant number of tourists. Claudia Notzke (1999) outlines current trends in Indigenous tourism in the arctic, observing that “some Indigenous people are exploring innovative ways to harness tourism to support the traditional elements of their land-based economy, rather than being consumed by the industry.” Notzke provides statistics on tourist visits to the arctic region and notes that survey data demonstrate that wildlife is the primary motivator for tourists to visit (99 percent of respondents indicating this as a main interest, with “native culture” following a close second, with 96 percent of respondents citing this as a motivation) (Notzke 1999, 56–57). She concludes that in the Western arctic, some of the most important challenges facing the Inuvialuit, the Gwich’in, and other Indigenous peoples in the north relate to their “land-based way of life, to questions of how this way of life can be protected from tourism, and how this industry can be shaped to fit into this way of life” (Notzke 1999, 73). The relationship between Indigenous communities in various parts of the arctic and tourism has been examined in a number of studies (see, e.g., Grekin and Milne 1996; Hinch 1995; and Wolfe-Keddie 1993).

Some companies are not Indigenous owned, though they promote themselves as being low-impact, educational, and respectful of both people and the environment in Inuit communities. Other companies are Indigenous owned, such as Inuit Adventures, which represents more than a dozen local cooperatives across Nunavik (northern Quebec), and offers wildlife and cultural tours. Local ownership and agency are forefront in the ethos (and marketing) of such companies. For example, Inuit Adventures stresses its dedication “to providing meaningful experiences for our guests that immerse you in the natural and cultural heritage of our land, as well as give you the unique opportunity to personally meet local elders and artists and share in the contemporary traditions of our communities.”15 In this case, Indigenous peoples are the active agents leading tourism in their region, but are also the objects of tourists’ interests. By engaging local cooperatives, this kind of tourism aims to be both culturally sensitive, productive culturally and economically for local communities, and inclusive of community members in various ways. However, even locally based tourism is not exempt from the common problems of inequality in terms of who profits from tourism as against those who do not, as well as the jealousies and resentments that can arise, potentially leading to community conflict.

Clearly, the interest in the environment of the far north is coupled with a fascination by tourists with the people who make such a harsh environment home, and thrive there. In Europe, only a single ethnic group is formally recognized as Indigenous: the Sami people of Lapland, in what is now northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Sa´pmi, the Sami homeland (commonly referred to as Lapland), spans the subarctic and arctic portions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. This means that they are subject to different legislation across national borders, and Sami tend to have complicated relationships with the states in which they live, which “grant” them rights on land that has been colonized and who govern their territories. They are mostly known as semi-nomadic reindeer hunters, supplemented by fishing and farming, and like Canadian Inuit, they are idealized by many tourists for thriving in a harsh, seemingly inhospitable environment and for maintaining a distinct identity in the face of colonization, marginalization, and assimilationist policies. Nonetheless, the Sami stand apart from their Indigenous counterparts in most other parts of the world, as they enjoy a high standard of living and low levels of poverty and violence.

Stereotypical cultural markers associated with Sami are language, reindeer, the lavuu (tent used as a temporary dwelling), and Sami dress (Pettersson and Viken 2007). As the productivity of reindeer herding declines and tourist demand for “the Sami experience” increases, more Sami are engaging in tourism ventures, and at the same time tour operators who are not Sami are also profiting from the exotic image of the Sami people and their environment. Saarinen (2001) has criticized some ventures in northern Finland, which he argues are exploitative of Sami culture, while operations in Norway, where Sami themselves have been key agents in tourism development, are often cited as examples of Indigenous tourism done right (or, at least, better).16 Tourism across Sa´pmi tends to be based in the outdoors, with, for example, on its webpage on “the Sami way of life” offering potential visitors the opportunity to “Go dog sledding or skiing on the rugged Finnmark plain, camp in a traditional lavvu (Sami tent), or get a glimpse of reindeer husbandry. At winter nights, wonder at the northern lights that dance above your head.” The Visit Norway website goes on with a description of the town of Karasjok, which

with its recognized Sami institutions and living Sami culture, is the Sami capital with almost 3,000 inhabitants . . . and some 60,000 reindeer. At The Sápmi Culture Park you can experience the Sami way of life. Here, you can try Sami cuisine by the open fire, hear the traditional songs (the “joik,” one of Europe’s oldest surviving music traditions), and meet Sami people in colorful local costumes.

Olsen (2016, 180) summarizes the potential areas for conflict in Sami tourism, paraphrased here:

First, the dominant non-Indigenous society defines expectations regarding Indigenous peoples, who are often depicted in stereotypical ways (Müller and Huuva 2009). In the context of Sápmi, issues arise regarding the balance between traditional and contemporary representation of Sami culture in destination marketing material (Olsen 2006). Second, the discourse is composed within the Indigenous group wherein various stakeholders propose normative assumptions on whether and how tourism development should be accomplished (Müller and Huuva 2009). In this context, there are conflicts between those Sami who herd reindeer and those who do not concerning who are representatives of their cultural heritage (Müller and Pettersson 2001). In an international perspective, land use in Indigenous territories has been highlighted as an issue in Indigenous tourism development in a variety of contexts (e.g., Hinch 2004; Zeppel 1998b, 2007). In the context of Sápmi, the focus of regional economic development policies may conflict with historically and culturally anchored land claims, such that in the Sápmi area land use issues can create debate and discord between Sami reindeer herders, public authorities, and the tourism industry.

What is more, internal conflicts have been pointed out as inhibiting Sami tourism development in Northern Norway; much of this arises from identity politics and differing attitudes toward biculturalism (those who identify as both Sami and Norwegian) such that identifying a bounded group of “Sami stakeholders” is difficult (Olsen 2016, 193). Many of these same potential (and actual) conflicts resonate across geographical boundaries to Indigenous tourism more broadly. Thus, despite holding in many ways a privileged socioeconomic position relative to other Indigenous peoples, Sami nonetheless experience many of the same concerns arising from tourism development in their region, and with their own culture and way of life (as well as the natural environment, idealized as pristine) as a primary attraction.

Likewise in the global South, efforts have also been made by some Indigenous people to more actively participate in the growing niche of ecotourism by providing opportunities for tourists to visit the rainforest in, for example, the areas surrounding the Palenque World Heritage Site in southern Mexico. Mendoza Ramos and Prideaux (2013) note that Mexico’s Indigenous Mayan communities have communal property rights and control of their land and that the growth in tourism in the Mayan region in recent decades has afforded communities the opportunity to engage in ecotourism as an alternative to traditional livelihoods such as hunting, cattle grazing, and logging. Mendoza Ramos and Prideaux consider the role of empowerment for Mexican Indigenous peoples, in this case Maya, insofar as local communities have the authority to act, exercise a choice of actions, and have control over decisions and resource use. They note that even when there may be agreement within a community to turn away from unsustainable practices like excessive logging (which itself may be hard to achieve, as immediate high financial returns may be prioritized) to embrace ecotourism ventures, the ultimate success of such ventures depends greatly on the actions and commitments of external stakeholders such as tour operators, government agencies, and wholesalers. This relationship is constantly mediated and has played out in various ways in other ecotourism destinations where local Indigenous people are primary stakeholders with varying degrees of agency, in places like Costa Rica (Isla 2015), Indonesia (Ross and Wall 1999), Amazonia (Marcinek and Hunt 2015; Neleman and Castro 2016), Madagascar (Walsh 2012), Papua New Guinea (West 2016), and many other locations. Much of the notion of ecotourism rests on the assumption that Indigenous peoples are in all cases excellent stewards of the natural environment, a premise that some scholars (Coria and Calfucura 2012; Fennell 2010) have questioned based on biological, archaeological, and anthropological examples of overuse of local resources. Thus, Fennell and others (Cater 2006) suggest that the entire premise of ecotourism is based much more on idealized Western notions of nature than on universal Indigenous conceptions of the relationship between nature and culture.17

In many cases, Indigenous peoples have been thoroughly marginalized by tourism and broader political policy in the context of preserving natural heritage for tourism. The region around what is now the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, in the United States, is on the land of the Havasupai people. While from most perspectives, the designation of an area as a national park and the protections that ensures from development are welcome, it can also mean the forcible removal of Indigenous peoples from their land and way of life. The Havasupai nation was allotted a small tract of land as a reservation and restricted from using much of their traditional land for providing subsistence for their families. As of 2020, the community receives about $2.5 million annually from the small portion of the 4 million visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park who trek on horseback or travel by helicopter to the bottom of the Huvasu canyon (Hirst 2006; White 2008), but this is not without trade-offs, such as noise pollution from scenic flights and lack of adequate waste disposal for the volume of tourists in the national park campsites. As in Uluru, Australia, natural features of the environment may be sacred to Indigenous peoples, with tourism to such sites representing a sacrilege that can be felt as dangerous and harmful to those who consider themselves the guardians of such natural features and the spirits they recognize as residing therein.

Paige West (2016) has pointed out that the rhetoric surrounding ecotourism is rife with references to buzzwords such as sustainability, empowerment, capacity building, and partnerships with local communities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). While in theory, ecotourism and conservation initiatives are presented as a positive means of “empowering” people to be economically successful and self-reliant, in practice, these projects tend to be rooted in “colonially-anchored fantasies about nature, culture, savagery, discovery, temporality, and gender” as it implies a primitive people living without capacity (West 2016, 65). The structures of international conservation organizations set the agenda, thus dispossessing local people of sovereignty over biodiversity and conservation in their own country. West and Carrier see ecotourism as “an exercise in power that can shape the natural world and the people who live in it in ways that contradict some of the values that it is supposed to express” (West and Carrier 2004, 483). These analyses note that conservation and ecotourism programs, usually led by big international NGOs, operate on an underlying ideology of neoliberalism, which favors private enterprise over government intervention. Ecotourism is promoted as a locally driven means to sustainable development, but this ultimately caters to Western idealizations of nature. Nature, and the people living therein, are converted into capital, but relatively little benefit—economic or social—accrues to local inhabitants. Indeed, it more often leads to exclusion and punishment (for “encroaching” on now “protected” land) than inclusion and benefit. Tourist preferences set the political agenda such that ecotourism itself becomes a form of governance.

Indigenous People and Tourism: An Awkward Relationship

If there are any conclusions that can be drawn from the wide-ranging examples of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and tourism presented here, first and foremost it should be clear that tourism cannot be neatly categorized as being either “good” or “bad” for Indigenous peoples. In nearly all cases, the relationship between tourists and Indigenous peoples, the benefits (or lack thereof) accrued to both via that relationship, and the difficulties that may arise, are complicated, nuanced, and subject to constant change. Small-scale village tourism may be felt and experienced differently than large-scale resort tourism, but in either case, it is (at least potentially?) possible for Indigenous peoples to have agency and retain what is important to them in terms of their identity as Indigenous, though this may not be realized.18 Dispossession, marginalization, and exclusion from the economic benefits of tourism are still common experiences for Indigenous peoples, while being ever more confronted with the extreme inequality of leisured tourists and wealthy owners of hotels, restaurants, and tour operators. However, examples have been seen wherein “grass-roots” tourism is managed to the general satisfaction of both Indigenous community members and tourism.

In the initial flourishing of scholarship on the anthropology of tourism, beginning in the mid- to late-1970s, van den Berghe and Flores Ochoa point out that the usual approach was to decry tourism “as a new form of exploitation of the Third World by the First, as a source of cultural pollution, as a destroyer of ‘authenticity,’ autonomy and self-respect of native institutions, as an agent for the creation of a dismal global village in which everything is homogenized, commercialized, and disney®fied” (van den Berghe and Flores Ochoa 2000, 22). While there are many cases where this kind of analysis rings true, in reality the effects of tourism vary enormously. Indigenous peoples in most parts of the world, especially those areas into which Europeans expanded their empires and exerted colonial rule, have been subject to discrimination, marginalization, and attempts at assimilation. They have also been exotified and fetishized, going back to the 16th century, when tribal people were brought back to Europe for display as ethnographic exhibits to the awe and amazement of visitors. Modern tourism in areas that customarily (or legally) belong to Indigenous peoples and where they live—even in areas where their movement has been restricted, for example, by the establishment of national parks or natural reserves—nearly inevitably continues that tradition of exotifying Indigenous peoples and their ways of life. Nonetheless, many Indigenous peoples see tourism as an opportunity for greater self-realization, a reason to encourage continuing of traditions (MacCarthy 2016a), reviving rituals (Azeredo Grunewald 2002), guarding and elevating certain architectural styles (Beynon 2013), or producing material culture (Nason 1984). It may offer avenues for employment and economic benefit without having to leave the community and sacrifice social and cultural solidarity.

Tourism is not necessarily a panacea for what may be seen by governments as stunted economic and social development. It is not necessarily a siren call to revive language and culture in danger of being lost. Neither is it necessarily a death knell for cultural “authenticity” and a “traditional” way of life. It may be all of these things, or none. It varies from place to place over time, depending on the given circumstances, and particularly on the agency afforded to Indigenous peoples themselves to be active participants in the development of tourism ventures, and to manage them in a way that suits their goals and is sustainable (in the various ways this term may be defined). At the same time, it must be recognized that some Indigenous people wish to engage in tourism development either in a very limited capacity, or not at all. As the international tourism industry continues to expand and push into previously “unexplored,” “untouched ,” and “unspoilt” territory with idealizations of “pure” and “authentic” Indigenous people (MacCarthy 2016a, 8, 62), the relationships between Indigenous peoples and tourism will continue to be rewritten.

Further Reading

  • Bunten, Alexis C., and Nelson Graburn, eds. 2018. Indigenous Tourism Movements. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
  • Butler, Richard, and Tom Hinch, eds. 2007. Tourism and Indigenous Peoples: Issues and Implications. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.
  • Carr, Anna, Lisa Ruhanen, Michelle Whitford, and Bernard Lane, eds. 2019. Sustainable Tourism and Indigenous Peoples. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Carr, Anna, Lisa Ruhanen, and Michelle Whitford. 2016. “Indigenous Peoples and Tourism: The Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Tourism.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 24 (8–9): 1067–1079.
  • Ryan, Chris, and Michelle Aiken, eds. 2005. Indigenous Tourism. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Zeppel, Heather D. 2006. Indigenous Ecotourism: Sustainable Development and Management. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI, 2006.


  • Allam, Lorena, and Mike Bowers. 2019. “Tourists Rush to Climb Uluru on Last Day Before Permanent Closure.” The Guardian, October 25, 2019.
  • Altman, Jon. 1989. “Tourism Dilemmas for Aboriginal Australians.” Annals of Tourism Research 16 (4): 456–476, 461.
  • Azeredo Grünewald,Rodrigo de. 2002. “Tourism and Cultural Revival.” Annals of Tourism Research 29 (4): 1004–1021.
  • BBC. 2018. “Andamans: US Man’s Death Puts Spotlight on ‘Tribal Tourism.’” BBC, November 23, 2018.
  • Béteille, André. 1998. “The Idea of Indigenous People.” Current Anthropology 39 (2): 187–192.
  • Beynon, David. 2013. “The Contemporary Iban Longhouse: The Sustenance and Applicability of a Socio-spatial Culture.” International Journal of Social Sustainability in Economic, Social, and Cultural Context 9 (1): 87–99.
  • Bille, Mikkel. 2011. “Assembling Heritage: Investigating the UNESCO Proclamation of Bedouin Intangible Heritage in Jordan.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 18 (2): 107–123.
  • Bruner, Edward. 2005. “The Maasai and the Lion King: Authenticity, Nationalism, and Globalization in African Tourism.” In Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel, edited by Edward Bruner, 71–100. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bruner, Edward, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. 2005. “Maasai on the Lawn: Tourist Realism in East Africa.” In Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel, edited by Edward Bruner, 33–70. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Carr, Anna, Lisa Ruhanen, and Michelle Whitford. 2016. “Indigenous Peoples and Tourism: The Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Tourism.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 24 (8–9): 1067–1079.
  • Cater, Erlet. 2006. “Ecotourism as a Western Construct.” Journal of Ecotourism 5 (1–2): 23–39.
  • Chamberlain, Gethin. “India Orders Crackdown on ‘Human Safaris’ in the Andaman Islands.” The Guardian, January 14, 2012.
  • Cheer, Joseph. 2017. “Cruise Ship Tourism on a Remote Small Island: High Yield and Low Impact?.” In Cruise Ship Tourism, edited by Ross Dowlingand Clare Weeden, 2nd ed., 408–423. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI.
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  • 1. This is, of course, not an analytical term or a characterization of people in fact, but representative of the kinds of idealizations of certain indigenous ways of life as represented both in Stasch’s work among Korowai people in Papua and the author’s work in the Trobriands.

  • 2. For example, the former Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which issued its final report in 2015 and whose mandate was to gather the written and oral history of residential schools (wherein Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and families, sent to boarding schools rife with physical and sexual abuse, and taught to assimilate to mainstream Anglo-Canadian culture) and to work toward reconciliation between former students and the rest of Canada, or the 2008 formal apology on the part of Australian Parliament to the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia for similar forced removal of children from their homes and ancestral land and communities.

  • 3. Take, for example, the controversial case of the non-Indigenous artist Sue Coleman’s use of First Nations imagery in her artwork, which angered many Indigenous Canadians, as reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

  • 4. Statistics from the Tourism NT Annual Report for 2016–2017.

  • 5. In Pitjantjatjara, the landmark is known as Uluṟu.

  • 6. Anangu is the name used by members of several central Australian Aboriginal groups, including Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, and Ngaanyatjarra, to describe themselves.

  • 7. In the 1980s, Gascón (2015) reports the population of Taquile at about 1,300, and Amantani about 4,000 residents. More recent estimates as reported by Cheong (2008) give the population of Taquile at just under 2,000 and Amantaní at just under 4,000.

  • 8. Some ethnic groups living in particularly remote interior locations were not contacted by non-Indigenous interlopers (usually missionaries, adventurers, colonial officials, or entrepreneurs) until about the middle of the 20th century

  • 9. The author spent approximately 18 months from 2009 to 2010 undertaking doctoral research on cultural tourism in the Trobriands, focusing on both Trobrianders’ and tourists’ understandings and expectations of the tourism encounter, with several shorter return trips between 2011 and 2016.

  • 10. For example, as MacCarthy (2016a) writes in Making the Modern Primitive, some tourists made comments about the Trobriands (and PNG more generally) as being “like a Galapagos for people” or seeing in life there as representing “how our ancestors lived” (2).

  • 11. This is based on the author’s own observations of the newly developed cruise ship infrastructure in Kaibola village, Kiriwina Island in 2016.

  • 12. The inequalities created by cruise ship arrivals (and other kinds of tourism) is hardly unique to the Trobriands or to the Pacific; similar frustrated expectations have been analyzed by researchers elsewhere. See, for example, Joseph Cheer on Fiji (Cheer 2017), Ross Klein on Belize (Klein 2011), and Timothy MacNeill and David Wozniak on Honduras (MacNeill and Wozniak 2018).

  • 13. Global warming and reduced ice pack in the Canadian Arctic, while potentially disastrous for the Indigenous peoples who call the region how, is at the same time opening up new avenues for cruise-based tourism in the region.

  • 14. The Guardian; see also Stewart, Dawson, and Draper (2011).

  • 15. Similar rhetoric is used in many other parts of the world, including in the Aboriginal-operated tours in and around Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia.

  • 16. In 1990, Norway signed the ILO Indigenous and Tribal People Convention No. 169 and also opted to re-transfer ownership of forests in Finnmark County from the Norwegian State Forest Company to the local community. Sweden has not yet signed the Convention, such that Sami reindeer herders in Norway enjoy stronger rights and land use claims compared to Sweden (Olsen 2016, 184).

  • 17. See also recent debates in anthropology and social sciences more broadly, for example, in the works of Philippe Descola (2014), Eduardo Viverios de Castro (1998), and Eduardo Kohn (2013), among others.

  • 18. The author would suggest that both the case of the Uros Islands of Peru (for a period of time, if not permanently) and in the non-cruise ship tourism in the Trobriand Islands (and presumably other cases not covered in-depth in this article), Indigenous people feel a net benefit from tourism, enjoy their involvement in it, and feel they have a reasonable degree of agency in how tourism operates in their communities. In other places, such as in Jarawa communities in the Andaman Islands, this is clearly not the case.