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Reframing & Decolonizing Tourism

Last updated on January 13, 2022
7 minute read
Key Takeaways

  • Understand cultural appropriation vs. appreciation.
  • Create opportunities for cultural exchange that benefit locals and travelers.

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We typically think of travel as a way to connect with different cultures, but the reality is that travel is often framed through a lens of colonialism, particularly when tourists from higher-income, predominantly white countries travel to lower-income countries that have historically been impacted by colonialism. 

Inclusion, diversity, and accessibility have become a growing focus in the tourism industry, which is a great first step toward reframing and decolonizing it. However, we still need to take steps toward breaking down the existing structures that have served as gates keeping marginalized groups out of travel for so long. 

In this guide, we discuss how tourism can be harmful to those it doesn’t serve, how we can reframe tourism, and what steps we, as companies in the industry, can take to be more inclusive. 

How can tourism be harmful to destinations and people? 

Many people travel out of a passion for experiencing and learning about different cultures around the world. However, travel can be harmful to a community when cultural appropriation is mistaken for cultural appreciation. Let’s start by defining these two ideas. 

Cultural appropriation happens when someone chooses aspects of a culture that is not their own and uses them for their own personal interest or gain — for example, someone taking a photo of a ritual ceremony to post on their Instagram feed but not learning about the meaning of the ceremony or showing it due respect. Another example is purchasing a piece of clothing or jewelry that holds a cultural significance and wearing it as a fashion statement, costume, or otherwise commodifying these pieces. 

Cultural appreciation happens when someone seeks to learn about a culture other than their own and engages in a cultural exchange — for example, speaking to a local artist, understanding the significance of their work, and supporting them by purchasing directly from them; or attending a ceremony they were invited to, learning about it, and participating as appropriate. 

Tourism can be harmful when travelers engage in cultural appropriation, taking what suits them from the destination they’re visiting without considering how they’re impacting the locals. 

On the other hand, tourism can be beneficial to all when it comes from a desire for cultural exchange, when travelers seek to truly engage with the culture, learn, and share their own experiences with the people they meet. 

What does decolonized travel look like?

The residents of tourist hot-spots often have to adapt to the constant influx of travelers coming in with money to spend — especially in lower-income destinations. While tourism dollars can help the economy of a city or country, they can also create an unbalanced economy that focuses on catering to the tourist rather than the needs of the residents.

Decolonized tourism doesn’t mean moving tourism away from these destinations. It means creating opportunities for cultural appreciation and immersion that benefit the community rather than deferring to the desires of the tourists. And it means supporting the residents’ efforts to grow their own economy and engaging with the community in an appreciative manner. 

This will look differently for every destination and type of business, but decolonizing starts with acknowledging the communities impacted by tourism and choosing businesses that are either run by locals or treat these communities fairly and pay local employees appropriate wages.

Does my business need to reframe its approach?

Educating yourself and taking a look at the community your business impacts is an important first step. Think about the destination where your business operates and ask yourself: 

  • Who is part of this community? 
  • How does tourism affect them? 
  • Is this community a part of your business and benefiting from your tours, or are you hiring from outside the community?

Next, look at who your business is bringing into the place where you operate. Are your customers diverse? More often than not, tourists tend to be white and wealthy individuals and groups, because that’s who marketing is geared toward. 

How do I reframe my approach to tourism?

The first step to reframing your approach and committing to a decolonized industry is to create an actionable strategy to move your business toward diversity and inclusion. While educating yourself is a great start, it’s these actionable steps that will make a difference. Make your goals specific, measurable, and attainable. Here are some ideas on where you can start.

  • Revise your business practices to understand how they impact the community, and identify changes you need to make. 
  • Support the local economy by hiring local staff, supporting local businesses, and investing in the area where you operate. 
  • Ensure your marketing materials are inclusive, reflecting that your business welcomes all kinds of travelers. 

If you’re not sure what you can do to support decolonization efforts, reach out to community leaders and representatives of underprivileged groups in your area. They will have the most knowledge on what is lacking in the community and what local businesses can do to fill those gaps. Don’t just rely on your own point of view — this leaves room for blind spots. 

In theory, travel and tourism should be intrinsically diverse, providing opportunities for cultural exchange. But even when something might seem inclusive, diverse, or safe at first glance, there are always steps we can take to make it even more so. It starts with listening to different perspectives, understanding the consequences of tourism, and committing to change. 

By acknowledging that there is always work to be done, we can start looking critically at our businesses in the tourism industry and begin to understand how we can change our practices for the better.

For more actionable steps you can take to mitigate the impact of your tours and activities, read our sustainability checklist for tour operators. 

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