Justice tourism: what is it and why does it matter?

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Travel is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it is a wonderful privilege, with great potential for positive change in host communities. But it can also be an incredibly negative force - a capitalist practice that inflicts violence and oppression behind the scenes.

If you read our recent post Travelling well: how to leverage your privilege for good, you will already be familiar with some of the things you can do to make sure your vacation has a positive impact. Here we’ll go into more detail about justice tourism and ecotourism, what these terms mean, and why they’re important.

“embrace tourism’s capacities as an educative, consciousness-raising, political tool [...] to engage in building bonds of solidarity. - Freya Higgins-Desbiolles

Ecotourism is a concept that will likely be familiar to you. It is based on the idea that tourism can not only be sustainable - as in, not detrimental - but can actually nurture and enrich a community’s economy, culture, and environment. It is designed to be holistic, to avoid colonial over-simplification or othering of place or people, and to put the control of the tourism industry firmly in the hands of the locals.  

Likewise, justice (or solidarity) tourism aims to be beneficial to communities, and hopes to empower them through meaningful experiences that foster cross-cultural engagement and educational exchange. It allows communities great agency at the same time as encouraging travellers to exercise and develop empathy. This is made possible by a model of interaction which doesn’t shy away from the complexities and challenges of a community’s reality. In her book Tourism for Development: Empowering Communities, Regina Scheyvens outlines five elements of justice tourism, which include the “hosts” telling their stories of past oppression; tourists learning about poverty issues; and tourists undertaking voluntary conservation and development work.

One of the most significant outcomes for indigenous groups would be the freedom to determine what the world knows of them, and their plight. - Ian Mackintosh


Why is this important?

Where systemic injustice exists, tourism often perpetuates it. For instance, locals may struggle to access clean drinking water and sanitation when resources are focused on luxury hotels that coexist in their space. Locals may lose farming land - with inadequate or nonexistent compensation - when development for tourism occurs. Locals may find their language disappearing as the monetized need to speak another - English, Spanish, Chinese - overpowers their mother tongue. Locals may be priced out of their own cities by airbnb rentals to holidaymakers. The list goes on.

This is particularly pertinent for indigenous societies who are, in most parts of the world, nature’s guardians:

It is estimated that Indigenous territories contain 80 percent of the earth’s biodiversity [...] as 11% of the planet’s forests are under their guardianship. These regions face an unprecedented and rapid loss of biodiversity and climate change effects. - from Cultural Survival

Climate change is affecting us all - the Global North and the Global South - but the injustice is quite apparent. Carbon emissions of the North are far higher per person than from the Global South. Unfortunately, the impact of Northern-induced climate change - due to ‘luxury emissions' from global trade and tourism - is far more tangible and visible in the South. - from Tourism Watch

Sadly, due to the depletion of indigenous land and resources thanks to the grinding force of globalised capitalism, many indigenous groups are forced to turn to tourism to survive.

Not only can tourism damage communities’ economy and resources, but it can have a crippling impact on culture, too. Rough Guides write about the Mursi tribe, who are aware that tourists who visit them “don’t want to emulate their way of life, to learn about them or to get to know them – they just want an exotic souvenir.” This frustrating state of affairs has led to a greater irony: “many of the Mursi’s adornments aren’t part of how they usually dress or decorate themselves, but have been added to better fit the images tourists have come to expect. It’s hardly an enriching experience for either side.”

At its worst, tourism can steal resources, generate inequality, degrade culture, wreck the environment, and make local and indigenous people feel like zoo animals. Ecotourism and justice tourism seek to prevent exploitation and damage and encourage travel that does good to communities.


Our responsibilities

Shed any clinging colonialist worldviews

That might sound extreme, but colonialist narrative frameworks are still in action in the ideologies and stereotypes we all subscribe to when it comes to travel. Driven by movies, literature and even guidebooks we can have certain expectations of a place, race, nation or culture which are at best romantically idealised and at worst racist and insulting.

A prime example of this is rhetoric that riffs on a “picturesque” notion of poverty. Towns and villages that, due to systemic poverty, are unable to improve their infrastructure are seen as ‘rustic’ or ‘primitive’ and therefore beautiful by visitors. If development does happen - usually an overwhelmingly positive thing for a community - tourists complain that the charm is lost, that the place has forgotten its character. This problematic perception is based on an idealisation of poverty that takes no note of its hardships.

We can’t condemn change because of a misplaced, romantic idea about someone’s life or culture. Communities have the right to fight for progress and to identify themselves in the way that suits them.

Cultural survival is founded on self-determination: the ability to determine one's own future on one's own land. It does not necessarily demand clinging to tradition and resisting change at all costs. - Ian Mackintosh

Aside from that, expectations of ‘otherness’ can be damaging, as indigenous groups can feel trapped in a performative display of their traditional culture which constrains their ability to reshape it and enjoy the benefits of modernisation - as with the Mursi tribe. Involvement in tourism means that move to change their lifestyle may have significant economic consequences.

...the dominant culture is seen as incompatible with the ‘original’ culture and thus has a negative effect on it, something exploitative, silencing even, and obliterating. This deception might influence the ‘performers’ who are ‘forced to act in ways they never quite were’ (Hunter, 2014). Such tourism ignores how Indigenous peoples themselves feel about their involvement in the industry, and overlooks the fact that all cultures are concurrently being renegotiated and redefined, a process in which tourism plays a part. (Schele & Weber, 2001) - Tourism Concern

Accept that all cultures change, develop and modernise - and resist having expectations about the way things should look or be. Your hosts have the right to determine their own narratives, and it’s your job to listen.

Support initiatives that are locally run

As far as possible, support tour companies, hotels and businesses that are run by locals. That way you can be more certain that the operation is being run in a way that benefits, rather than destroys, the community. The community gets to decide whose land is used for what, who does what job, how many tourists can visit and what kind of experience they have. While that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the community will be left unscathed by your visit, it helps.

Support initiatives that are low-impact environmentally

Both ecotourism and justice tourism have environmental sustainability at their heart. Especially in indigenous communities where the land is crucial for survival, ensuring that the environment is cared for adequately in any tourism endeavour is key.

Lots of companies are now seeking to become increasingly green so you should have your pick of eco-friendly travel options. It’s also important to do your part where you can: don’t leave trash on trails; avoid the use of plastic wherever you can; follow instructions about proper toilet use; use public transport, and so on.

Give back if you can

Without descending into the murky waters of voluntourism, there are ways that you can give back. If you have professional skills and experience in an area that could be useful to a local community based NGO, by all means offer your expertise - but be aware that in many areas of charity work, organisations need long-term help, not quick visits, however well-meaning they are.

It’s also worth reaching out to community groups in advance to see if there’s anything you can bring with you to help development efforts. Lots of NGOs are always looking for healthcare supplies or specialist equipment, which is often difficult for them to provide out of their meagre budgets.

It’s inevitable that as we travel we will, from time to time, make a faux pas or unwittingly take part in an experience that causes harm at some level. But there’s no need to give up travel altogether: tourism can still be a force for good. Just do your best to be humble in your approach, try to put your money where your values are, and learn as you go.

Photos of Mae Sapok Homestay by Maggie Dixon