Help Change the World and Stop Exploitative Tourism

I had a strange experience yesterday.

We were out delivering water filters to families in a rural village when it happened. In the midst of preparing one of the filters, came the sudden loud roars of revving engines. The young children, who had been intently watching us install the water filter, reacted instantly to the sound and ran with excited screams toward the dusty road. Two big four-wheelers appeared and stopped in front of the house. I could tell the two riders were white by their hands, which was the only piece of flesh showing under their fancy protective outerwear. Without removing their sleek black helmets or face masks or even getting off their vehicles, the Westerners pulled out a bag of lollipops and began handing them out to the kids. The tourists snapped photos of the children as they discarded the plastic wrappings, and then were gone. Leaving us all in a cloud of dust.
In an earlier post, I touched on the issue of responsible tourism and whether or not volunteering has a positive or negative effect on a local community. This little incident, however, reminded me of another major complexity of responsible tourism: exploitative tourism and the perception of foreigners.
Tourism has a tremendous impact on a developing country’s culture, lifestyle, and economy. As an avid traveler, I do not object to the act of traveling or experiencing new cultures, in fact I encourage it. I do believe, however, that there’s a way to do it that does not harm a people’s way of life or create a negative (and often false) perception of foreigners. I think it’s great when Westerners take interest in the lives of people living poverty, but when tour agencies begin exploiting village life, the good intention becomes spoiled, casting the unsuspecting tourist under a less than flattering light.
Because it is my strong opinion that tourists should behave in an environmentally- and socially-responsible manner wherever they choose to take their dollar, I offer a few tips and pleas for the general tourist when visiting developing countries:

1. Please do not hand out candy to children with rotting teeth and no dental care. Hand out toothpaste and toothbrushes instead.

2. When visiting an area not accustomed to Westerners, please try to fit in with the local dress, behavior, and means of transportation. The less different you look and act, the less animosity you are likely to create.

3. If you’re going to give gifts, make sure you have enough for everyone and please give items that biodegrade or can be properly disposed of by burning. Pencils, erasers, soft bound notepads, or postcards make a constructive gift that children love and need.

4. Children are not a tourist attraction and villages are not zoos. Please ask parents or teachers before photographing children and be mindful of how a local might perceive a visitor who snaps an uninvited camera in his or her face. (How would you react if someone did that to you?)

5. If you are from a Westernized country, remember that you represent all Westerners in the eyes of a village girl who has never left home. So help improve our reputation. Be an informed, mindful, patient, and unobtrusive traveler. You are a guest in their home, after all.

6. Help alleviate the symptoms of poverty by supporting local NGOs and non-profits (not ones with headquarters in the US or London). This will ensure your donation goes directly to the cause and is implemented by the experts (aka the locals).

7. Experience “real life” by becoming a volunteer for a day or two. Look for short-term volunteer opportunities in schools and clinics – an insightful and constructive experience with just as many photo ops!

8. Please be sensible. Use your best judgement when deciding which tours to take. Consider who is actually benefiting from your purchase. Ask yourself, is this in any way exploitive?
The scene of the blatantly wealthy, white tourists handing out sugar and plastic to poor children with mothers who don’t know any better was deeply upsetting. I was shocked, horrified and disgusted by how these people could have not realized how much damage they were doing rather than good. Is that really the expectation we want to set? That all white people drive around handing out sweets before noon to people who didn’t even ask for it? No wonder tourists get hassled in the streets for money, get taken advantage of, and are always regarded as being different – not same, same. No wonder children are sent to work on the streets instead of to school. We, the tourists, have allowed it, often condoned it. Personally, I can’t stand it and I’d like it to stop.

Help me change the world through tourist awareness and behavior. Start with yourself, then help someone you know. If we all stop supporting exploitative tourism, eventually we’ll all have a more healthy, safe, and just world to travel in.

***Photos were taken during trips to the villages. Five water filters and three wells were installed that day.***