Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ethnic Tourism

Lisa has a great post slamming on ethnic tourism, or the visiting of strange and bizarre peoples by westerners for their consumption. In particular, she goes after this Washington Post article by Amit Paley who desperately wants to see the Paduang women who wear brass rings around their necks. The article is pretty bad. Paley talks about her quest to see these women in the context of moral complexity. But when it comes down to it, she, like so many other people, really enjoys a freak show and she's determined to see one regardless of what rules she has to break.

When I was 22, I traveled to Thailand. Then, as now, one of the big tourist attractions was to see the northern hill tribes. We trekked along, staying in these villages for a few days. Even to my stupid and uninformed mind at that age, I felt really bad at the time. It felt like we were turning these people into a zoo. At that point as well, a major attraction of these tours was opium and other drugs. At that time, the Thai government didn't have a great deal of control over the northern reaches of their country and it was tolerated. This has since ended through a vigorous crackdown but the tourism continues unabated.

While an interesting part of any trip is experiencing a bit of how other people live, treating ethnic minorities as a zoo exhibit is deeply immoral. I think the entire Thai hill tribe tour industry is unethical. Seeing the Paduang women may or may not be any worse than the average tour. Certainly their are quite complex moral issues with tourism in general and with the Paduang people in general (if it's their traditional culture, should we consider it a human rights violation to crack down on this? Perhaps it is another form of imperialism? Or perhaps the ends justify the means?), but I'll leave this for another time.