Real life: Indigenous tourism

Why not get a real taste of local lifestyle, while benefiting your hosts and the local communities.

By Rhiannon Batten
Published 18 Jan 2012, 12:27 GMT, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 17:18 BST

Community spirit

Being drizzled in birch oil and gently pummelled in the spa of a luxury Swedish ski lodge didn't sound like cause for concern. The treatment room was modelled on a Sámi hut, with red-flecked furnishings inspired by traditional Sámi textiles, a 'Sámi Voices' CD softly echoing around the space and a 'starry' ceiling (albeit of the halogen variety) flickering soothingly above me. Yet I couldn't quite shift the feeling that something was amiss.

In this globalised age, where you can get a Thai massage in Torquay or a Balti in Birmingham, it may seem strange to balk at a spa treatment that takes local traditions as its starting point. But this felt about as close to a genuine engagement with Sámi society as a gondola ride at Las Vegas' Venetian hotel gets to a trip along Venice's Grand Canal. I'd had a much more authentic encounter with contemporary Sámi culture on a hike through Lapland the previous year when, reaching the end of a particularly remote section of the walk, I'd found myself at LappDonald's, a Sámi owned fast-food kiosk doing a brisk trade in reindeer burgers to hungry hikers.

Of course, cultural nipping and tucking in the name of entertainment — and profit — has long been a component of tourism. The difference, where indigenous cultures are concerned, is that those cultures have traditionally tended to have little say in how their lives and traditions are portrayed, and little share in any profits generated by such trips. In the most extreme instances of exploitation, there have even been reports of tribal peoples being displaced from their land to make way for large-scale tourism projects. So how do you make sure your encounters with indigenous cultures are both rewarding for you and beneficial to the cultures you're visiting?

Ron Mader, founder of ethical tourism forum, which also runs an annual Indigenous Tourism and Biodiversity Website Awards scheme, believes the key thing to remember is "to listen to indigenous voices and invite them into the conversation".

That may sound obvious but it's taken a long time for the tourist industry to start listening. But the good news is that while it's an ongoing process, there are signs that change is happening. In Australia, the Gnunkai Awards have been running since 2005, acknowledging exceptional contributions to indigenous tourism by individuals, organisations and indigenous tour guides. In the same country in March, the Pacific Asia Indigenous Tourism Conference will take place for the first time, demonstrating that the wider travel industry is starting to take a genuine interest in the sector. Awards and events such as this reflect a major development in the industry over the last decade or so with the launch of indigenous-owned or managed lodges, tour companies and excursions, and the empowering of indigenous peoples to become more actively involved in the tourism industry.

A new insight

At Il Ngwesi Lodge, a pioneering community-owned and -run lodge that opened in Kenya's Laikipia region in 1996, guests stay in one of six upmarket bandas, or suites. While visitors enjoy a safari experience much like they would at any other luxury Kenyan game lodge, profits go to the local Maasai community, contributing directly to local education, sanitation and health projects. Similarly, in northwest Namibia, 12-room Grootberg Lodge opened in 2005 having been built in conjunction with the local #Khoadi //Hoas Conservancy and funded by the European Union. The aim is for the lodge to be completely run by the local community by 2015.

Perhaps the most successful example of this type of accommodation, however, is Huaorani Ecolodge, a partnership between Tropic, a private company specialising in responsible, community-based eco-tourism and the Huaorani people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, native Amerindians from the Amazonian region of Ecuador. Opened in 2007 after more than a decade of planning, the venture was initiated to demonstrate that environmentally sustainable and culturally sensitive tourism could be a viable business model.

"While we were building the lodge we simultaneously helped form a group — the Quehueri'ono Association — between the five indigenous communities involved in the project and the association then became the owner of the facility," Tropic's general manager, Jascivan Carvalho, explained. "Community members work in the lodge and participate in its management as well as provide services such as laundry, carpentry, and growing local produce for meals. Our role is to support the association with management, operations, sales and marketing. The profit goes back to the communities."

The payback for the communities involved is clear, but the tourists who visit such projects also have much to gain. Amanda Marks, managing director at Tribes Travel, believes: "Visiting indigenous-owned and -run accommodation
is a way to get close to a culture very different from your own without feeling awkward and prying. When a community owns a project, the indigenous people feel proud to be hosting travellers and have actively engaged in the process of sharing their culture. You will generally find the welcome is warm, and you'll certainly be able to learn from the hosts."

The experience of Kay Humphries, from Hampshire, backs that up. A retired librarian, she booked through Tribes Travel to spend 24 hours at Kawaza, a Kunda village in Zambia's Luangwa Valley, as part of a longer holiday in the country with her husband Jay last year. The project offers visitors the chance to experience daily life in a typical Zambian farming village, trying out a range of activities from fishing in dugout canoes and learning to cook Kunda-style to collecting wild honey. Income from these visits helps fund community development.

"We'd done a lot of research before we went," said Kay. "We'd read a comment about Kawaza that said something like 'you may not remember everything about your safari but if you go to Kawaza you won't forget it for the rest of your life.' The writer was right. It stays with you. We had a lot of fun, as well as seeing the more serious aspects of the villagers' lives.

"One of the first things we did was visit the school. When we talked to the local girls, it was great to hear the aspirations they had, but also to realise there will be challenges ahead, as they juggle those hopes with the traditional roles expected of them." They also met the village faith healer, had a go at pounding maize and were asked to join in with some of the local dancing. "We were constantly talking to the villagers and finding out more about the way their society worked. Communicating in that way can only be a good thing."

Such trips don't come without challenges. Though Kay was keen to stress the fact that, in Kawaza, "they've really tried their best to give cosseted westerners some of the comforts they're used to", the point is to experience what it's like to live in a Zambian village. "They pull all the stops out with the food but it's very carb heavy. It would have been defeating the object not to eat it but we found the diet the hardest part of our visit."

According to Marks, visitors need to accept that standards and ways of doing things will probably not be as they would in a foreign-owned lodge. "This can be a good thing of course, but it can also push you out of your comfort zone. Conversation might be a little awkward, the food might be different, and levels of hosting will vary a great deal depending on the experiences and confidence of the people you're with. You need to go with the flow, remembering that they want you to be there so they will be trying hard to ensure you enjoy yourself.

The key difference, according to Marks, between staying in an indigenous-run lodge rather than a foreign-owned one is that, with the latter, the expectations are very much that your own wishes and levels of comfort will be catered for, whereas at the former, even though you are paying, you feel much more like an invited guest. You are in someone else's space and the rules of engagement have therefore shifted slightly. "If you decide to go for the experience, let it happen and enjoy it for that moment. You'll be back to normality soon enough."

Looking to the future

All travellers who book through Tribes Travel are given a guide to responsible travel that they are encouraged to read before their holiday. If your tour operator doesn't provide this kind of information, Survival International, which campaigns for tribal peoples' rights, has also produced a document outlining guidelines for tourists visiting indigenous peoples. It suggests, for instance, that tourists should behave as they would on private property, and recognise they are wholly subject to the control of the landowners — the tribal peoples themselves.

Reading up before you go and not having unrealistic expectations is also crucial. Neil Birnie, founder and director of Wilderness Journeys, believes the biggest factor in whether an indigenous tourism product is successful or not is the nature of that product. "If it's consistent with the way the local communities live, doesn't require skills that are foreign to them, and they have access to a ready market then it's fine for those communities to manage that product themselves. Very often the nature of the product means they need help, though. It's unrealistic to expect them to run products pitched at a level miles from where they're likely to exist themselves, without changing their culture, which is another big issue."

Where such projects are attempting to provide a standard of luxury way beyond the communities' own standards of living, Birnie believes they tend to be more successful when run in partnership with a third party operator. His other role, as CEO of Conservation Capital, linking private sector business and investment finance with conservation, sees him involved in structuring legal agreements between local communities and third-party operators. "We're trying to create partnerships where there's a real incentive for the local communities to take an active role in the resulting product but where the actual running of the lodge and the international marketing is done by the third party. This can be a very successful way of generating revenue and sustainable livelihoods for local communities."

Perhaps one of the most successful examples of a partnership between a locally owned, locally managed product and a third party organisation is Village Ways. Designed with local communities, these village-to-village walking holidays in India, Ethiopia and, from next year, among the Samburu in Kenya, allow guests to experience local culture, and local communities to benefit directly from tourism. As Tesfaye Asfow, camp manager at one of its Ethiopian bases, Mequat Mariam, told me, with up to 50 tourists a week now passing through in the high season, the villagers have earned enough income to enable them to establish a grain store to fall back on during droughts. "We used to just do farming but now we have lots of plans", he said. "We'd like to get electricity, a road, a school, and we could plant trees to sell, too" .

His aspirations reflect a reality too often overlooked in indigenous tourism, that indigenous societies are not set in the past but are as dynamic as any other. It's a point reinforced by Heikki Nikula, who owns and runs Hotel Kultahovi in Finland with her sister Kaisu, both of whom belong to the Inari Sámi community. "Being Sámi makes us much more able to give travellers an authentic experience. We have always been really careful about how we want to present the Sámi in our hotel and guest activities," she says. "We think it's important to also show the modern aspects of living in Sámi culture."

I like to think she would approve of my preference for a reindeer burger over a 'Sámi' massage.

ESSENTIALS: Ideas for Indigenous tourism

A one-week Kenyan safari with Audley Travel, with three nights at Il Ngwesi and three nights at Karen Blixen Camp costs from £3,590 per person, including flights, transport, park fees and full-board accommodation. 

A seven-night trip to Namibia, including international flights, all accommodation (three nights at Grootberg Lodge), most meals, car hire, and guide costs from £2,337 per person.

Three nights at Huaorani Ecolodge are included in Journey Latin America's 17-day highlights of Ecuador trip, from £3,676 per person, including flights and accommodation. 

One week in Zambia including two nights at Luangwa River Camp, a day and night at Kawaza and three nights at Nkwali Camp costs from £1,800 per person. Excludes international flights.

Village Ways' six-night 'Meanders in Meket' trips, exploring the Ethiopian Highlands, start at £807 per person, including accommodation, transport, guiding, four days' walking, but exclude international flights. 

Five-night 'Short Break in the Sámi and Aurora Heartlands' trips to Finland, start from £1,295 per person, including flights, transfers, half-board accommodation, equipment hire, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, cultural excursions, husky safaris and a Sámi snowmobile safari.

Four-day private Kakadu and Arnhem Land camping tours with Sab Lord cost from £2,346 per person, land-only, including guiding, entrances and permits, and three nights' full board camping. For more than two people sharing, the price is significantly reduced.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Follow us on social media 


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved