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Hot topic: How far should we go in the name of tourism?

In the wake of the recent murder of a US missionary by indigenous people on a remote island, we look at the arguments surrounding the rise of ‘tribal tourism’

Hot topic: How far should we go in the name of tourism?
Andaman Islands. Image: Getty

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Last November, US missionary John Chau was killed by a group of indigenous hunter-gatherers on North Sentinel Island, an Indian territory in the Bay of Bengal, where he’d gone in the hope of spreading his Christian beliefs. Although his death was a tragedy, he should never have been there. Acting in defiance of laws preventing outsiders from visiting, he’d paid local fishermen to take him to meet tribespeople who’d previously made it clear — often violently so — that they’ve no wish to have any contact with the outside world.

The rise of adventure tourism has made it increasingly possible for travellers to explore remote lands and contact those who don’t wish to be contacted.

Rom Whitaker, a National Geographic filmmaker and founder of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team, has been visiting the Andamans for the past 40 years, and is opposed to contact with remote tribes: “Two of the other three tribes in the Andamans have suffered near extermination thanks to ‘friendly contact’. Nobody should be allowed there.”

On the other side of the ethical fence, academics such as US professors Robert Walker and Kim Hil, claim “well-organised contact [with uncontacted tribes] is both humane and ethical”. Controversially, they believe isolated tribes won’t survive without Western intervention. But there are good reasons why we should leave these people in peace, and why they might defend their isolation so fiercely: their lives depend on it.

The indigenous people of North Sentinel are said to number between 50 and 150 and, having lived free of contact with the outside world for centuries, contact would expose them to common diseases to which they have no immunity — a cold could prove fatal.

“When the Brazilian government used to try to contact tribes, they took medical teams with doctors, nurses and helicopters ready to evacuate the sick,” said Sophie Grig, senior research and advocacy officer at Survival International, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of indigenous tribal people. “Even with all that preparation and support they couldn’t prevent people dying, which is one of the key reasons they stopped.”

Manu National Park in Peru is a popular tourist destination and home to the Maschco-Piro tribe, members of which are sometimes fleetingly glimpsed on the banks of the Madre de Dios River, which borders the park. In 2014, local tour companies started offering ‘human safaris’ to tourists wishing to have their own ‘Indiana Jones’ experiences (the idea being they could photograph the Maschco-Piro people from boats as they passed). These visitors were reportedly leaving trinkets and clothing behind — potentially deadly, disease-carrying gifts.

Even Benedict Allen — famously reported missing in November 2017, having made first contact with two threatened tribes in New Guinea — who is seen as a poster boy for making contact with isolated tribes, has said: “The world is not a playground for our enjoyment. The idea that we can just head off and explore as we like is a sort of modern-day imperialism, an arrogance.”

Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)