There’s a Fine Line Between “Discovering” and “Interloping”

In this Nov. 14, 2005 file photo, clouds hang over the North Sentinel Island, in India's southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh, File)

John Allen Chau was killed by the famously isolationist residents of North Sentinel Island when he attempted to bring them Jesus. Whatever you think about his religious motives, he also represents a trend in “authentic” tourism — an entitled, colonialist trend — that evinces a profound disrespect for the humanity of other people. At The Walrus, adventurer Kate Harris digs into the essential egotism of travel to encourage us all to find a more respectful way of exploring our world.

Survival International, a non-­profit that works for tribal peoples’ rights, has documented a troubling rise in the popularity of “human safaris,” in which tourists seek out fleeting, zoo-like glimpses of uncontacted Indigenous peoples. In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, part of the same archipelago as North Sentinel, you could, until recently (and possibly still), peer out of a tour bus at the Jarawa, a group of hunter-gatherers through whose traditional forest territory the Andaman Trunk Road was built. Similar sightings of Peruvian and Brazilian Indigenous tribes are available if you quietly ask the right guide. And, if these experiences aren’t ­thrilling enough, several organizations offer “first contact” treks, including ones in Papua New ­Guinea to visit “undiscovered tribes” who have “never seen a white man.”

Done well, tourism focus­ed on local peoples can give them more control over their destiny and widen the hearts and minds of travellers to the wonders and complexities of the world. Done poorly, tribal tourism denies people the dignity of being left alone—denies them, even, recognition as people. Either way, travel has a tendency to bring out the Chau in all of us. We want what we want when we go abroad, which often is the untouched, the authentic—even as our arrival, by definition, undermines those very qualities in a place or of a culture and contributes to the slow, involuntary conversion of one way of life into another.

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