Poverty tours travel a fine line
Does peeking at how the other five-sixths lives preserve culture – or commodify it?
Jeanne d'Arc Mukamurigo and her daughter sit on a bench in the shade of a tree, twisting stiff, skinny threads of red bamboo into place mats. Weaving isn't something she grew up doing, and place mats aren't particularly Rwandan, but she spends a few days a week turning finicky threads into things white people will buy when they visit this village, about an hour's drive south of Rwanda's capital, Kigali.Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Mukamurigo is a member of Imirasire, a collective of women taught to weave baskets, place mats, and coasters and sell them to tourists. Tourists are new to Mayange, where 25,000 people live in an arid part of Rwanda.
As Mukamurigo and her daughter finish off their latest creation, an SUV pulls up near their bench. Four mzungu, the local term for white people, shuffle out and watch silently as she curls the bamboo into a cable.
One mzungu lingers, while the others peruse wares on sale, to ask Mukamurigo about her work. She answers questions politely, and then says in a playful near-whisper, her low voice a sign of respect, "Stop talking to me and go buy something."
Tour operators raised their eyebrows at the story later, wondering haltingly if the gentle nudge was offensive. At the same time, they say they hope contact with tourists inspires further entrepreneurial thinking among the residents of Mayange, a village that has, until recently, been consigned by its geography and history to destitution. In 2005, the United Nations effectively adopted Mayange, selecting it as one of 80 model villages across Africa, where strategies intended to cut poverty in half by 2015 are being tested.
It's Mayange's status as a "Millennium Village" that draws crowds down from Kigali. But the full-day tour of a local farm, school, and health clinic, among other sites, exemplifies a fast-growing trend in global travel.
From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the townships of Cape Town, well-to-do Western tourists are plunking down serious dollars to see how the other five-sixths live. Like all tourism, this experiential off-roading can be a mixed bag for the local people, damaging the environment and threatening the authenticity of culture.
The bad kind has earned a seedy-sounding nickname – "poorism" – that means to suggest what experts say can be little more than a voyeuristic excursion to see just how poor the poor really are.
But there's a more compassionate kind of poverty tourism, known by a spectrum of labels, that delivers more money to the countries tourists visit and puts more of their cash in impoverished locals' pockets. The best of these programs take foreigners into local communities and expose them to authentic, indigenous ways of life, while taking heed of the cultural and environmental costs of tourism.
"Whether it's ecotourism, green tourism, responsible tourism, sustainable travel, geotourism, community-based tourism – these are labels for the same thing, the responsible spending of money," says Ethan Gelber, who works with WHL.com, which connects tour operators in places off the electronic grid to mostly Western, online customers.
It's a movement fueled as much by curiosity as by conscience. Harold Goodwin, a professor at Leeds Metropolitan University in England and a leader in the responsible-tourism world, says Westerners are growing more curious about places that seem wealthy in ways their own homes may not.