Way back in June Missives from Marx sent in a link to a story at Dark Roasted Blend about tourism in the rainforest along the Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil. One stop was at a small riverside village where tourists are taken to have an “encounter of two different cultures.” Here’s a photo from the post:


Underneath the photo was the following caption:

A cruise ship arrival is a great event for the small village located on the mouth of Valeria River. The friendly villagers are always happy to welcome all visitors, eager to make contact and get news from foreign lands.

“Friendly villagers” “eager to make contact” and learn about “foreign lands”? It’s an incredibly patronizing description that sounds like it could have been in a travel brochure for the British Empire decades ago.

From the post:

Because of the small space, the visitors are literally poking into the river people’s lives. But they look happy enough to share with us their ways of life: we are being shown their schools, the local market and even the way their houses are made.

They seem to understand that visits like these sustain the little trade they are able to make by selling souvenirs and exquisite crafts. There are very few inhabitants and they are all very proud of their amazonian heritage. Although modern living is slowly making its way through, they dress up with traditional costumes.

Yes, they do understand that the tourist visits sustain their economy. They let people poke into their lives because they need the money. And they dress up in traditional “costumes” (?) because it makes tourists happy and then the tourists give them more money.

The kids, apparently, haven’t learned the etiquette for dealing with tourists. The post has several images of children with labels like “Little Warrior,” with descriptions such as:

They are not used being on display for the large audience and they all look like they would be happier playing, rather than demonstrating their skills. One particular girl attracted the crowds with her beautiful, magnetic eyes. She was demonstrating archery, but her eyes were throwing the real darts.

The poster acknowledges that the children don’t like being on display, but doesn’t think that might mean that a) you shouldn’t then treat them like tourist attractions or b) maybe the adults don’t really like being on display much either but have learned to play along better. I also wonder whether the children are demonstrating “their skills” or whether a kid holding a bow and arrows is part of the play-acting for tourists.

I once went on a river tour outside of Manaus; the one described here sounds almost identical. I felt uneasy about the idea of visiting the village but there wasn’t really a choice (they forced us off the boat at each stop) and my boyfriend at the time was excited, and so we walked around. It was an incredibly creepy experience. The people there were obviously poor, and tourists were walking around gawking at them, feeling entirely comfortable looking right into their yards and houses. I felt terribly awkward; even my boyfriend felt weird and just wanted to leave. I would not say the people looked thrilled to see us. Some did, especially those selling soda at the cantina (part of that “modern world”). But more than one person, mostly children, glared. And it was very clear that they were being nice to us and offering to be in photos with tourists in hopes of making a little money.

The whole thing felt like cultural tourism–hey, Americans/Europeans! Look at these people in their pre-modern villages and traditional “costumes”! Isn’t this a neat cultural encounter? Feel free to roam around and look at anything you want–the jolly villagers are just thrilled to death to have you here!

In another case of this, James T. sent in this video, found at 3quarksdaily:

It’s distressing to see this type of tourism prestened in such a positive light without at least discussing the ethical issues that might arise when relatively wealthy tourists encounter an impoverished group dependent on tourists’ money for some of their livelihood.