Centering Indigenous Voices In Travel And Politics

At Travel Life Adventures a main focus of our core work is to bring community based, ethical, responsibly sourced tourism programs to communities around the world. In this work we seek out places where indigenous and traditionally under-represented populations can benefit from and engage with tourism in a positive way. We believe wholeheartedly that tourism of this kind can bring many positive impacts to communities who need it most.

This is why we were so excited to read a story from our home state of Washington here in the Pacific Northwest. In short, the Attorney General of Washington State has created and adopted a policy that requires the office to gain written permission from local tribes whenever projects or policies that are initiated might impact the tribes of the region. This is a huge step and something that is unprecedented in the United States. Read the story here.

There are a few ways in which the spirit and action behind this policy relates to how tourism interacts with indigenous communities all over the world, and some parallels to the work we are trying to do.

Photo By Lindsey Wasson

First, this policy creates a concrete and tangible statement of existence of native tribes and their sovereignty and their place as original inhabitants of the land we live on. By requiring permission and buy-in from tribes on projects and policies the government is centering the needs of first nations in a way that has never really been done since Europeans first stepped on the shores of North America.

We have heard time and time again, all over the world, that the one biggest desires of communities and indigenous people is that their voice and their story would be heard, that people would acknowledge their existence. We have sat countless times in homes, around fires, and at meals and listened as people shared their sadness of the past and their hope for the future where their culture and voice would be respected. This “message of mutual respect” can’t be undervalued in the movement toward increased cooperation and support of indigenous people all over the world.

We view the tourism programs we create as allies in this fight as well. If we can support communities in creating tourism programs that center the rights and local people while sharing the beautiful cultures of tribes and communities, that mutual respect and cooperation can be fostered. Empowered people who control their own destinies, lands, and resources is a goal we share with the people who created this policy.

Second, this policy begins to reverse the perpetual extraction of resources and economic growth from indigenous communities and land. Like many other industries, tourism has traditionally been an exploitative force, something that erodes communities while providing nominal benefit in the form of hotels and service jobs that benefit a few people. Imagine if, before a company began selling trips to a location or building hotels or landing cruise ships, they had to have buy in from the communities who live on the land. Think of how much of a positive impact that would have not just for the local people, but for the quality of the experience for travelers.

People often ask us how we come to work with our local partners and how we form those partnerships. I believe that the spirit of how we do things comes from that desire to have cooperation and buy in. We spend time, sometimes years, building trust, listening, understanding how we can bring positive support and empowerment through our programs before we ever bring clients to a place. This is respecting the existence and the ownership that indigenous and native communities posses over the land and their cultures. This is a seeking of partnership and cooperation based on mutual benefit and understanding of each other. It is our hope to influence more tourism companies to adopt this method as a way to change the narrative in the tourism industry.

Lastly, by taking a bold step forward this policy can be an example and a guide for others to adopt similar laws and for Native people to use as ground for their own fights toward recognition. Just as in politics, the tourism narrative and paradigm is deeply entrenched and supported by lots of money and investment from lots of people. This industry stands on long held methods of success and often clings to things as “that is the way we have always done it.” But we can see as an example in this new law that paradigm shift is possible and it can happen in bold and forward thinking ways.

Big ideas and dramatic change, even if it is needed change, is often met with skepticism. “That is never going to happen. The whole system can’t change. People are stuck in their ways.” These are narratives we hear time and time again in tourism, to which we call bullshit. If we are ever to see a more just, equitable, and healthy planet and humanity we have to be bold in our efforts to create change. Yes, maybe Travel Life Adventures isn’t going to overturn the entire tourism industry. But we can change how tourism interacts with individual communities, places, and people. We can choose to do things differently and can then show the positive outcomes of that method.

Just as our State here in Washington has taken a bold step in recognizing the rights and authority of Indigenous people in the Northwest, our industry can begin to value the voices of those communities all over the world. In doing so not only will we see more healthy and empowered communities, but the experiences we can offer travelers will only be enriched. We hope to be an example of that as best we can and with what platform we posses.

-Tanner Colton

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