Spotlight on Sustainability: Preserving Cultures through Ecotourism

Court Whelan, Ph.D. November 9, 2013 0

The first thing you probably think of when you hear the word ecotourism is nature travel.  Perhaps you’re familiar with the core values of ecotourism and also think about the conservation efforts that are promoted by ecotourism.  Maybe you’re really familiar with ecotourism and understand its essential role in promoting local community welfare.  What you may not realize, though, is that ecotourism conserves cultural traditions in areas that are at risk of loosing touch with their ancestral customs and cultural roots.

A local woman uses natural dyes to design a traditional batik in Bali

A local woman uses natural dies to design a traditional batik in Bali, Indonesia. © Court Whelan

Ecotourism is a search for the authentic.  This certainly applies to the authenticity of the landscape and wildlife, but it also applies to the cultures and traditions native to an area.  Being humans, we have a deep understanding of man’s association with nature we first started roaming this planet.  We have been intertwined with nature because we are indeed a part of it.  To me, visiting locals in host countries and learning about their heritage and cultural traditions is fascinating and thought provoking.  Now, a visit to the local McDonalds in the capital of whatever country I’m visiting is quite a bit less interesting, but this comes back to the search for the authentic.  Splitting a Durian fruit with an Indonesian Islander, or harvesting rice with farmers in Bali is the real deal.  It is authentic and very much a part of the experience of understanding the country and culture you are visiting on a comprehensive ecotour.  However, some of these cultural wonders are threatened just like the habitats in which they reside.  They are threatened not entirely for the same reason as the habitats, but they are threatened nonetheless.

durian fruit in Bali

Court is trying the infamous durian fruit in Bali, Indonesia. “It’s really not as bad as they say!” © Court Whelan

Regarding the preservation of traditional cultures, the main threat is assimilation into the global culture.  As media and communication spread throughout the most remote places on earth, young generations are being increasingly exposed to the modern ways of life in which much of the modern world lives.  Cell phones are ubiquitous, satellite TV can reach virtually anywhere on the planet, and blue jeans and ipods are comfortable, trendy, and desirable.  Not that these things are inherently bad, but they do threaten the traditional way of life. Time-honored traditions and customs that stretch back hundreds and thousands of years are being traded in and forgotten.

Masaai tribesman

Masaai tribesman demonstrate their fire-building techniques to an audience of safari-goers in Kenya

Just like ecotourism adds value to ecosystems and the environment, ecotourism also adds value to cultural traditions and practices.  As the world becomes westernized, traditional dances, festivals, methods for preparing food, or storing water may become obsolete.  For.  The way ecotourism functions to preserve traditional life certainly does not aim to impede progress.  Instead, it offers incentives to keep tradition alive and to preserve the heritage of a culture, village, or country for ecotourists are willing to pay to learn about such things.  They cannot learn if such traditions have fallen by the wayside.  When a village realizes that it’s easier to use machetes rather than wooden spikes to carve a canoe, or to buy matches instead of using a bow drill to make fire, the natural progression is to lose touch with the more “primitive” method and replace it with the newer way of doing things.  When ecotourists pay to be a part of and witness a canoe-making ceremony, they are incentivizing the preservation of knowledge and therefore helping a culture retain tradition and heritage.  The village may still opt to use machetes when needing to work quicker, but the main point is that ecotourism helps to protect traditional knowledge from being lost as new generations become more assimilated into the global culture.

Balinese cooking class

Katie Whelan helps harvest rice as part of a traditional Balinese cooking class. © Court Whelan.

Ecotourism is no panacea when it comes to preserving cultural history and tradition.  But, it is a powerful way to show local cultures that the world in interested in the spectacular history they have to share.

Learn about indigenous cultures like the Masaai in Tanzania by joining one of our ecotours!

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