Are ‘Village Visits’ the New ‘Human Zoos?’

PHOTO: De Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock

And other reasons why you should care about consent when you travel.

A question I’ve been thinking about lately: If Dan Harmon is a creep for using his money and influence to hit on one of his writers on Community, am I a creep for using my first-world financial access to stare at indigenous women while they do their laundry? Indigenous Tourism is a multimillion-dollar industry. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people from the Global North head out to the hinterlands on “village visits” to see how other people live (and photograph it for the ‘Gram). But, should we feel good about it? Or is it time for travel tourism to have its own “#MeToo” moment… too?

One of the most important changes that came after the #MeToo revolution was a more nuanced definition of consent and equality. Where, once upon a time, it was cool (read: disregarded) for an X Factor judge to casually squeeze a Spice Girl’s behind on live television, or for Michelle Williams to earn a fraction of Mark Wahlberg’s salary, now that equality and women’s voices are a big part of the national dialogue, pulling something like that will, hopefully, land you in the news.

Can you really have consent when there’s a power imbalance?

And embracing other voices is helping the world realize a lot of hashtaggable facts—like that police brutality is a problem, that the Oscar’s are pretty white, or that arresting a child named Ahmed for making a clock is a thing that happens—that we can’t be super proud of not actively being aware of in the first place. And, what traveling for a living has taught me is that we are definitely not done making a conscious, hashtaggable effort to let other voices shape our view of the world.

That’s the gift of progress: sometimes you just look up, cringe, and realize that what you’ve been doing for a while was pretty problematic, and everyone else was doing it too. Take Human Zoos for example. Once upon a time, people traveled recreationally less often, but those who did were titillating the world with stories of new lands and cultures and people with wildly different ways of life, the world’s first brand of Indigenous Tourism was born. And it came to you.

If you’d, say, grown up reading fascinating tales about cowboys and Indians, you could head to the Cincinnati Zoo, where an entire village of 100 men, women and children from the Sioux nation were put on display, along with their homes, and instructed to carry on with their daily lives as an exhibit for visitors to enjoy.

Or, if “Orientals” piqued your interest, The St. Louis World Fair offered a safari through 47 acres of land where 1,000 Filipino men, women, and children and their homes were stationed around the park. For proto-country counters, there was Paris’ Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, which held collections of people from Madagascar, the Congo, Indochina, Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco all on display, in situ, so you could have cultural exchange with several countries in one day.

Human zoos were not only wildly popular in their day (you could find them in many major cities throughout Europe and the United States), they were seen as the ideal way to facilitate cultural exchange so that Westerners could get a rare chance to see how other people raised children, farmed, built handicrafts, and ate. The fact that those said did so behind bars between the chimpanzees and the toucans didn’t seem to bother anyone, and for decades Human Rarities Agents made lucrative careers bringing curiosities (people) from Africa, Asia and the Americas for display in the West.

Consent was, it’s perhaps unnecessary to say, not as nuanced as it is today. While some men, women, and children were lied to or kidnapped, some were paid. Whether or not money equaled consent under the colonial power imbalance is questionable, although photos of a Congolese toddler in a 1958 exhibit in Brussels being fed by a middle-aged white woman while eager onlookers crane their necks to get a peek might offer some answers.

Fast forward to the present century, and village visits are still a thing. While the West no longer puts those villages in zoos, Westerners still visit them in busloads and snap pictures that prompted Kenyan Kennedy Odede to pen the 2010 op-ed “Slumdog Tourism” for the New York Times to say of tourists that, “They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.”

As someone who travels for a living, I have gone on more than my share of “village visits” or whatever euphemism was on my outfitter’s travel itinerary, code for being bussed out to some complete stranger’s rural neighborhood to peek inside of their homes, watch them make dinner or take care of their babies while your tour operator narrates it all à la David Attenborough.

And, only recently, has it started to give me a weird feeling, made me wonder I wondered why only poverty tourism in modern cities is tacitly uncool, or made me so aware that “village visit” is so often sandwiched between “monkey spotting” and “cacao plantation visit” that I’ve started calling these excursions “Flora, Fauna and the Other Fauna, This Time in Houses.”

Not everyone has these discomfiting thoughts. Many ethical tour operators that offer village visits advertise how much our relationship with other cultures has evolved. Several have a financial relationship with the villages that they bring tourists to. Sometimes they share directly (although it’s not often clear what percentage of this multi-million dollar business these rural communities receive) in the profits or there’s simply a tacit agreement that tour operators will encourage each tour group to patronize their local shops. And some people whose opinions and values I greatly respect enjoy vetted indigenous tourism and take pride in patronizing organizations with demonstrable relationships with the villages that they visit.

During years of travel, I don’t think that I’ve once been extended a visit to a village by the villagers themselves.

I can’t stop thinking about the time a reputable tour operator took a boatful of us to visit a Thai reservation populated by an ethnic minority who was semi-nomadic before the 2004 tsunami. Now, the government had settled them on a beach in a national park and arranged for tour operators to bring people to learn about their unique language and culture and buy mass-produced trinkets from listless children who repeated “50 bhat” to photo-snapping children. We were all encouraged to buy a trinket. I picked up a sea turtle.

And none of it answers the question I’ve had since the paragraph about Human Zoos: can you really have consent when there’s a power imbalance? When a marginalized group has been put in a position–whether by a government or geopolitical forces–to be economically dependent on tourist dollars and perform their culture for money, is taking it a willful agreement? Or, if Community creator Dan Harmon owed junior writer Megan Ganz a heartfelt apology for taking advantage of their power imbalance, should we all be re-thinking consent when it comes to travel?

And can there be consent when you’re visiting a village that the villagers have not invited you to? During years of travel, I don’t think that I’ve once been extended a visit to a village by the villagers themselves. And, to me, it seems like the only difference between a modern Human Zoo and a cultural exchange is who sends out the invitation. And can you have an exchange when only one side has the agency to give their input? We don’t often even hear the voices of the cultures we exchange with. If we did, they might sound like “please don’t take pictures with my kid and give him a blow pop for a likeable selfie to commemorate your gap year.”