Can we please stop with ‘traditional village’ tours?

When the itinerary for my latest trip dropped into my inbox, I looked at what I’d be doing over the next few days. On day three: “Tour of local village to observe authentic customs and typical way of life.” My heart sank.

Here we have the cultural bulking agent of the modern travel itinerary. Stage-managed tours of villages, in which “locals” dress up and perform a routine of folkloric song and dance, ancient culinary skills and hunting techniques. 

Once upon a time, perhaps these shows served as some vague depiction of normal, everyday life. But in 2019, amid the rise of globalisation, these tours do little to improve our understanding of the modern world. We need to remind ourselves that to find authenticity when we’re travelling, it’s as easy as simply wandering out of our hotels with our eyes wide open. 

We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.

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These tours are entertaining and informative for some, but am I allowed to feel that this touristy showbiz is about as “authentic” and as “typical” as being served a pint of mead in a Wetherspoon’s from a Morris man strumming a lute? 

From the outset, I must stress that my gripe is not with village tours, per se – and certainly not with the people, often on the periphery of the tourism industry, who are using them as a means of making their fair share of cash. Nor with the tours that are well-done and measured – the good ones can genuinely offer a window into the real, unedited lives of others.

My frustration is with the tour operators, hotels and tourist boards that continue to peddle this contrived theatre for the amusement of foreign voyeurs, without as much as a thought for how insensitive, culturally simplified and generic this product typically is. Is it any wonder that we appear to be growing increasingly confused by the myriad cultures that make our world so staggeringly rich and interesting?

For far too long, village tours have helped perpetuate tired and fraudulent myths of the world. Most Sub-Saharan Africans, for example, don’t wear multi-coloured robes. Most Pacific islanders don’t mooch around in grass hulas. The Quechua do much more than just play panpipes and peel potatoes. Much closer to home, Scots rarely wear kilts and the Dutch don’t live in windmills and clip-clop around in clogs.

Travel should provide us with a raw, candid and unedited image of the world, however inconvenient those truths may sometimes be. I’ve been on dozens of “village tours” over the years in places like Thailand, Indonesia, Peru and Zimbabwe – and I’m sure they have a positive economic impact on the communities they visit. I take issue, however, in how unreal they often seem – depicting an often whitewashed, generalised idea of an Asian, Latin or African way of life.

Of course, in some remote and isolated communities, wearing grass skirts has been standard dress for millennia, but in many others it’s simply become a costume to amuse tourists. Tour operators and tourist boards often seem to rely upon these archaic stereotypes rather than attempting to provide nuance. I wonder if tourists actually enjoy these outings and derive any value from them? Or are they being used as cultural filler between breakfast buffets and bus trips?

When David Lammy recently flirted with controversy for suggesting that Comic Relief propagated “tired and lazy stereotypes” in respect to Africa and the developing world, I jumped up from my laptop and screamed “At last! Someone has FINALLY said it!” 

The way these projects often culturally appropriate our planet’s distinct societies may well have honest, benevolent intentions. But by only ever pulling upon the heartstrings of comparatively rich Westerners by using images of orphanages and slums, they’re perpetuating a simple and outdated image that is wholly untrue. Where are the hot-desking entrepreneurs crammed into Kampala’s coffee shops? Or the ambitious businessmen and women gearing up to frequent Addis Ababa’s first-ever stock exchange? Surely our collective understanding of the world will only improve for the better? 

The tourism industry should strive to champion this shift towards authenticity – in a bid to refresh stagnant narratives for the better. Let’s not simply trudge around the same old tourist sites where the architecture is the sole focus, followed by a cursory glance at “local people” in an artificial setting. Why not advocate a push for truth in all its surprising and, perhaps aesthetically unusual, minutiae? 

Modernisation and globalisation are so often treated like dirty words by the tourism industry – it’s as though tourists (especially those on high-end tours, staying in luxe hotels) don’t have the intelligence to see a place with their own two eyes and work it out for themselves. How about we try and return from our holidays with snaps of real people, doing real things, just like us – rather than the same hackneyed shots of “Africa” – a continent of 54 countries, made up of thousands of unique and fascinating cultures. 

Let’s still endeavour to visit local communities that miss out on the benefits of tourism, but in order to observe a slice of real and intriguing everyday life – whatever happens to be going on that day. Let’s buy things, let’s chat to people, let’s eat in local restaurants. And most of all, let’s remember that a village tour doesn’t have to be purchased at an inflated cost from a concierge, or with the support of a tour guide.

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