It's intriguing and exotic, but can tribal tourism be ethical?

Last month a Christian missionary, John Allen Chau, was killed by Sentinelese tribesmen on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, apparently while attempting to approach these remote and little-understood people.

Access to North Sentinel Island is heavily embargoed, primarily in order to prevent the transmission of disease to the Sentinelese, who sometimes violently refuse any form of contact with the outside world.

Chau was bearing a copy of the Bible rather a camera, but this tragic and avoidable incident should also serve as a reminder that the wisdom and ethics of ‘tribal tourism’ are too often overlooked.

It’s completely understandable that ancient cultures and ways of life, often unchanged for centuries, hold fascination for travellers. The thought of making connections between very different civilisations, and hopefully learning something that can improve one’s own society, is naturally appealing. But there is an inherent risk involved that mustn’t be ignored, because many cultures are vulnerable to outside influences.

In the case of the North Sentinelese, there is the worry that they could be exposed to pathogens to which they have no immunity, potentially endangering the entire tribe.

There is also the question of whether cultural tourism has the potential to become a distasteful form of voyeurism, where we desire to prove to ourselves how civilised we are by comparison. Such has been the case with the Jarawa, also of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. This kind of thing has been going on since the days of the Victorian explorers.

Another problem which occurs all too frequently is where poorly implemented cultural tourism initiatives lead communities to move from a state of independence to one of dependence, traditional customs becoming little more than a form of entertainment.

Of course, very few people are likely to seek out uncontacted tribes such as the Sentinelese, but there are many indigenous groups such as Native Americans, Aborigines, Maoris, Thai hill tribes and the Maasai, that have long experiences with tourism, and you would be hard-pressed to argue it has been entirely positive for them.

The obvious solution to this is to let indigenous communities decide for themselves whether, how and when to invite outsiders into their lives. But to be successful, people need to be able to make an informed decision.

Community tourism projects work best when they result from extensive cooperation between the community and experts that understand how tourism can empower, such as by providing local employment and income for development, conservation and education initiatives, while also giving both hosts and guests the opportunity for an enlightening cultural exchange.

In some instances, it is only with the assistance of an outside facilitator that a community may realise the value of their cultural heritage, and learn how to turn that to their advantage sustainably.

How to get tribal tourism right

1. Before you visit, whether alone or as part of an organised tour, ensure you are invited and ask to see a traveller code of conduct. If you’re not satisfied, don’t go.

2. Remember first and foremost that you are a guest in someone else’s home and behave accordingly.

3. Use a tour company that has a proven track record in responsible tourism, and is ready to share a written policy.

4. Try to use a guide from the local community, or at least one that speaks the same language as the tribe, so that you benefit from their knowledge and learn what is and isn’t appropriate.

5. Learn about the community you’re about to visit beforehand, either from guide books or online.

6. Never take photographs without permission. It’s not normally encouraged to offer a form of payment in exchange for photos, but in some places, such as Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, there is an established system that tourists must adhere to.

7. Using local guides, shopping for handicrafts, and paying for meals in the community ensures that your money trickles down through the local economy. But always ask your guide about appropriate rates, as paying too little, or too much, can cause problems.

8. In some cases you can make a donation to a fund which might support local community projects or marginalised people. Again, your tour provider or guide should be able to advise on this, as well as the right types of gifts to bring. Sacks of rice or maize, or school supplies, benefit the community as a whole and if bought in the same country also support local traders. If possible, it’s best to determine this before you travel.

For more tips, advice and information on how to travel in a way that causes least harm to local people and places, visit

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