For over three and a half years now, I’ve been working voluntarily for the UK-based charity Tourism Concern, that through campaigning- and lobbying try to fight exploitation in tourism. The organisation’s vision is that tourism always benefit local people and their work often concerns awareness raising of the sector’s different stakeholders about serious issues in the industry.
If this is the first time you’ve ever heard of such a concept, let me quickly inform you that the tourism industry (part from being a force for good in terms of increasing mutual understanding between people and cultures and a facilitator of peoples’ possibility to enjoy a holiday), also is – like many other industries – notorious when it comes to facilitating powerful actors’ means to earn money in a dirty way.
Personally I’ve given good reasons for why the work for a more ethical/ responsible tourism is so crucial. I’ve written about orphanage tourism, and suggested what it takes of responsibility policies among tour companies and governments to hinder that slum dwellers exist as pure tourist attractions, and I’ve mentioned why I’m so interested in the topic myself.
Today I’ll write about something that’s been on my radar for long, since I first started studying issues within the field of exploitation in tourism.
I still remember the picture in the brochure; of three ladies with Asian features sitting on a bench in traditional colorful clothes and metal rings around their long necks. In front of them was standing a corps of tourists shooting pictures with their massive cameras. The women with the metal rings were of the Kayan tribe, living in Northern Thailand, and the photographing charade was categorised in the brochure as a ‘human zoo’.
In tourism they go under the name “long-neck women” and occasionally also giraffe women, although they refuse to adapt the latter themselves.
Since working with Tourism Concern I’ve learned that they’ve – together with other human rights organisations – flagged their concerns about the exploitation of various tribe people in tourism. With regards to the Kayans, Tourism Concern has campaigned against tourism that involves them, and pushed tour operators to stop offering trips to their villages.
From what I’ve understood there are also several organisations that have pushed for governmental actions. But as with other similar stories of exploitation in tourism, it’s very complex. Poverty and means of oppression are complex. So is tourism.
Back in 2011, one of the first in-depth articles I posted on my blog concerned the exploitation of the Kayan people. I called the post the trapped giraffe women, unaware of the Kayan’s own opposition to the Giraffe- reference, so my apologies for that. I also referred to the women and their tribe as both the Kayan and Padaung in that post, but recently learned that Padaung isn’t really what they like to call themselves either. According to new sources I came across Padaung is a Thai-implemented categorisation of the Kayan tribe. Lets thus stick to calling them the Kayan (people).
In the mentioned post, I shared my frustration over not finding more than a few articles online about the Kayan people despite quite a lot of research. I was looking for content concerning the exploitation of them and their current situation, and most of the articles and blog posts I found were typically based on people´s tour experience in a tribe village. Commonly, (uncritical) travel writers seem to retell stories that guides have told them, and write about the situation in supportive manners. This isn’t new at all in tourism of course, nor very illogical, yet it can be dangerous if what people are told isn’t not true at all.
Since the last time I wrote about the long-necks, Ive not investigated much about the topic, but as I’ve just made a dream come true and booked my tickets to South East Asia for 2015, I recently went back to it.
For now my plan is to travel in three countries (Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia) for approximately three months, and I’m of course going to the region where the 1 day sightseeings of the long-neck women’s villages are taking place. I want to find a way to not only see it with my own eyes, but also talk to people involved in the sector and understand more about what is actually going on. How tour companies are marketing it, what the guides say, what tourists think about it and especially what the ladies themselves feel.
The latter is the most difficult part though; also considering I’m not going as a long time researcher with the access to a neutral translator. Nevertheless, Ill do my best in getting a local translator, and who knows: My previous research experiences make me believe Ill be lucky this time too, and that things will fall into place.
So, preparing for my trip, I’ve done some new secondary research in order to renovate my knowledge about the matter, and found out that not only has the subject been flagged again since late 2011 and throughout 2012 and 2013, but the history of Westerners’ fascination of the women that coil their necks with big brass rings is much crazier and longer than I knew of!
Just take a look at this picture! What does it look like to you?
To keep posts in suitable lengths for reading, I’ve made a new post about the matter. Go here to learn about Westerners longtime facination with the long-neck women from Burma and to get some additional information regarding the reasons behind tourists’ interest in visiting them. I’ll also present some reasons for travelers to think twice about supporting the concept of so called culture tours, as they often include complex issues of exploitation.