The fabricated word ‘zooification’ is not as subtle as ‘othering’, ‘assimilation’ or ‘transculturation’, but it describes a rather extreme form of assimilation in which indigenous people are integrated with the dominant society purely as objects of curiosity for the tourism industry.

It is possible that tourism is just as extractive and just as exploitative as those economic activities whose object of interest is more clearly seen as tangible and physical. Tourism’s object of interest is the trophy snapshot of a culture and life of such great difference from that of the exploiter that they, the tourists, must take away with them some small part of it – a photograph, a trinket, or just the memory of an unforgettable experience. But it is debatable whether it leaves the culture and environment intact.[1]

In an earlier work with Ian Munt[2], I characterise the experience of tribal groups as hosts by use of the word zooification, which much like many other sociological terms, ‘isms’ and ‘isations’, are completely fabricated, despite which it is a term which very much speaks for itself. Essentially it captures the way in which the tourists and tour operators treat tribal groups as objects to be viewed in much the same way as “human museum exhibits”.[3] Indigenous peoples are commonly perceived by the tourism industry as natural and wild, an intrinsic part of the nature which many tourists visit Central American countries to see. And disappointment reigns if the visited groups show signs of adapting to western culture and economy and fail to confirm the stereotype that is expected of them. The importance of these expectations is noted by Alex Standish in his review of Jim Butcher’s book on ‘The Moralisation of Tourism’. Standish describes the New Moral Tourism as:

seeking to preserve these cultures in their traditional and past states. In doing so it presents culture as something static and unchanging denying hosts the creative potential to advance their culture. Ultimately, New Moral Tourism seeks to turn developing world destinations into a museum for westerners who reject their own way of life, instead searching for an elusive authenticity.[4]

And as Survival International has said, “All too often tour operators treat tribal peoples as exotic objects to be enjoyed as part of the scenery”.[5] As Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan Quiché Indian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has stated, “our costumes are considered beautiful, but it’s as if the person wearing it didn’t exist”.[6] It is difficult to square the colour, attraction and beauty to which Rigoberta Menchú refers with William Blum’s description of Guatemala’s Indian population:

It would be difficult to exaggerate the misery of the mainly Indian peasants and urban poor of Guatemala who make up three-quarters of the population of this beautiful land so favoured by American tourists. … In a climate where everything grows, very few escape the daily ache of hunger or the progressive malnutrition … Highly toxic pesticides sprayed indiscriminately by airplanes, at times directly onto the heads of peasants, leave a trail of poisoning and death … A few hundred families possess almost all the arable land … thousands of families without land, without work, … cardboard and tin houses, with no running water or electricity, … sharing their bathing and toilet with the animal kingdom. Men on coffee plantations … living in circumstances closely resembling concentration camps.[7]

The process of zooifying tribal peoples inevitably leads to a position of powerlessness for them as well as a complete loss of human dignity. The key to avoiding such situations is control of and participation in the tourism activity, which does not necessarily mean simply a greater share of the financial profits. It also implies control over all the conditions of development.

The situation of the Kuna Indians of Panama has already been briefly discussed in various texts above which mgave some recent examples of the lengths they have had to go to in order to retain their land, culture and autonomy. Their struggle against the power of the state and the unthinking arrogance and wealth of a few foreigners had early origins, and costs, during the history of European colonisation and piracy, which Bennett briefly summarises in the above text box entitled ‘The origins of Kuna militancy’.

It is of course too simplistic to demand a single-minded, blanket policy of total control to the indigenous groups involved in any development. There are dangers, as Colchester points out, in making “an assumption that once an area is under indigenous ownership and control the problem is solved … This is patently not the case”.[8] Notwithstanding these dangers, it can be argued that the community has to own and control the development if it is to avoid the pitfalls associated with external control.

[1] See for instance Valene Smith (1989) Hosts and Guests, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; Krippendorf, J. (1987) The holiday-makers: Understanding the impact of leisure and travel, London: Heinemann; de Kadt, E. (ed.) Tourism: Passport to Development?, Oxford: Oxford University Press; many issues of Cultural Survival Quarterly; a number of issues of the newsletters and reports of Survival International, the Tourism Investigation and Monitoring Team, Tourism Concern; Colchester, M. (1994) ‘Salvaging nature: indigenous peoples, protected areas and biodiversity conservation’, discussion paper, Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development; and a host of other reports.
[2] Martin Mowforth and Ian Munt (2009) Tourism and Sustainability: Development, globalisation and new tourism in the Third World, Third Edition, London: Routledge, pp. 261-5.
[3] World Council of Churches (2002) ‘Statement of indigenous peoples interfaith dialogue on globalisation and tourism’, 14-18 January, Chiang Rai, Thailand.
[4] Alex Standish (2004) ‘The New Moral Tourism’, TIM-team Clearinghouse, Bangkok, Thailand, September. A review of Jim Butcher (2003) The Moralisation of Tourism: Sun, Sand and … Saving the World, London: Routledge.
[5] Survival International (1995) op.cit.
[6] Rigoberta Menchú, quoted in Survival International (1995) ‘Tourism and tribal peoples’, background sheet, London: Survival International.
[7] William Blum (2003) Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions since World War II, London: Zed Books, p. 229.
[8] Marcus Colchester (1994) ‘Salvaging nature: indigenous peoples, protected areas and biodiversity conservation’, discussion paper, Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development: p. 57.