Monday, January 30, 2012

Is it right to join the tribe?

Does living with the tribe, Bruce Parry style, place isolated cultures at risk from pressure to change? Jonny Bealby looks at the rise in 'wild' tourism.
Running an adventure travel company is becoming increasingly complex. With competitors constantly pushing the boundaries of alternative holidays - swimming with sharks, firing AK47s, driving packs of huskies - I am constantly forced to unearth new products for evermore discerning clients. Thankfully "gimmick" holidays are not really our style, but off-the-beaten-track adventures most certainly are, and even here things are being squeezed.
As little as five years ago on a trip to Ladakh, or Kyrgyzstan, or Libya, you could have travelled for days along the most obvious routes and not seen another tourist. The yurts we sourced from local nomads became our private homes, the trekking trails our personal footpaths. Now we are forced to find new routes each year to continue to provide a genuinely "wild" experience. These days off-the-beaten-track more often than not means unusual, rather than undiscovered, holidays.
Nowhere has seen a larger relative rise in tourist numbers than India. Year on year since 2002 those of us visiting the subcontinent for our holidays has increased three fold - from 2m to 6m. And yet despite this huge increase, both tourists and tour operators seem reluctant to discover the more remote rural heart of this wonderful travel destination, preferring instead to concentrate on the monuments, bazaars and shopping opportunities of the urban centres.
Yet venture into the undiscovered rural regions of this vast country and you can see, and more importantly, experience, the normal life that the vast majority of Indians live. On our trips to these villages, abhorring the idea of flitting into villages for hasty photo ops, we spend entire days with one community or another, learning about their way of life. Visiting a Gujjar caste of milkmen in southern Rajasthan for example, we follow their daily routing from the 5am start, milking the herd, through making lassi, cooking lunch (which we'll eat off banana leaf plates), enjoy a siesta on an old rope bed, only to make dung patties and collect water from the well as the sun goes down. To break the barriers between us and them, we will even dress in their clothes. And through the funds generated by the trip, help is given to the community - either to their schools, health programmes or agricultural development projects - to recompense them for their time.
There are those that think we should leave these people and their quiet lands alone; that by going into these isolated regions - and it's no exaggeration to say that some villages have never previously seen a white face - we are in some way corrupting them ... tainting them with our western values. That by dressing up in their clothes, we are patronising them.
In my opinion, like most things in life, if something is done right it works and if handled badly it does not. In India, Pakistan and Central Asia I have seen first hand how much enjoyment locals derive from having a genuinely interested foreign audience join their life for a while. I have seen the pleasure they gain from dressing us up - which is usually their idea - from feeding us their food and explaining their customs to us. I have also seen the financial rewards that can come when entrepreneurial individuals take this new business opportunity and run with it.
But it still seems not all agree. I'm sure Bruce Parry has come under fire for travelling to, and living with, various indigenous peoples in his ground-breaking series Tribes. By doing this, it is argued, he is exposing ancient cultures to the glare of the TV camera that would in time lead to change.
But isn't it true that change comes, whether people want it or not? And the challenge is in trying to make sure that the change is for the good.
· Jonny Bealby is an author and founder of Wild Frontiers adventure travel company.
I had the pleasure of travelling with Jonny to Pakistan in 2007 and highly recommend his company.

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