Right now, not everyone has access to or is welcome to engage in leisure travel experiences. | Photo by PNW Production on Pexels

May 22, 2024

Across industries and throughout just about every aspect of our daily lives, people are talking about the need to decolonize society and the systems within which we operate. Travel and tourism is no different.

Decolonization is a conscious shift away from an exploitative paradigm established and reinforced by colonialism. In the tourism context, decolonization means challenging and disrupting this paradigm by dismantling, eliminating, and repairing the harm caused by unequal power dynamics, narratives, and practices. It requires a systemic understanding of travel and tourism culture through a lens of social justice. And, it requires a fair balance in the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within and through tourism.

There’s a lot to unpack here. If you’re new on this journey, it can feel overwhelming. One of the key things to understand is a core challenge of decolonizing tourism is the fact that the industry is heavily traveler-centric. That is, it focuses on what travelers “want” and “need,” often to the detriment of local residents and the environment.

Untangling that mess requires a reckoning with ourselves as leisure travelers and tourism practitioners. It requires an honest examination of all tourism operations, from supply chains and staffing to tour development and visa distribution systems. It calls on everyone working in tourism — and everyone who travels for leisure purposes — to acknowledge the damage caused through an act we repeatedly say is a “force for good.”

Decolonizing tourism also requires us to be humble, listen, and continue learning. On that note, I want to acknowledge that, as a white American and person of privilege working in tourism, I also continue my unlearning and relearning journey about decolonization.

We currently sit at a pivotal moment, both within the tourism ecosystem and in society at large. As awareness about decolonization becomes more mainstream, there is the potential to create cataclysmic shifts in the way we live, work, and play.

This is what decolonization means and looks like in four specific areas related to travel and tourism: community, diversity, nature, and culture.

Community Tourism

The convergence of several things has led to an uptick in community tourism: Travelers increasingly recognize the impact of their cultural, environmental, and economic footprint, and they are seeking out “local” and “authentic” experiences. Responding to this trend — but also recognizing the importance of moving away from the bucket list narrative — destinations and tour operators are leaning into the community tourism trend as well.

Popularly, this trend is known as “community-based tourism.” However, even that terminology is questionable. From a decolonization standpoint, this should be community-led and community-focused tourism. Local people should be the decision makers in community tourism. It should center the culture and traditions of the community, regardless of the comfort level of travelers or how travelers believe they should be allowed to interact with the culture and traditions. By prioritizing the voices of local residents and ancestral stewards of the land, and by letting the local community lead, they retain power, control, and agency over if and how tourism shows up in their space.

Importantly, community tourism should incorporate the knowledge and insight of marginalized people who have been sidelined by tourism in the past. Community tourism is not decolonized if only a single business benefits, or if there is significant leakage and the true beneficiaries aren’t even local residents.

Additionally, this should not just be an activity that benefits travelers simply because they have the privilege to visit or learn about a community. To ensure a fair distribution of wealth and opportunity, the tourism industry must become a partner in supporting community wellbeing beyond the economic benefits of travelers moving through a destination. That is, community tourism isn’t about what the community can provide to travelers, but what tourism can provide to the community on a much broader scale.

Inclusivity and Diversity

There’s been a lot of talk throughout the tourism industry about the importance of inclusivity and diversity, yet there is still a lot of work to do.

At the heart of decolonizing this aspect of tourism is understanding who travels — and who has access to leisure travel — and why. And then we must take action to remove barriers. For example, immense economic barriers keep many people from the privilege of travel, and the (lack of) power of passports contributes significantly to accessibility. A lack of infrastructure for people with both visible and invisible disabilities keep many from traveling, even if they wanted to. Some destinations simply aren’t welcoming for people who don’t identify as cisgender, straight, or white. There’s also a need to dismantle patriarchal norms within the industry; though women hold the majority of positions in tourism, there is still a gender equality gap when it comes to pay, positions, and promotions.

Additionally, we must have frank conversations about power and privilege, and how this functions and impacts leisure travel, the way it is developed, and how we communicate about it. To have those conversations, we need to do more than provide lip service about why inclusivity and diversity are important. We need to do more than “empower” a diverse array of people to travel and become more involved in decision-making spaces. It is essential that people are given access to these spaces, economic support, and promotion and amplification so they are actually able to show up where they’re supposedly welcome to be.

Decolonizing travel — and the tourism industry at large — requires advocating for leisure travel and a tourism ecosystem that is more accessible and inclusive for everyone, regardless of religion, gender, race, ability, economic status, or passport status.

Access to Nature

A lot of people travel in order to get outside and participate in nature-based and adventure activities. There was a huge surge in nature-based travel over the pandemic, and interest continues to surge. A lot of research points to the benefits of spending time in nature, and yet there is a need to approach this aspect of tourism through a decolonized lens as well.

Even though the tourism industry extols the value of dispersing travelers beyond cities and inviting them into natural ecosystems, there is little acknowledgement of past and ongoing violence that has created the wilderness areas and national parks that travelers visit. This needs to change, as the ancestral stewards of the land are routinely overlooked in tourism. Decolonizing tourism requires that we both listen to and support Indigenous communities’ efforts to protect and preserve their ancestral lands instead of treating these lands as “untouched” playgrounds without a history.

Along those same lines, there has been a movement for people to travel to “find themselves” or embark on a “transformational” experience in some way. A lot of these experiences take place in settings where people are encouraged to “get back to nature.” From an ego-centric perspective, where the focus is on the deep inner work of the traveler, these experiences might benefit emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical health, yet people often remain disconnected from the land where these experiences take place. Decolonizing tourism requires not only introducing people to nature but also helping them build a relationship to and with the land.

Accessibility itself remains a massive issue within the tourism and outdoors industries as well. The converging conversation around gatekeeping, geotagging/social media, and racism have highlighted who has had access to outdoors recreation in the past and who is welcome and safe in those spaces now. Not everyone is invited into outdoors spaces, but they should be.

Cultural Exchange

Learning about and experiencing new cultures is a key selling point for tourism. However, dropping people into a place to eat, sing, celebrate, play, and otherwise engage in culture without context can cause unequal power dynamics and create inappropriate expectations. Cultural exchange is valuable, but the tourism industry must ensure there’s an actual exchange and that this isn’t a one-way extraction from a local person to a traveler.

Decolonizing tourism requires that we stop romanticizing and commodifying cultures. They are not something to be sold for entertainment or crafted for transaction. It is not okay to uphold a narrative that is crafted for the consumption of the “Western” gaze. Nor is it okay to distort or simplify a place so that it suits the comforts and expectations of the privileged traveler. Rather, tourism should amplify the truly authentic experiences, histories, and stories of the people and communities that travelers visit.

Tourism should also be a tool for shedding light on the past and ongoing harms caused by colonialism and neocolonialism. Alternative tours that avoid white-washing history are an example of how travel can be used as a tool for providing honest and unsanitized education about issues to which most people have never been exposed.

Decolonization is Not the Flavor of the Day

As the importance of decolonization and what it means becomes more mainstream, there will be a desire to jump onto the bandwagon because it’s “the right thing to do.” Embarking on the work to decolonize is the right thing to do, but this isn’t a one-and-done exercise. The tourism ecosystem needs a serious systemic overhaul, and changes need to be made across all sectors, throughout all operations, and into every crevice of the industry.

To be clear, we shouldn’t be doing any of this so that travelers feel less guilty or so that those of us working in tourism can say we’ve ticked the box. Decolonization is about challenging ourselves and each other about the real purpose of tourism. It’s about being honest and clear about how tourism exists for and serves local people, the communities they call home, the planet, travelers, and all of us working in this space. And then, it’s about doing the real work to make that vision a reality.


Related posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

  1. Great article JoAnna regarding the importance of decolonising tourism. It’s worth noting that decolonisation is hard and trying to tackle it top-down could prove futile. Start small through local tourism and leisure networks. Reach out to local Indigenous groups and show you are ready to listen. Listening to truth-telling and being a good ally is an excellent first step to systemic transformative change.

  2. The actions needed – listening to communities, etc., are absolutely right; the naming of this as decolonising is, I respectfully demure, is absolutely wrong.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Don't Miss Out!

Biweekly newsletter highlights:

  • Latest Rooted articles and favorites from the archives.
  • Creative solutions addressing tourism's challenges.
  • Actionable storytelling and sustainable travel tips.
  • First-to-know details on learning opportunities.
  • Updates and discounts on relevant products, services, and resources.
  • Opportunities for highlighting your stories.