If the tourism industry intends to amplify those it has historically sidelined, it must avoid narratives that reinforce exploitation. | Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

May 9, 2022

It’s become increasingly clear with each passing day that there are some groups of people who get more space to be seen, heard, and speak. Within the tourism industry, this means that destination representatives and those developing tourism products are finally recognizing the importance of empowering local people to lead their own initiatives and tell their own stories.

And yet, in these conversations about community-led tourism development and storytelling, there’s a common troubling refrain about why this is important: “We want to give a voice to the voiceless.”

When people say this, I think they are trying to communicate that everyone should have a chance to speak for themselves. While the sentiment sounds good in theory, these particular words and the message they convey — particularly in this context — is important to consider.

What “Voiceless” Really Means

“Giving a voice to the voiceless” implies that people have no voice. These people have no way to speak (or speak up) and, therefore, they are silent.

That is, “voiceless” is being used as a synonym for “silent.” In other words, “giving a voice to the voiceless” is intended to convey the importance of “giving a voice to the silent.”

But what is veiled in this meaning is who is silent and why they are silent.

Many people around the world have been shunned, shamed, and deprived of rights by colonizers, governing bodies, and other dominant cultures. They have been spoken over and been made to feel less than other people. Some have been forced to reject customs, traditions, rites, and rituals passed through families for generations.

They are marginalized not out of choice but because those in power exerted — and continue to exert — dominance.

The tourism industry has reinforced the dominant culture’s narrative over the years. It has failed to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples as the stewards of the land upon which they take travelers hiking and kayaking. It has failed to create inclusive environments welcoming people who identify across a spectrum of accessibility, gender, age, religion, race, and passport privilege. It has failed to identify and support pockets of less visible and less powerful people within communities, instead promoting and financing products and services that benefit wealthy and exploitative people and companies.

In other words, the tourism industry has been complicit in silencing marginalized communities.

Now, the tourism industry is backpedaling, ready (and even eager) to support and celebrate those same people it has harmed — and silenced — in the past. To do this, it aims to “give a voice to the voiceless.” 

That is, it claims it wants to “give a voice to the silent,” but it actually means to “give a voice to the silenced.”

This is a significant difference, and it must be called out.

When Terminology Indicates Dominance

The common phrase of “giving a voice to the voiceless” ignores the fact that people who have been marginalized (and therefore silenced) by dominant, more powerful people have voices — and that they’ve always had voices.

They’ve just been told they can’t or shouldn’t use them. Or that, even if they did speak up, they would not be heard. This is true in political circles, civil society, and, yes, the tourism industry.

Intentionally harming others in the past then seeking to rectify this wrong by “giving a voice to the voiceless” without acknowledging how or why people have been silenced is gaslighting. It’s as though these “silent” people have suddenly been discovered and are deemed worthy of having something to offer. As if the “silent” people have just decided to speak up, speak out, and be seen and recognized for who they are — and not as if they’ve intentionally been told to shut up and sit down because they are not invited to the table.

When people, businesses, and industries complicit in silencing others claim to “give voice to the voiceless,” they frame themselves as saviors. They don’t accept or acknowledge that people have been silenced and not simply silent. They don’t take responsibility for harming, exploiting, shaming, and shunning those they themselves have marginalized. 

Additionally, when those in power believe they have the ability to “give a voice to the voiceless,” it reinforces the ongoing gap between those who have power and those who have that power unwittingly forced upon them. From the perspective of the dominant culture, by “giving a voice to the voiceless,” those who are “voiceless” are no longer silent because those from the dominant culture have lifted the curse of being silent from them. The use of this phrase continues to hold power hierarchies in place and is yet another form of domination.

Break the Cycle of Aggression

Assuming the tourism industry is committed to a more inclusive and community-based model because it’s the right thing to do — and not simply because travelers are interested in it — then it seems to be more or less headed in the right direction.

But, those working within the industry must not forget that the tourism ecosystem operates within and among systems that are supported by generations of colonialism, imperialism, racism, and violence. In charting its path into the future, the tourism industry must remain highly aware of how the words it uses reinforce harmful practices or, conversely, support true diversity.

If it truly intends to break the cycle of aggression, then it needs to stop “giving a voice to the voiceless.” Instead, it must acknowledge how it has silenced communities in the past, pass the mic to them now, and be willing to sit in discomfort as it listens and learns, not from the historically silent but those who’ve been silenced.


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