Three Iranian women at the Tomb of Khaled in Nabi, Iran

People should always retain the right not to tell their stories or share their trauma. | Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

November 16, 2021

For far too long, the dominant narrative shared in the places where people travel has been the narrative shaped by those identifying with the dominant culture, which is often the story of colonizers.

This means that, in many destinations, the primary story shared about a place and its people is the story shaped by colonizers. It is a story that is comfortable, sanitized, easy to tell, and easy to accept — and it is appealing to share this story in the travel context because travelers themselves are often in a position of privilege and power. 

In other words, the people who benefit from hearing and reinforcing the dominant narrative are also the ones who have benefitted from its creation.

Consider the following examples:

  • Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, was home to the first Black people in the Americas, yet the story shared with travelers about the country’s history is told from a Spanish perspective.
  • The story crafted about the U.S. National Park Service is largely a narrative about how pristine wilderness areas were “preserved” by the U.S. government without acknowledgement of the Indigenous Peoples who were forcibly removed from those lands.
  • Until recently, U.S. plantation tours almost exclusively conveyed a picture of the South replete with elegant balls but void of violence and enslavement.

Yet, places are complex and there is always more than one story. Surfacing narratives other than the dominant narrative in the travel context is important because it provides a more honest, nuanced, and complete story about the places people visit. Emphasizing these other storylines also helps disrupt and dismantle the harm that the dominant (colonizer) narrative has caused.

Sharing these diverse and often unheard stories is essential, but it is just as important that these stories be shared by the people who have the right to share them. What is not needed is having people who identify with the dominant culture provide their interpretation of others’ stories — especially when those are stories seeded within non-dominant cultures.

This is why supporting, promoting, and paying diverse storytellers in tourism should become common practice.

The tourism industry increasingly recognizes the importance of diversifying its storytellers — and rightly so. However, in the rush to do the right thing, it can be all too easy to fall into another trap of extraction and exploitation.

“There is an element of fantasy to living history museums and costumed interpretation that seems to give some visitors a strange sense of entitlement,” says Braden Paynter, spokesperson for the nonprofit organization International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, in this National Geographic article about how historic interpreters challenge the dominant narrative. Living history museums and historical sites like the ones noted in this article that employ Black people to share stories about their ancestors who were violated and harmed do the right thing by surfacing a more accurate story. However, there is an imbalance of privilege between storyteller/employee and traveler/paying customer that puts more power in the customer’s hands.

Similarly, in recognizing the need to diversify their marketing and promotional materials, companies often use peoples’ stories and imagery to attract potential clients without recognizing the harm it can cause.

For example, a tour operator might use photos of an Indigenous person wearing colorful traditional clothing from a community it visits on a trip. When travelers arrive in this community and don’t see people wearing what they saw in the promotional materials, they might feel deceived or like they “deserve” the right to observe something or hear something that is sacred.

“Oftentimes, storytelling is used as a tool for transparency, and I think we need to shift that paradigm,” says Manpreet Kalra on an episode of the Green Dreamer podcast. In this episode, Kalra refers to the tendency for companies to use peoples’ imagery and stories to sell social impact initiatives or voluntourism experiences, but the point is relevant to travel experiences as well.

“An example that I often think about is human trafficking. When we think about it in the lens of the social impact space, when you see photos of people who have been trafficked, when we're looking at or talking about storytelling and brands are saying, ‘By buying this product, you are helping this person who has been trafficked. You are doing so great, so much good,’” Kalra says. “For some reason … we feel that because they live far away, that it's okay to share their photo and share their story of trauma. So I want us to recognize that that is not okay. And that is, by all means, how power plays out.”

Sound familiar? Take a look at that marketing material using someone’s image, sacred costume, and story. Is it a form of exploitation, or does it highlight diverse stories — something we know is so desperately needed in the tourism industry?

It’s a fine line, and it’s something the tourism industry needs to be very mindful of. Because storytelling can be used to provide clarity and transparency, but it should never be at someone’s expense

People’s stories — and their history, cultural traditions, trauma, and experiences — are not a form of entertainment. Storytellers should never be exploited for travelers’ enjoyment. And the move toward diversifying storytellers should not become a new form of extraction within the tourism industry.

Dismantling the dominant narrative in tourism also requires remaining vigilant so that power doesn’t shift in other harmful directions. As your team begins diversifying the voices it amplifies, keep the following in mind:

  • Establish long-term relationships built on trust: Relationships are personal and important. You are far less likely to take someone for granted if the person who might be exploited is a friend or colleague.
  • Always get consent: No one’s likeness or words should be used without permission or out of context. Ever.
  • Don’t personalize trauma: If sharing traumatic stories in public spaces, generically reference a group versus calling out a single person.
  • Leave the door open: Even if someone agrees to share a story with you, make it clear that the storyteller can exit the situation and stop sharing at any time. 
  • Approach the situation on the storyteller’s terms: Don’t make the sharing of a personal story conditional on anything, such as payment. 
  • Set clear boundaries with travelers: Make it very clear with travelers what the expectations are for interacting with this specific storyteller, and what they can and can not share beyond this moment, space, and conversation.
  • Encourage a two-way dialogue: One of the best ways to avoid exploiting storytellers is to turn the situation into a conversation. Encourage travelers to ask questions and share their own stories, if asked. However, travelers should never center a conversation on themselves and their experiences.

Interactions between people are often at the heart of the memorable moments travelers most remember from their trips. Travel creates the conditions for these exchanges to happen. However, we must be sure storytelling under these conditions is mutually beneficial and safe while continuing to dismantle the harmful foundation upon which the dominant narrative thrives.


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