Tourism vs. Voyeurism

This is a subject I’ve struggled with in the past and would be interested to hear other people’s viewpoints in the comments. 

There is something to be said for checking “must see” items off your life list – we all travel to some extent to “see” things when we go places. But what happens when that attraction, that thing you go to “see” is group of people? How is it different than viewing animals in the zoo, supposedly in their natural habitat?

For me, a visit to the Karen hill tribe people in a tiny village outside Chiang Mai was one of those uncomfortable moments when I felt like I’d crossed the line.

The Karen hill tribe is one of those stops on just about every tour brochure, somewhere in between riding the elephants, taking a shot of snake whiskey and visiting the Golden Triangle. It seems so exotic, unusual, foreign. The women in the tribe are famous for the long metal coils that they wear around their necks, which push their collarbones down in order to make the neck appear longer. It’s really the kind of thing you have to see to believe, although staged photos are quite common and organized tours have become the main form of revenue for many of the villages in this area.

I’m all for “slow” travel and if I have my choice, I prefer to live in a place to get a feel for it rather than touring around on air conditioned buses, although I have nothing against either type of travel, really. It’s a case of to each his own, and I’m fine agreeing to disagree in most cases. However, visiting this hill tribe village didn’t feel like getting to know people – it felt much more akin to visiting animals at the zoo. Yes, they want you to be there – grandmothers  watch over their young granddaughters who sit weaving fabric on looms as you watch, and you’re able to browse through the various scarves and material that have as the finished product. The monies from sales help to support the families in the tribe. But something about it was just so unsettling for me, wrong somehow.

Another odd thing – it appeared that an entire generation wasn’t represented in this “snapshot of daily life” that was being marketed so aggressively to us. I noticed mostly old women or very young girls among the villagers. When I later asked our guide about this, he told me that most of the young people don’t want to continue to be put on display like this, so many of them have gone off to school and don’t return. This, to me, was almost as sad as it means that this amazing society and way of life is slowly being lost.


Here in Hawaii, where I was born and raised, there is a somewhat similar problem – although I guess the same can be said of any place where the main driving force behind the economy is tourism. Our beautiful way of life, which is often marketed as Aloha Spirit, shows off sunny, cloudless skies and postcard-perfect sunsets – what happens when the tourists arrive here and get rain? Or if their encounters with locals aren’t always so picturesque? What happens when the reality isn’t packaged as pretty as you saw in the brochures?

I’ve found that in my travels, when I’m on an organized tour, even one that is billed as “off the beaten path” like the hill tribes were, I have to take things with a grain of salt. Sure you can stick to the well-touristed paths and see things, but authenticity is often up for grabs. We all walk a fine line between tourism and voyeurism when traveling to an area that is outside of our comfort zone or different from the way we live. And those uncomfortable situations where things aren’t always living up to your expectations, that may be the perfect chance to expand your views and to challenge what is presented to you in the guidebooks, following your own inner compass.


Malia Yoshioka has traveled all over the world, but still feels lucky to call Honolulu her home base. Follow her on Twitter at @WhyGoHawaii for the latest news, insider tips, and travel deals for Hawaii.

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20 thoughts on “Tourism vs. Voyeurism”

  1. I think the fact that you were sensitive in this situation shows that you have a heart and a keen sense of the people around you. For the Karen Hill Tribe people it seems that the older generation has a better understanding of what it means to share their culture with the world.

    Perhaps if tours visiting them were presented in a different way, it would seem less invasive. Either way it’s a tough situation, and I can sort of relate but not really. I’m from Miami and I’ve lived here practically my entire life. The Miami I know is sunny, gorgeous, has great outdoor activities and tons of culture. The Miami unfortunately that Hollywood portrays is cocaine,party, and celebrity infused city. So when we get tourist here, they come with this preconceived perception of what Miami is, and it’s annoying.

    None the less, if this tribe is able to share their culture with visitors while making a living, I see it as a good thing for them. If tourist are taking advantage of this opportunity, that’s where I see the bad in it.

  2. This is an excellent post and a great point of reflection. I often struggle with this when I travel. Most of my trips have been relatively short (a month or less), which means sometimes in order to have an “immersive” experience, I have to force it by going on some of these “off the beaten path” tours. It’s a constant internal struggle fluctuating between feeling embarrassed/uncomfortable, being curious, and justifying (to myself!) that it does ultimately benefit the community. I think when I do decide to go, it’s important to not just take things at face value, but learn to read between the lines and ultimately use that to determine how to observe and interact most respectfully.

  3. I’ve definitely struggled with this, and I don’t know that I have a definitive answer. I think the one thing we each can do, however, is to go into situations like this aware of the zoo animals comparison and trying to avoid it.

    My exchange program in Chile took us to a poor neighborhood (home to the program director’s doorman) to see how the other half lived. I was SO uncomfortable at first and definitely felt like we were treating people like animals on display, but by the end of the day it felt like a positive experience. Many of the people on my program wouldn’t have had any clue about life for the average Chilean without that trip and therefore wouldn’t have known about issues that are still important here. And by focusing on trying to move past just looking and pointing, I ended up having some solid conversations and feeling good about the day after all.

  4. Your comments exactly reflect the way we see tourism development in American Samoa. Polynesian through western eyes has always been about “native” peoples. This is generally manifested in Polynesian stage shows with expectations of “warriors” with flaming knives.
    In fact, pre contact concepts of earth, spirit and geneology are far more powerful global themes that reside in our rainforests, coral reefs and earth sustaining way of life.

  5. Great topic for discussion because there isn’t really a clear answer. How are you ever going to get a ‘natural’ experience of a country if you’re a tourist and only there for a few days? At least by going on the Karen hill tribe visit, you saw more than if you’d never left the city.
    I’ve been to that area myself and also wondered what the local people felt. But ultimately, as long you’re able to accept that any scenario like that has a level of social construction, you’ll learn something from it and hopefully the locals get a benefit as well.

  6. I totally agree (and I’m from Hawaii too!–Kailua). I felt the same way while in a Karen village in Chiang Mai. We recently published a travel guidebook for women headed to Thailand and we did not sugarcoat these kinds of tours. It’s like being in a human zoo.

  7. It IS truly sad when a culture, traditions, or even daily practices are being lost in an attempt to make “daily life” more appealing to foreigners.

    The way these tribes are presented makes me question the authenticity of my experience as part of the tour as well as the tribes’ experience as part of the village.

    Like others have mentioned, there is no clear (or real) answer on this one but something that does force us to question our own beliefs during travel!

  8. Great question, one to which there is no clear answer. When does interacting with locals change to just “watching” locals? However, I don’t usually like to pay to “watch a culture”–ie going to a luau, seeing folk dancing, etc. It doesn’t feel like they’re truly celebrating their culture: they’re just exploiting it for tourist amusement. Even more difficult a question to answer when a culture now depends on tourism dollars to sustain its traditions….

    1. Though you have to question how much of the culture is still authentic and how much is re-enactment of history? In the US, people visit living history museums and watch performances (even folk dancing) without considering it exploitation because the people on display are representing things the way they were 50-200 years ago. Things get muddled in places like Thailand’s Hill tribes where cultures that have gone unchanged for thousands of years have suddenly encountered technology and access to modernization. The traditional culture is much more recent history (and still life for many people). Not for everyone, though. I have a good friend in the US who is Karen/American and has lots of family in the US as well. Like any other ethnic group, they too have immigrated to cities and other countries. Celebrating the culture for people who have left the villages is going to look very different.

  9. Great guest post! It’s definitely a tough balance and has always made me second guess doing packaged tours.

    Your comments on Hawaii remind me of growing up in Alaska. My hometown has its own “tourist village” where people from cruise ships get dumped off for a few hours. Sure its not super authentic, but in some ways they are there to see bald eagles, whales and mountains which are so foreign to them, so if that happens at all it’s an unforgettable experience. Alaska is so much more to me but that’s because it’s my home. If a visitor can experience even a small fraction of that in a respectful way through a clear tourist set-up, I don’t mind.

  10. Aloha everyone and thanks for the comments! I guess this sort of thing happens to some degree anywhere and anytime you travel. It’s been interesting to hear everyone’s personal experiences as well. Looking forward to hearing more!

  11. Very interesting post and comments. It echos how I feel sometimes when visiting a church.

    On the one hand, many of them have important historic/religious/cultural relevance (or are just beautiful) and the money generated allows them to stay open and make improvements and perform general upkeep.

    On the other, I dislike the feeling that I am intruding on another person’s place of worship when I’m clearly not there as a member of the faith so to speak. It sometimes seems like you are turning their church into a stage for performance with them as the entertainment.

  12. Can totally identify with these feelings. So tricky to balance between helping support a local culture and exploiting or holding them back from developing just so they can continue to put on a show for foreign tourists.

  13. I think most people, including myself when going to “see” the Karen Hill tribe have the same feeling about it. I remember leaving very unsettled and the 2 pictures i have i have a very awkward smile.

  14. I do think it’s a little weird to be getting a tour of people’s every day lives, but some people may get a better understanding of the culture this way. Maybe their preconceived notions can be proved or disproved this way. Or people can have a totally wrong perception of their way of living. There’s positives and negatives.

    The only place I have been to where people/culture watching was acceptable was at Burning Man. At Burning Man, people show up to show you the way each of them like to be. So it’s almost like people want you to look at them. It’s a completely different place than Karen hill tribe, and I probably shouldn’t even compare them. I just thought it’s was interesting that it’s completely acceptable in one place, but uncomfortable in another.

    1. Interesting connection. I think maybe the difference is that the people at burning man are most likely economically equal to the voyeurs. It’s more about a lifestyle choice than economic necessity.

  15. I did not go to Chamula ( an indigenous town in Chiapas, Mexico) because I did not want to cross the line. It is supposedly sponsored by Coca-Cola. I was told there is a bill board at the entrance to the village.

    I am not sure if I ever could go to see people on display. It feels so crude. Of course, seeing the world, now, before it becomes even more toured over, is important for many of us. However, what changes in ourselves when we treat living communites as living museums?

    Thanks for your article. It is good to get the perspective out there so people may consider how their travels may affect other fellow humans.

  16. I struggle with this all the time when I travel. I think it’s so important to be aware of and as much as you can try to pick tours and areas that don’t seem to effect the most vulnerable populations that can be difficult to do when you haven’t been to a place before. I think it helps to be aware of the line and to really try to get to know people–not just take pictures of them and observe from the outside.

    You bring up some great points. This was a good reminder today.

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