Sometimes, we should probably just let locals be locals and stay out of their way...
08.02.2017 - 22.03.2017 32 °C
Some places like tourists, some places need tourist. And some places resent tourists. This is, of course, a generalisation. Areas are made up of individuals. Persons who have vastly different opinions about tourists. Some people make a lot of money from tourists. Others are proud of their cultural heritage and happy to show it to visitors. Others again think the influx of foreigners and money is altering their community for the worse or too fast, and sometimes it’s simply fairly annoying that people come and insist on taking people’s photo, while they are just trying to go about their daily business. But somehow, the sentiments that tend to be domination a given community tend to be in either one or the other end of the scale.
I’ve been visiting just about every type of place on this trip, and there are just about two general rules of thumb. The fewer visitors to a place, the happier will the local population be to see you. And the more the local individuals are part of the attraction, the less happy will they be to see you. I don’t blame them. Loads of tourists and travellers invade certain small areas of this world on a daily basis. Imagine being treated more like an attraction than a human being. Whether that is being a Maya Indian, a Tibetan monk or an African villager still living the traditional life.
Travellers and tourists (or the tour companies) make a load of money and social capital on these people. Granted – I make little money from my photos, though I do make some. But I do make a shit load of social capital projecting myself to the world as an experience and hardcore bad-ass traveller who goes where no-one else dares to venture... or… At least that’s what I like to think I do.
We – travellers and tourists – do so, without any form of appreciation to the people we often snap photos of. Way too many of us don’t even bother chatting to people before taking their picture. Too many of us don’t even ask if it’s all right with the people we’re snapping away at. It shouldn’t surprise that people in touristy places – particularly when the tourists are a lot richer than the locals – are asking for money if their picture is taken.
In general, I’ve been received everywhere with a mix of positive shock, open arms and a lot of offers to buy all sorts of crap. No exceptions. But some people and places just stand out as exceptionally friendly. The old man in upcountry Liberia who led me sleep in his village house when our car broke down in the middle of nowhere. The young guy in northern Burkina Faso who ended up paying my guesthouse bill for two nights. Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau as a whole.
Then there were the places that used to have a lot of tourism, but where it have all but disappeared because of political instability in the Sahel. In Mauritania’s desert region, a man invited me to stay with him for free and pay nothing for the three meals a day I received (except a few voluntary contributions). His hospitality paid off as I used him as my middleman in setting up a five-day Sahara Desert trek. Obviously, it’s possible to question whether his hospitality was genuine, but it was a win-win situation, with both of us coming out on the other side happy.
On another five-day trek, in Mali’s Dogon Country, I got to experience a place where a lot of people had been sceptical towards tourists when we first showed up. But as tourism suddenly dried up, they had realised how much it meant for the local economy. The Dogon’s are very conservative and traditional people, and they had had tiny contact with the outside world as late as the 1970’s. So the massive influx of tourists that began in the early 2000’s was received with some unease.
However, every hostel is locally owned, and there’s a small fee to be paid to every village visited. For a population who live off farming, primarily onions, the extra income counted for a lot. Plenty of people told me how happy they were to see me, and hoped that more tourists would return soon – even though they hadn’t been euphoric about them previously. The reason was simply. Tourists had a major impact on standards of living and had turned out to be of rather uninfluential on their traditional culture.
Lastly, here in Benin, I’ve hit places where tourists are less than welcome. First in a stilt village called Ganvié. It’s right outside Cotonou, so just about every foreigner in the country – even if they have time to see only one thing in Benin, go to Ganvié. It’s a short boat ride from town, and the Ministry of Tourism has set up a large departure platform. With government officials controlling the flow of tourists, I suspect that there isn't much tourist revenue going to the Ganvié community. They are busy fishing and getting on with their lives. I doubt they even asked for the tourist influx.
It doesn’t help that the only way to get around in the village is by boat. That makes it impossible to walk up to someone and ask if it’s okay to take their picture – so many visitors just snap as many photos they can before someone begins to yell that they should stop. The fact that most boats are steered by young boys, who’s inexperience makes it difficult for them to control the boat (but I’m sure they’re cheap labour), and guides who put pressure on them to finish the pre-planned tour quickly (so they can take another couple of paying visitors out to the village) only contribute further to the distance between locals and visitors.
The other place in Benin was at the temples and royal house in Abomey. The temples are still active places of traditional (pagan) worship, and royal families still live in some of their houses. It’s not surprising that people here prefer to live and pray in peace. However, here are plenty of signs making it clear which buildings that can be photographed or visited and which that can’t. However, even the buildings with "no photo" signs can be snapped. It just requires the visitor to show a minimum amount of respect. Find the house owner or priest, ask politely, and pay the small amount they ask for if they ask for any. Then it’s pretty easy to get a tour of the premise or snap as many photos as you’d like.
That’s pretty much it. With simple respect, taking an active interest in peoples' lives, and sometimes – just sometimes – move a little bit of cash from the wealthy tourist to the not-so-wealthy local, pretty much anyone will be welcomed. And if you don’t want to pay for the privilege, don’t get in the way of local life and don’t assume that people will be happy to be part of your vacation photo albums.
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