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About the Author

Kevin Rennie
Citizen journalist, Teacher (retired),Volunteer (Melbourne, Australia)

I am a retired secondary teacher and unionist. I have been an Australian Labor Party member since 1972. After teaching in Victorian schools from 1975, I spent 8 years teaching in the Northern Territory: 4 in Katherine, followed by 4 in Maningrida, an aboriginal community in Arnhem Land. Returned in June 2008 to Melbourne to live after 15 months in Broome. Now live near Red Bluff which overlooks Half Moon Bay on Port Phillip Bay's eastern side. I am a Global Voices author.


Tourism’s Two-Edged Sword

Published 14th May 2010 - 5 comments - 5379 views -

Recently we encountered two Paraguayan women who were selling tourist souvenirs near the Parana River in Rosario, Argentina. Most of the bags, belts and other fabric items were handmade, using commercially produced polycottons. In fact while they waited for customers they were wrapping colour threads to make bracelets. As we bought a couple of these, we noticed that one of the women was wearing an old bag around her waist. It was a traditional bag made of hand-spun plant fibres in natural colours. Our question about whether any were available for purchase brought a reserved negative.


Paraguayan women

As mentioned in an earlier post about the Mapuche people of Patagonia, tourism is often a two-edged sword in the developing world. It can help to maintain aspects of culture that might otherwise be threatened, such as traditional art and crafts, language and lifestyle. It can provide a source of income for many who are economically marginalised.

However, the quest for exotic memorabilia and multi-media memories is fraught with dangers. The here-today/forgotten-tomorrow tourism merry-go-round can be demeaning of the local people and degrading of their culture. Souvenir hunting is a blood sport at times. Haggling becomes a game to get the lowest price. In places like Bali's Kuta Beach or Kathmandu's temples, mothers make a below cost sale to feed their children.

Cut-throat competition spurs distrust on both sides. Aggressive touting and deceptive practices can become commonplace. It was refreshing to meet Mapuche stallholders who maintain their quiet manner without resorting to high pressure sales techniques.

Fair Trade certification and retail outlets can help to ensure that items for sale are "authentic" and ethically produced. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a long way to go. In Chile organizations such as Fundación Artesanías de Chile are trying to redress this. Local cooperatives such as Relmu Witral (Rainbow Loom), a Mapuche women's association, strive to expand their culture as well as providing income. Companies such as retailer ONA promote indigenous artisans. Designers such as Titi Guiulfo work with similar non-profit organisations and stores. The preservation or revival of traditional skills is a key focus of these efforts. Such skills are often adapted to new materials, technology or content/themes. The emphasis is on art and craft not cheap mass production.

Responsible travel is a fashionable catch cry. Travel companies like Intrepid  not only publish detailed advice. Some also support local projects such as Brazos Abierto (Open Arms) in West Argentina.

Another ethical question concerns taking and reproducing people's images. It goes well beyond tourism of course. How pro photographers deal with the related issues, such as protection of privacy and potential misuse of photos and videos, is a major debate in itself. We asked permission to take the photograph above but did not broach online publication.

Category: Tourism | Tags:


  • Lara Smallman on 14th May 2010:

    Some very interesting ideas and questions posed here Kevin. I’m off to explore the topic more…

  • Kevin Rennie on 15th May 2010:

    We had direct experience of all the Chilean fair traders mentioned but it’s impossible to verify all their claims or measure their impact without visiting the communities who are involved.

    A quick check of the ubiquitous souvenir stalls failed to reveal any any fair trade products.

  • Bart Knols on 15th May 2010:

    Thought-provoking, thanks. Perhaps a good example of how things can work out well is the ‘schools’ of artists that collectively produce art that is sold to tourists. In Southern Africa, Shona sculptures are produced in that way. The artists are almost disconnected from the tourist, do their own thing, but have a seperate display section where tourists can buy for a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ price. It is almost like a cooperation and these organised forms may protect the producer of the art better…

  • Johan Knols on 15th May 2010:

    Price haggling is probably as old as trade itself. Problems come in when the rich haggle with the poor ( who need the money to survive ).
    I have written a blogpost on this topic some time back:

    Be realistic when you buy souvenirs and keep the time a person worked on your ‘trophy’ in your mind.

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