University of Minnesota

Fellow: Melissa Mundt

Fellowship Site: Rethinking Tourism Project

Building Networks, Increasing Rights

The Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship gave me the opportunity to work for six months with the St. Paul based Indigenous Tourism Rights International (formerly Rethinking Tourism Project). This small nonprofit works with Indigenous Peoples around the world to protect their lands and cultures against the growing threat of global tourism and ecotourism. Within this mission Tourism Rights takes on many pertinent tasks such as, increasing Indigenous voice and representation in International Policy debates, helping Indigenous Peoples organize against unwanted development, facilitating grassroots indigenous networks, and helping create Indigenous tourism structured in a way that is beneficial to their cultures and the environment.

Tourism is one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the world. In its conventional form (the mega hotel or beach resort) it strips lands and resources away from the residents of the area, straps them into low paying jobs and creates an economy that is dependent on the seasonal and unstable flow of visitors. Mass tourism also carries with it extreme environmental degradation and cultural alienation as the people of the host country become exotic novelties. Their pictures are plastered on brochures and their dances and artisan products make for a more colorful guest experience, but no substantive or respectful exchange is possible. In recent years these dynamics have received increasing attention.

Awareness of environmental and human rights has drawn progressive travelers into a new and growing branch of tourism, “socially conscious” ecotourism. Ecotourism has received a lot of good press as a way to travel, learn about other cultures, and see beautiful areas while minimizing the impacts on both host land and people. The UN declared 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism. However, there has been little actual effort (beyond glitzy promotion and feel good slogans) to understand how the environment and communities are actually effected by ecotourism. It is easy for a hotel or tour to use “green washing” or false or superficial claims of eco-friendliness and sustainability to attract tourists. Even if a business is in fact environmentally conscious this does not guarantee that they are sustainable, socially beneficial, working with the cooperation of local peoples or respectful of indigenous cultures.

Tourism Rights confronts these issues and strives to assist Indigenous communities that are organizing. Tourism Rights coordinates an international network of nonprofits and Indigenous organizations working on issues of tourism. Their monthly web based newsletter includes news, calls to action and opportunities. Tourism Rights recognizes that discussions about tourism development generally occur without the input of those it effects the most: the Indigenous residents of the area. Because of this, one of Tourism Rights’ ongoing concerns is increased participation of Indigenous representatives in international summits, conferences, forums and other decision-making meetings around the world. Tourism Rights’ central mission however, is facilitating Indigenous networks that are working from the “bottom-up” to control tourism in their areas and create tourism opportunities that reinforce their cultural traditions and commitment to biodiversity.

Indigenous communities themselves have the best understanding of how they are affected by tourism and how this could be changed. Throughout the world, communities are organizing themselves to take a stand against tourism or control the way tourism impacts their way of life. Tourism Rights attempts to support and aid the growth of these groups, through education, technical assistance, and networking. In March 2002, Tourism Rights organized the International Forum on Indigenous Tourism, a three-day conference that over ninety communities from around the world participated in. This gathering opened the doors of communication and information sharing. Guest speakers and communities spoke about their experience within the tourism industry and strategies they had for organizing themselves in proactive ways.

From this Forum a large amount of data was gathered on community ecotourism projects, effective ways to conduct forums and organizing strategies. It also laid the groundwork for the emerging Oaxaca Indigenous Tourism Network, which is continuing to grow and strengthen. This meeting also produced the Working Document on Indigenous Tourism which is a statement directed to the international policy makers about how tourism effects Indigenous communities. This is an area that has long been neglected when decisions about tourism development are being made. The Indigenous representatives at the World Ecotourism Summit presented this document in May 2002.

My work with Tourism Rights mostly involved researching and discussing new program directions. Tourism Rights currently is undergoing a strategic planning process to reevaluate its role in global Indigenous struggles and create projects that address the needs of communities. They are developing a Technical Assistance Program and researching the new international movement towards ecotourism certification in the industry and how it affects Indigenous Peoples. I worked on research and analysis that formed the groundwork for these trajectories. The participants in the Indigenous Tourism Forum submitted reports outlining their ecotourism projects and struggles. I read, analyzed and summarized these 95 reports so that information about community needs and projects would be easy to access. I read and translated 65 evaluations from the Forum and produced a summary of the commentary. This information is helpful for Tourism Rights to organize future forums. Tourism Rights then produced a packet of information about the Forum that included transcripts of the presentations and speeches. I worked to translate several of these documents from Spanish to English.

I also conducted research into existing Technical Assistance programs and existing ecotourism certification systems. Ecotourism certification (similar to organic or fair trade certification) is a hot topic in the tourism industry. However, the movement to create environmental and social standards to which businesses calling themselves “ecotourism” would have to comply often ignore Indigenous rights. Through researching certification systems and working with our Indigenous partners, Tourism Rights hopes to facilitate the creation of an Indigenous certification system that would be able to respond to Indigenous needs.

I am currently continuing my work with Tourism Rights in Oaxaca, Mexico through a grant from the Center for International Environmental Law. In Oaxaca, I will do outreach and research around ecoutourism certification and Indigenous Peoples. Using the tool of tourism certification we hope to continue to create awareness of Indigenous struggles worldwide.  

Experience Sharing  

After working with Indigenous Tourism Rights International, I am dedicated to educating the travelers I meet about the negative impacts of tourism, changing the way I travel and continuing the work of Tourism Rights both abroad with the indigenous ecotourism network, and here in Minnesota with community outreach and education.

The difficult dynamics between tourist and residents, guests and hosts, is something I’ve always been aware of, but working with the Tourism Rights has given me the resources and skills I needed to understand and explain the complexity of the subject to others. Seeing the mission and dedication of this organization has also given me new hope for how tourism can be conducted in ways that are mutually beneficial to all participants. I now have the confidence to speak critically about tourism and help others understand sustainable alternatives that are becoming available.

As I complete my internship with Tourism Rights I am planning a return trip to Mexico. For part of my time there I will do community outreach and follow up with the Oaxaca Indigenous Tourism Network, a partner of Tourism Rights. I am excited to meet with the communities I have been reading about, see their progress, talk to them about their difficulties and strengthen the connection they feel to Tourism Rights. I will also be increasingly aware of my role as a tourist and hope to engage in thoughtful discussion with those that I meet abroad.

I know I will always want to be in close contact with Tourism Rights as their work is something that is very important to me. I hope to continue volunteering with them especially in the areas of community outreach. Having worked with them for six months I feel I can be a representative for them when recruiting interns, speaking to students, tabling, or passing out information. I hope eventually to find a permanent position in this exciting field where Indigenous rights, environmentalism and development overlap and continue to struggle so that Indigenous cultures are respected and not exploited by foreign visitors.

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