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How truly ethical is so-called 'ethno-tourism'?

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I'm an adventurer. I love to travel and see the wonders of our great planet and marvel at the unique and diverse cultures that make up the global cultural landscape.

I've done the whole cheap flights thing – booze fuelled clubbing holidays in Ibiza, Ayia Napa, the Balearics and the Spanish Costas. I've even strayed from the beaten track and numerous well-worn tourist trails.

I'm an attempt to push the envelope to its furthest extremities and in ravenous search of unparalleled adventure that would have Judith Chamlers baulking in mortal fear, I decided to try 'ethno-tourism'.

What this type of tourism offers just does not exist in your bog standard package holiday. This particular specimen combines exotic holidays with ethnography – actual direct contact with ethic groups that have chosen to turn their backs on the 21st century and all it entails. Yep, that's right, mobiles phones, television, Ipods, the internet, technology the lot.

In an increasing global village where kids all over the world are brought up on the deadly cocktail of MTV, Coca Cola and McDonalds it seems like globalisation has given us one big 'mono-culture'. So I thought it would be intriguing to check out these groups of people who have fiercely resisted the encroachment of the new millennium.

With ethno-tourism, you get to actually experience these lifestyles. See the underbelly of these cultures, not just the pick and mix tourism that is the standard now, where tourists are offered the sanitised version on a country's culture and spend most of there time at a resort.

So, with the help of the specialist company I found on the web, I went along to the Amazonian jungles of Brazil and Peru, to spend two weeks with little-known ethnic groups that have opted to withstand the trappings of modern civilisation.

It was truly a magical experience. Absolutely second to none. I was almost as if I had been transported back in time to a bygone age before the arrival of European conquistadors. Back to the original civilisation.

I marvelled as they lived off the fat of the land. Hunting fish and eating berries. I almost laughed and puked at the same time, at the romanticism and cliché of it all. They seemed to almost viscerally understand their environment. They respected mother nature and in return, she looked after them and kept them alive.

One day though, I was talking to Rio de Janeiro urbanite who was passing through and was quite shocked and I must say slightly enlightened at what he said. He practically accused me of fetishising the people – their ethnicity and way of life. This wasn't a mystical jungle from some romantic novel, he said, this was real life. He said that these people weren't a "bunch of noble savages" from an 18th intellectual discourses, but people struggling to survive.

Needless to say, I was taken aback and was quite aghast. He practically just fell short of accusing me of neo-imperialism, as bad the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors that decimated whole populations back in the 15th and 16th centuries.

I didn't totally agree with this guy's way of viewing things – I was just as curious and respective of these people's culture and way of life as he was. All I wanted to do was to have a look. But I guess therein lies his argument.

These people aren't caged animals that we can 'have a look at'. But – we do have a right to explore our planet and appreciate cultures that are totally foreign to our own.

My discussion with good old Santos did get me wondering though, about how truly ethical really is ethno-tourism?


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