In the heart of the Serengeti a group of tourists relax round the campfire. It is tranquil, all that can be heard is the laughter of a hyena in the distance. After dining on traditional chapati bread, wali rice and mshikaki the mood is reflective. Having traversed Tanzanian countryside from Lake Victoria they are recalling today's adventure. The game drive in the afternoon is stated as a particular highlight, with wildlife everywhere. A leopard hid up a tree, a cheetah stalked and a pack of hyenas played in the afternoon sun.
The conversation turns to the region's nature and communities. A question is posed, a debate is initiated. Had the culture and authenticity of the Maasai, alongside the natural landscape, been influenced by the sheer number of foreigners that visit every year?
I am a member of the group enjoying the discussion. This article is aimed at examining the issue whilst remaining unbiased. It is based purely on personal experience in Africa and only provides an insight into the topic.
Camping with these hospitable people is undoubtedly an experience. Upon arrival in the village, a traditional welcome dance is performed, where everyone is encouraged to participate. Afterwards, setting off on a stroll accompanied by tribesmen provides an opportunity to witness this spectacular landscape through their eyes. Along the way, plant after plant is identified for its many medicinal purposes.
Meet the elder and council, spending time in their basic mud huts. The warriors show off clubs and spears, their weapons for hunting. A sign of strength and maturity is by killing a lion and acquiring its mane.
At night, listen to traditional, ancient and symbolic tales of the tribespeople, of hunting or of misfortune.
This is the manner in which the region is advertised and promoted, resulting in tourists flocking to observe the Maasai. However, this sharp rise in tourism inevitably leads to both positive and negative implications on the tribe.
With tourists coming to their village, the wealth of the community is on the rise. The increase in technology and infrastructure is providing both economic and social benefits. The Maasai are now able to sell and buy handicrafts, cattle and produce at once out of reach markets in major towns and cities. The children can go to schools and universities, the sick to specialist hospitals. This is all by means of motorbike or bus on newly made roads.
Foreign influence is also leading to the change of unethical laws including female genital mutilation. On top of this, volunteer tourism is helping to provide much needed care, support and aid to communities stricken by poverty or past wars.
In the Serengeti, tourists by the truck load pay a fee to spend less then an hour herded through a makeshift Maasai village. Without doubt, it is staged, a chance to see the so called 'traditional culture'.
Old, unique local products and methods are being replaced with new, modern western ideals. On a tour of the village locals now sport designer clothes, whilst the elder carries a gash on his leg as a result of a motorbike accident. The English language is becoming widespread and some of the youngsters possess a phone as well as a club.
As western ways of living combined with the number of foreign visitors increases, the spread of new diseases follow. Additionally, alongside the benefits of tourism is the demand and desire for a higher standard of living. This results in members of the community moving away from their traditional background to large developing cities.
Sustainable tourism is the idea that one visits a destination whilst reducing the impact on local communities. However, as the above examples illustrate, to people that have never seen 'mzungus,' can these effects really be minimised?
The flora and fauna of the region is a major attraction. Throughout the summer season, at any one time up to fifty jeeps and trucks might surround a solitary animal. In theory, these vehicles are consigned to the designated roads. However, with local drivers desperate to meet their clients high expectations, it results in regular off road ventures. Whether one sticks to the road or not, undeniably, this is encroachment of a once pure wild habitat. Additional examples of encroachment include, a runway constructed in the Serengeti or campsites full of caravans and tourists scattered all over Kruger.
Consequently, this rapidly developing market leads to the invasion of foreigners seeking a profit. There is now an endless list of activities at national parks. The number of accommodation facilities is rapidly on the increase as is the sheer volume of tour operators providing identical routes and safaris, all claiming to be unique and sustainable.
Inevitably it results in pollution, crime, politics and the exclusion of locals from benefiting.
Africa is losing its true wilderness.
In certain areas poaching is a major problem and if left to continue, animals including black rhinos could soon be extinct. Consequently, tourism will decline as Africa will no longer be home to spectacular wildlife. In order to restrict poaching, national park authorities and voluntary societies have been established and foreign influence has furthered the level of training for rangers and wardens.
Tourism encourages people to understand and recognise other countries' cultures, natural features and the subsequent problems they face. Out of the large number of visitors each year it only takes one to make a difference. Several individuals working with the locals can make huge strides forward.
A final thought
All over the world, both positive and negative effects of the ever changing industry are felt by local communities and their land.
The argument could be narrowed down to whether the economic benefits outweigh harmful cultural impacts. Certainly, tourism if managed correctly can be extremely positive. However, undoubtedly there will always be associated negative consequences.
This debate is endless, and I would love to hear your opinion on the subject.