Tourism Gets a Refresh in the Hands of Activists Seeking to Decolonize the Industry
Operators practicing ‘solidarity tourism’ push back against travel that can be environmentally and socially destructive
Ten years ago, a group of around 25 young Americans were greeted by Mozambican politician and humanitarian Graça Machel in the country’s capital, Maputo. The tour’s organizer, Prexy Nesbitt, had worked with Machel, the widow of former president of Mozambique Samora Machel and former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela, to set up a special seminar connecting young Mozambican activists with these American counterparts. The only catch? Nesbitt had to go sit on the bus, because the twenty-somethings wanted to be able to talk in private.
“I had to go and read for a couple of hours,” Nesbitt jokes. Some of the Americans who went on that trip later became Black Lives Matter organizers.
For decades, Nesbitt has been deeply involved in liberation struggles in southern Africa. The Chicago native first became involved in civil rights activism in his hometown, but travels to southern Africa and Sweden in the mid-1960s broadened his perspective and introduced him to a whole host of anti-colonial struggles. He led divestment groups and support committees in his hometown of Chicago, worked as an advisor for the World Council of Churches, and served as a lobbyist for the Mozambican government during some of the worst violence in Mozambique’s 15-year civil war. And just as South African apartheid was ending, he launched a new focus for his activism: travel.
“Around 1990, just about the time Mandela was released,” Nesbitt recalls, “I took 20 or 25 Swedish church people from the Västerås Diocese [a division of the Swedish church] on a tour of South Africa and Lesotho. Then I started taking students, college students, and we’d take buses all over southern Africa.”
For Nesbitt, the pedagogy was simple: move past stereotypes and ignorance to what southern Africa was really like. “People meeting people, and getting beyond the elephants,” he says.
Others since have shared Nesbitt’s instincts, and his travel group Making the Road, formally incorporated in 2000, is now part of a larger network of organizations that engages in what is increasingly termed “solidarity tourism” or “justice tourism.”
“I use it [solidarity tourism] as an umbrella term for a lot of different forms of tourism: decolonial tourism, critical tourism, or political tourism,” says Jennifer Kelly, a sociologist at University of California, Santa Cruz. The practice is in many ways a direct result of the tourism practices it critiques; implicit in it is a critique of the way that traditional tourism comes with significant environmental costs, essentializes and exoticizes people elsewhere, and reduces them economically to providing services for visitors. “It’s really crucial to understand that tourism facilitates colonialism and replicates colonial state practice,” Kelly adds.
Solidarity tourism grew out of both the rise of mass tourism in the mid-20th century, which has grown to be a trillion-dollar industry, and the rise of transnational activism. Groups like the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker activist group, and other religious organizations sent study-abroad trips to places like South Africa and Israel beginning in the 1950s. Revolutionary movements like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1970s also attracted travelers interested in seeing what conditions on the ground were really like.
Drawing on these earlier traditions, today’s solidarity tourism groups push back against travel as a consumptive industry that can be environmentally and socially destructive. They instead create economic opportunities for local communities, foster real cultural exchanges between tourists and residents, and educate participants about the social, political and environmental issues at play in the places that they visit.
Making the Road’s name comes from a quote from Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian educator and philosopher who professed that the educational process was about applying knowledge in ways that better societies: “We make the road by walking.” Now, more than two decades after its founding, groups led by Nesbitt visit Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where they meet with activists, artists, politicians and historically significant figures.
Averaging one or two offerings a year, with groups of up to 40 participants, Making the Road tailors its travel experiences to its clients. A “typical” trip to Africa includes a couple of days in Johannesburg to see the Apartheid Museum and Soweto [a township outside of Johannesburg that was the site of anti-apartheid organizing and violence for years], followed by a stop in Windhoek, Namibia, to meet with Namibian labor leaders, and concluding in Mozambique to visit with local artists. However, the itineraries also vary substantially. One trip in 2009 was focused on poets, and the group of logophiles spent time with the late Kerapetse William Kgositsile, a South African poet and luminary, as well as revolutionary and freedom poet Jorge Rebelo in Mozambique, and anti-apartheid activist and writer Hugh Lewin in South Africa. In total, more than 400 people have participated in Making the Road trips since its founding.
Kelly studies solidarity tourism in the context of the contested lands of Gaza and the West Bank, where tour operators welcome visiting groups and acquaint them with conditions in the Palestinian territories.* In her own research, she’s learned how both tourists and locals can benefit from this travel trend, which tracks with increased interest globally in sustainable and ethical travel. A decade ago, Kelly says solidarity tourism made up only 5 percent of the entire Palestinian tourism industry, but it has grown since then. Pastors from American churches visit Palestine so that they can bring lessons back to their congregations, prison abolitionists from the United States network with people doing similar work across borders, and corporate accountability advocates learn more about how international businesses are behaving in the territories.
Another group, in Hawaii, called DeTours runs similar tours aimed at deconstructing the tourist understanding of the islands. Kyle Kajihiro founded the Honolulu-based educational tour group with Terry Keko-olani.
“It began informally because I used to work for the American Friends Service Committee, and visiting friends, activists and scholars would have meetings in Hawaii,” Kajihiro explains. “But it always frustrated me that when folks think of Hawaii, they switched off part of their brain that was critical and conscientious.”
Informal exposure tours, where local guides take tourists to sites, became a way to counter what Kajihiro calls “popular discourses that portray Hawaii as a tourist playground and as a multicultural paradise.” To Kajihiro, those narratives are destructive because they obscure the ongoing effects of settler-colonialism and militarism.
The first of those occurred in 1997, when Kajihiro led a group of visiting activists around the island. Now, DeTours offers four to six tours a year to visit military sites and other important places in Hawaiian history. Notably, the tour group doesn’t take money and runs entirely off of volunteer labor.
“We don’t have a presence on the internet, and I had to think about why that is,” Kajihiro says. “When people are paying for something, it changes what they expect to get.”
DeTours’ intent is to underscore the very real challenges facing the Hawaiian Islands. The group makes frequent stops at Pearl Harbor to share the site's history separate from the attack on December 7, 1941, first as a critical fishery for Indigenous Hawaiians, and today as a Superfund site contaminated by military activity. Trips also show how Indigenous Hawaiians and others have resisted in places like Kahoolawe, the smallest of the eight main volcanic islands in Hawaii, where the U.S. military relinquished the land and started a cleanup process. Tours include visits to the Iolani Palace, the last residence of the Hawaiian monarchy, but also to working-class neighborhoods like Kalihi that are not part of a normal tourist itinerary. Visits usually end at the Hanakehau Learning Farm, where Indigenous Hawaiians are working to restore land damaged by military pollution. A goal of DeTours is to impart kuleana, or the belief in responsibility to the land and what it is owed, to visitors, so that they contemplate what their relationship should be to a place that isn’t their home.
For Kajihiro, the Covid-19 pandemic has in some ways presented an opportunity to rethink what people really want from a tourist-driven economy.
“I’d like to abolish the word ‘tourism,’” he says. “It does something really problematic by turning it into a consumptive, extractive experience. Journeying to other places and meeting other people can be a good thing, an enriching thing, a building of solidarity.”
Breaking Down Barriers Worldwide
With trips around the globe, here are five more groups participating in solidarity tourism.
Eyewitness Palestine takes visitors to the occupied territories to help them learn more about the conditions facing Palestinians and to meet with both Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers. Founded in 2001, the educational program began as an outgrowth of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace and justice organization in the U.S. Eyewitness Palestine is leading three delegations this year, dealing with conditions faced by Palestinian farmers, race and class, and more.
Founded in 1988 (with the help of one of Nesbitt’s associates, Kevin Danaher), Global Exchange uses travel to critique globalization and unethical business practices in the global South. The group offers dozens of “reality tours” each year to spots worldwide, shedding light on global problems and, as its website notes, suggesting “ways in which we can contribute to positive change locally and internationally.” Upcoming trips in 2022, which support local lodgings and guides, include an 8-day trip to Oaxaca during Holy Week to meet with Indigenous activists and a 10-day trip to Cuba to learn more about the country’s health care system and Covid-19 response.
Communities for a Better Environment – Toxic Tours
Participants in Toxic Tours visit parts of California where pollution and environmental catastrophes affect the poor and socially marginalized. Communities for a Better Environment began running these trips in 1995 to show visitors to California how oil refineries, recycling plants, ports and other infrastructure can lead to asthma, birth defects and cancer in the people who live in the vicinity of them.
Insider Peace Tours of Viet Nam
Run by a chapter of Veterans for Peace, this group leads annual two-week trips to Vietnam to learn about the country’s reconstruction and its history before and during the war. Participants are frequently Vietnam veterans or peace activists who use the tour as an opportunity to reflect on their war experiences. Attendees are required to donate a minimum of $1,000, which goes towards community needs, like bomb clearing work and help for victims of Agent Orange. Since 2012, the group has raised $250,000 for these efforts.
For 12 years, this group, which describes itself as a “network of Black Latin Americans based throughout the Americas,” has organized travel opportunities for student groups and individuals that provide greater awareness of the African diaspora and community. They offer tours to a variety of different countries—Peru, Panama, Cuba, Colombia, and more—with programming themed around the history of the African diaspora in Latin America as well as Afro-Latinx culture. “We craft trips where you get to the heart of African history, cultures, spirituality, food, music and dance all with the support of the Black community and business in each destination,” notes the group’s website. They suspended in-person tours in 2021 and have yet to announce any for 2022, but, in the meantime, the group is offering virtual workshops on cultural topics.
(*Editor's Note, March 28, 2022: This article has been updated to clarify the terminology used with regards to the contested Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank.)