Due to increasing economic and political power imbalances within some communities, indigenous groups are often pushed towards the margins of the society. For instance, the legacy of colonization still determines the lack of social recognition of certain indigenous groups, contributing to the deterioration of their cultural assets and to the threat of displacement of indigenous territories, coupled with the destruction of their natural habitats (APIB, 2019; Scherrer & Doohan, 2013). In the Brazilian context, around 900,000 indigenous people continue to face these situations. Strong political statements, globalization, and the most recent health threat due to COVID-19 have increased their vulnerable position (Darlington, 2020). Accustomed to struggling for their rights and recognition, many have succumbed, while others have managed to find new and innovative ways that could support their fight and resistance (Aguilar, 2018). One example is the implementation of tourism practices to generate economic income, recognition, and promote their heritage (Timothy, 2007; Strydom, Mangope & Henama, 2018). The digital evolution contributing to interconnectivity and broadening access to information about destinations and experiences is also becoming an appealing tool to enhance the visibility of indigenous groups. In combination with the pandemic preventing in-person tourism, Brazilian indigenous people are adapting to what is now being called the “new normal” by increasing the use of communication technologies to share their culture, articulating the political situation and promoting tourism activities (Aguilar, 2018). The main goal of this research, therefore, is to investigate, explore and critically reflect on the potential of online presence strategies for community-based tourism as a way to support empowerment for indigenous communities.
In Western society, indigenous people have always been broadly represented in stories of conquests, in folk festivities, and in public media such as television, audios, and computer games (Winter & Boudreau, 2018). However, within these representations, indigenous people have often been portrayed as “the other”, and the accounts of historical occurrences mostly came from the Western gaze (King, 2008; King, 2013; Resta, Christal & Roy, 2004). Challenging these prejudicial images contributed to the battle of indigenous people to find a representative place in today’s society (Ferreira, 2015). In Brazil, the fact that the indigenous culture represents the original country’s heritage is rarely recognized. Despite the inclusion of indigenous customs, languages, and land rights in the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 (Brasil, 1988), the current reality is far from ideal. Very little practical implementation of the documented rights has been undertaken, as indigenous lands are instead being reduced through deforestation, illegal mining, land grabs, and logging (APIB, 2016; APIB, 2019). Together with the decrease in natural resources, important heritage has also been lost (Sharma & Carson, 2002). According to UNESCO (2013, p.2), “indigenous and traditional knowledge is fundamental in building pathways to develop innovative processes and strategies for locally-appropriate sustainable development.” Hence, the preservation and dissemination of indigenous heritage, traditional knowledge and respectful practices regarding the contact and relationship with mother earth is vital (APIB, 2019).
This research embraces the postcolonial paradigm, based on situationally driven research, implying that the social inquiry methods articulate with the living social, cultural, and geographic context in which research is being conducted (DeFehr, 2017). Considering the travel restrictions due to COVID- 19, a mix of active and passive qualitative online methods were used (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). First, in-depth interviews were conducted via WhatsApp video calls. Text and voice conversations further contributed rich direct exchanges between the researcher and the participants. Open-ended questions were explored, where the interviewees could freely share impactful stories about their own context, culture, and challenges (McCabe & Foster, 2006). From a total of 16 interviewees, 12 indigenous community members, representing different ethnic cultures and 4 experts, working with indigenous CBT, participated in the research. A purposive sampling technique was used, selecting participants with sufficient technological access and the ability to provide the information closely connected to the topic of the research (Etikan, Musa, & Alkassim, 2016). Data from non-academic sources such as recent news, Instagram posts, and YouTube videos related to the topic were additionally analysed to provide an understanding of what has been currently discussed in the media. In this context, Instagram stories and live streams from indigenous people assume great significance to observe authentic activities and concerns in a real-time setting. After the completion of the data collection, thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) was applied to find patterns, similarities, and relationships between portions of the results.
Embracing tourism for community empowerment
Before the Coronavirus pandemic, many indigenous communities had previously been embracing tourism activities (Carr, 2020). Community-based tourism (CBT) concepts were successfully implemented as an alternative to damaging tourism activities and as a means to enhance the indigenous visibility. An important aspect of CBT is the intention to maximize the beneficial outcome for the local population and minimize unwanted forms of exploitation or cultural commodification (Davison, Harris & Vogel, 2005; George & Reid, 2005). This approach contributed to different levels of empowerment of traditional communities, and increasingly changed the management and policy-making of tourism activities (Alsop & Heinsohn, 2005). Through educational CBT practices a knowledge exchange takes place, which is crucial not only to nurture cultural habits but to contribute to rectifying misperceptions and receiving a stronger recognition of traditional lifestyles (Resta et al. 2004). Moreover, stronger networks are built, which help the villages to be self-sufficient on social, political, and economic levels (Timothy, 2007).
As a corollary of the pandemic, people not only stopped traveling, but the villages further needed to be closed for protection from the virus. As tourism was an important contributor to self-sufficiency, the communities had to find alternatives to the traditional CBT practices. This crisis has led to a movement towards innovation and an exponential growth in the digital presence of many indigenous communities.
Expanding resistance through the “digital bow”
Technology has the potential to efficiently raise awareness about indigenous communities and their CBT activities (Singleton, Rola-Rubzen, Muir, Muir & McGregor, 2009). However, some communities still struggle with inadequate internet connections and from troubles in using sophisticated digital technology to create an engaging relationship with the audience (Aguilar, 2009; Lima & Weiler, 2015; da Costa & Paulino, 2013). In addition to these technological issues, indigenous people are also facing social debates regarding the connection to the online world. They are challenged about the risk of losing their traditional identity by obtaining access to modern devices. These criticisms mostly come from non-indigenous people, who hold an exotic image of indigenous people and fail to recognize that we all live in the contemporary world (King, 2008; King, 2013). One of the main battles of Brazilian indigenous people is to deconstruct these misperceptions. Thus, they are increasingly embracing digital opportunities to raise awareness:
“Technology is a great tool for us to show our reality, which was neglected in Brazil. So we can show our side of the history. For us to show our face. For us to organize our rights and to show that we still exist and resist. We want to show that our culture is strong and we still survive after 500 years” (Member of the Potiguara ethnicity).
These emerging technological channels are translated into the metaphor “digital bow”. Just as the bow and arrow once did, the digital environment represents an important tool for the indigenous fight. With this development of increasing visibility, new forms of relationships can emerge, in line with traditional values and interests.
Innovating of CBT activities during a pandemic
Communication technologies have been used to raise awareness and expand education among indigenous people for quite some time (Aguilar, 2009; Davison, et al. 2005; Lima & Weiler, 2015; Sharma & Carson, 2002). Even before the pandemic, tourism was an important contributor to community participation aimed at creating income and raising cultural awareness. Online presence was already used to promote these activities (Strydom, et al. 2018; Timothy, 2007). Through the physical isolation determined by the pandemic, indigenous communities started online initiatives to educate others about the situation in the villages and to allow people to participate in their everyday life through live streams and videos. Activities, which normally would have taken place with visitors, are transformed into virtual events through live streams and videos, encouraging the audience to participate actively. Members were further finding alternative revenue streams through selling crafts and jewelry, giving online classes or organizing raffles on the internet. Interestingly, the research shows that the participants nurture and encourage their cultural traits by carefully choosing platforms that suit their values.
The active engagement with the audience, realised by including the “digital visitors” in rituals and cultural celebrations, has created an opportunity for reflection on the concept of tourism, prompting the development of alternative approaches, such as virtual CBT. Just as in CBT, the online initiatives encourage indigenous members to participate in or create digital content, making space for local entrepreneurship. The participation of, and engagement with, the audience represent the knowledge exchange that takes place during empowering tourism activities (Strydom, et al. 2018; Timothy, 2007).
The relationship between the visitors and the destination built through the virtual CBT activities can further promote physical CBT, and not necessarily replace it. Through this previous connection, visitors can learn in advance about costumes and culture, gaining more knowledge about the values of the destination. That, in turn, might bring an emotional bond and motivate possible visitors to travel.
Consequently, a more valuable stay with strong experiences can be created. The self-organized digital presence can therefore be a powerful tool to promote awareness of the prevailing social struggles and create recognition of indigenous cultures and heritage (Davison et al. 2005).
This article aims to reflect on the recent movement of indigenous digital presence. It contributes to the understanding and practice of tourism as a way to create a cultural knowledge exchange. The parallel between learning about cultures during traditional tourism activities and the current online strategies shows that connection goes beyond physical presence. Virtual tourism helps to connect with the audience on a personal level. The resulting relationships and bonds can further be powerful to create strong networks, raise awareness of indigenous issues, and establish a promising cultural and heritage tourism in the context of CBT. This current movement of indigenous digital presence has shown a way in which tradition and modernity can coexist through tourism. It is pertinent to add here that there might not be a need for all communities to be equally digitally connected. This is not a one size fits all solution, but a trend that may be hopeful and useful for many communities. There are still many villages that have a more traditional lifestyle with no interest in a digital presence, and it is crucial that the digital adaption aligns with the local ambitions.
With an eye on the future, the young community members will play an important role in forthcoming developments, since they are skilled with social media channels, having innovative and creative ideas to engage with the audience. At the same time, they are creating an opportunity for their heritage to remain alive and valued by its own members and the new generation.
The present research, besides producing and expanding knowledge on indigenous CBT and the potentials of technology, also endeavours to inspire others to listen to indigenous cultures and their vast knowledge regarding the respect for, and harmonious coexistence with, the natural world.
Indigenous values and practices could become important assets as societies transform from wasteful and destructive ways of doing things toward more sustainable management of our resources. On this note, the authors make an invitation for a final reflection:
What changes might arise if we start looking at the world from an indigenous perspective, embracing their wisdom and love for nature?