Searching for Authenticity

December 6, 2016

How many of us have experienced the cringing awkwardness of being driven from one place to another by an organized tour company and feeling like we have to purchase some service or stuff we do not need to make it “worth” their time? I remember passing by makeshift Maasai villages while on a safari in Tanzania and watching vans after vans taking turns visiting the huts for an “authentic” Maasai experience. While traveling in Morocco, I paid more than what I cared to pay for a 2 oz bottle of Argan oil after a scheduled tour of a co-op where local women were staged in traditional garb and processing the nuts by hand. Great photo opp but is it authentic?

I have been on the other side of this cultural tourism. My Peace Corps village was located few kilometers from a popular tourist site. Occasionally we would have a van full of tourists who would come to visit our skills center where village women made and sold beaded jewelries solely for the tourists at an inflated price. When the vans pull up, the village women and children would all head over to the Center, playing the drums and dancing as if on cue. The tourists would observe and record the “spectacle” through their camera lenses. My friend Hawa, an enterprising Wonder Woman whom I love, would gift simple, cheap bracelets to the ladies, hoping that they would buy more intricate necklaces in return. My adorable host brothers would get photographed in their silly poses and would probably appear on someone’s Facebook profile picture.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I remained after the vans left. I listened to my friends as they complained about how miserly the particular group of tourists was. Hawa would be offended if those ladies did not return her kind albeit calculated gesture by buying more. I knew the politics behind who pockets the tips and I learned what motivates someone to come entertain the tourists instead of caring for the sick in their family.

The worst thing about this type of tourism is the idleness it encourages.

The villagers were always informed last minute, if at all, and hence always had to be ready and available. This justified why our Center leaders would sit around, drink tea, and simply wait. While this was frustrating for them, it encouraged the idea of tourism industry being easy money and that they must get the most out of each visit.

The traditional tourism model is unable to treat neither the locals nor the tourists with dignity. Too often, both parties feel cheated on and unsatisfied.

Essentially, what we want is more control for everyone involved. Vayando gives this control. The entrepreneurs initiate the listing by offering the services they are able to offer well. Travelers can book directly with entrepreneurs for experiences that they are genuinely interested in. Everything is transparent, planned, and predictable. Best of all, none of them sit around to wait for the next Vayando customer. Most of them operate sustainable businesses serving the existing local economy and all of them genuinely want to share their insights and expertise with travelers. The income generated, while meaningful, is thankfully not their only source of income but extra wiggle room to care for their families better and grow their businesses.

Vayando is not the only solution to the above problems I have mentioned. But I believe it is a step in the right direction for sustainable, empowering, and authentic tourism.