Responsible tourism at festivals

Traveling to a local festival should be a celebratory and enjoyable way to immerse yourself in another culture. And on the whole it is. Sadly, though, some festivals have segued from traditional to touristy, with crowds of foreigners at what was once a local event, and stadium spectacle standing in for sportsmanship on the village green. Other festivals raise environmental concerns, whether it be the treatment of animals or the damage done to flora and fauna while they take place. The Loi Krathong festival in Thailand, for instance, traditionally involves launching thousands of floating lanterns into the air, which are hazardous to aircraft and cause pollution when their wire frames and fuel cells descend to earth. Closer to home, the annual Lewes bonfire parade on England’s south coast sees burning vats of tar carried through the town’s narrow streets, perilously close to spectators. Fun or flaming dangerous? You decide. Do your research and make a responsible choice about whether to join the festivities.


Witnessing a local festival is a great privilege, but when your presence there as an outsider begins to influence the content of the festival, then something’s gone wrong. Ironically, our hunger for authentic experiences can distort and even destroy them. Rituals that might have died out are still performed, but to crowds of tourists rather than local people. Grass roots events become huge stadium fillers, with corporate sponsorship, flashy prizes and entry fees beyond the budget of local people, where previously there were none. Simply the presence of outsiders at some small festivals can prevent local people from attending, and insensitive behaviour or intrusive photography can rob the event of its intimacy and meaning, and offend participants and local spectators alike.
Around the world, it is the smaller or older festivals that seem most vulnerable to change once tourists begin to visit. The larger, annual Nadaam festivals that take place around Mongolia are an example. Some local people feel that the large Nadaam held in the capital Ulaan Baatar, for instance, has become too glitzy in recent years, with spotlit opening ceremonies and spectacle placed above the traditional sports. Prizes are becoming bigger and some events open to abuse. The horse racing, for instance, features horses that are part Arab now, not pure Mongolia as in the past, and they are bigger and faster.
In Niger, the Gerewol festival, an ancient courtship ritual, is now performed more for tourists than for local tribespeople, who increasingly depend on the tourist money that flows in to witness it. Even the extraordinary Voodoo Festival in Benin has become quite a tourist attraction in recent years.
What you can do
Pick your festival wisely. As a rule, those founded in the last century or so seem less at risk of tourist exploitation and are designed primarily as spectator events. The World Nomad Games, for instance, was first held in 2014 and is a huge event that attracts and absorbs visitors from far and wide, without compromising the culture and sports on show. The Rainforest World Music Festival is another great contemporary event, founded in 1998. It’s utterly authentic in its mission to celebrate and support world music, but it also brings real financial benefit to Sarawak, where it’s held.
In Mongolia, you can choose to seek out the small, rural Nadaams which have a country fair atmosphere, rather than attending the larger, glitzier events in the capital and elsewhere. Likewise in Bhutan, travel beyond Thimphu and Paro to find local tshechus that have changed little in centuries and are visited by few foreign tourists.
Always travel with a responsible tour operator, who understands the festival and its importance to the local people attending it, so you can enjoy it respectfully and learn more, too. Raise any concerns you have about western tourists visiting local festivals, too, so that you can make an informed decision about whether to go and how your presence may affect the event.


The ethics of eagle festivals

Mongolia’s eagle festivals throw up a few animal rights issues – primarily around hunting and around keeping eagles captive. Essentially, the festivals are about showcasing cultural traditions and public spectacle, and little – if any – hunting actually takes place. Hunting traditionally takes place in winter, and the festivals are held in spring and autumn. Most demonstrations, therefore, use fox furs dragged by horses, with perhaps just one final display of an eagle hunting a fox or wolf cub. In fact, the festivals have even been criticised for discouraging hunting, as the Kazakhs have realised they can earn money from tourists by carrying out traditional falconry demonstrations without having the complex skills and knowledge required to actually hunt in the depths of the Mongolian winter.

As for the practice of keeping eagles captive… Generally, we do not promote keeping wild animals in captivity, but we recognise that exceptions should be made for certain traditional cultural practices. Having taken place for centuries, the capture, keeping and releasing of female golden eagles has been done in a way which does not threaten wild populations. The eagles are taken while young, well treated and then, crucially, they are released when they are still of breeding age. The hunters, who develop close relationships with their eagles, will return to the release site for up to a year to ensure their eagle has successfully readapted to life in the wild.

The festivals have, of course, raised the profile of the eagle hunters internationally. As tourism to Western Mongolia increases, and visitors want to spend time with the hunters, golden eagles may be becoming more of a commodity. There have been reports of eagles being trapped as adults and traded – rather than captured from their nests by the hunters themselves – and of these eagles not being released. They are not being used to hunt; rather they are props to attract tourists to the herders’ homes, and perhaps demonstrate a bit of falconry. Traditionally, hunting is a family tradition, with skills and wisdom passed down from father to son. Those cashing in on the tourist trend may not have the knowledge to treat the eagle correctly. It is noticeable that eagle ownership has grown in the districts where the eagle festivals are held.

This is not yet a widespread issue, but if it continues, it could of course threaten wild populations. If you are considering visiting an eagle festival, be careful with behaviour that could distress the eagles.
What you can do
Remember to behave respectfully towards the eagles at an eagle festival. These birds are not used to crowds of people and camera lenses stuck into their faces, so keep your distance and enjoy watching these beautiful creatures from a respectful distance. Jess Brooks, from our leading Mongolia supplier Eternal Landscapes explains:
“You get Westerners coming along with their cameras, and maybe they are making it more of a stressful environment. The eagle is used to being handled by the eagle hunter, and is used to being manhandled in and out of the vehicle by the hunter, going up and down on a horse – that’s no problem. But all of a sudden their space is invaded by a lot of people with very large cameras and I wonder if that has more of a negative impact that then behaviour of the Kazakh eagle hunter himself.”

Animal rights

Some festivals feature treatment of animals that you may find offensive. The Voodoo Festival in Benin involves animal sacrifices, while the World Nomad Games features the sport of kok buru, which is polo using a headless goat carcass instead of a ball. At Responsible Travel, we do accept that many ancient customs simply won’t correspond to Western, 21st century values. However, we also believe that tradition is not always an excuse for animal cruelty or environmental destruction. Traditional practices evolve over time, and always have done, from whaling and the use of elephants in wars, to the popularity of circuses and dancing bears.
Therefore we carefully research the festivals promoted on our website to flag up any issues of cruelty or threats to wildlife. Although the Voodoo Festival does involve the sacrifice of animals, these are domesticated, not wild, and this practice therefore does not pose a conservation threat. In most cases, the animals used are chickens. Some people may be upset at the sight of animal sacrifice, and that is for each participant to decide – but it is similar to animals being slaughtered for meat. The animal carcasses used in the World Nomad Games fall into the same category. In addition, the presence of Western tourists is not actively encouraging this treatment; the sacrifice would take place whether you were watching or not.
What you can do
Research the festival you’re planning to visit to find out if any aspect of the ceremonies, rituals or sports is likely to upset or offend you. You might prefer to stay away and research another trip. If you want to experience a festival, there are many around the world that were founded in the 20th century and involve music, ice sculpture or even conservation (the Black Neck Crane festival in Bhutan springs to mind), that will suit better. Or you might decide to attend a festival that involves questionable use of animals, but avoid those elements that are likely to cause distress. For example, you don’t have to watch the headless goat polo at the World Nomad Games – there are plenty of other sports to enjoy.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Arian Zwegers] [Loi Krathong festival: Takeaway] [Gerewol tourists: Dan Lundeberg] [Tourist with eagle: Jeremy Weate] [Goat polo: McKay Johnston]