Travel Through A Neo-Colonialism Lens

Posted 21st Feb 2019
Tourism and Modern Travel Culture

There seems to be a lot of buzz about travel these days.

Traveling has become this trendy topic we see all over the internet, social media, and TV with an influx of travel bloggers, Instagram influencers dedicated to travel, and entire TV channels and shows solely covering travel topics such as The Travel Network and Anthony Burdain’s No Reservations. And, for good reason -- right?! As many of these blogs and TV shows highlight, travel can be so enriching and have many personal benefits- (check out Go travel and talk articles to learn more).

Tourism is a MASSIVE industry that, according to analytics from the World Travel and Tourism Council, moves billions of dollars annually, and can be the main contributor to the overall GDP of some countries. With this cultural and economic influence, tourism has been increasing and the industry continues to grow. This uprise in the tourism industry has evolved a new type of travel - “ethical travel,” “sustainable travel” or “responsible travel” and the industry of “volunteer tourism.”  

But have you ever wondered what these labels even mean and why they exist?  

For some people, this responsible travel movement was born out of concern for the environment.  For others, it was born out of a more historical social reason - the recognition of the historical relationship between countries and how that relationship has hurt some countries and benefited others. Further, from this standpoint, responsible travel means acknowledging what it means when people from countries who have benefited from this relationship visit countries who have hurt from this relationship.  

This is your guide to travel through a neo-colonialism lense.

Ok so first, lets brush up on a few concepts and terms.

N.B All images have been created by and kindly offered for the purpose of this article. 


Colonialism refers to the forcible settlement of a foreign territory, as well as the remaking of a local society and institutions in the interest of the colonizing power.

A historical example of colonialism was Spain’s conquering of the Americas or Britain’s control in Sri Lanka. This remaking of a local society can also happen without actually colonizing territories, however still outwardly projecting influence and power without actual occupation.

This is called neo-colonialism.


The encyclopedia Briticana defines neo-colonialism as “the control of less-developed countries by developed countries through indirect means-” these means can be political, economic, or simply just cultural.  N.B neo-colonialism is also referred to as post modern imperialism or neo-imperialism.

An example of political and economic neo-colonialism is the US offering large sums of money to governments of countries prepared to combat communism (i.e. the Truman Doctrine) and therefore establishing political influence and control in foreign countries without actually colonizing them.

But how does this relate to travel?

Neo-Colonialism and Travel

When we travel to foreign places, it’s important to know your country’s history with the country to which you are traveling.

If you are from the US or Europe and traveling outside North America and Europe, chances are your country has a history of colonialism in the country to which you are traveling.

It’s important to note that while travel can be so great for us personally, the tourism industry can really suck for others.  Because of colonialism, many countries have been left with economic situations that pressure citizens of that country to rely on tourism in some way as a means of livelihood. This makes those people vulnerable to exploitative tourism. It also means that that country is vulnerable to being culturally and economically influenced and even controlled by other countries.

It is also important to note that “travel blogging” is generally dominated by white writers from “the Global North” who have the privilege of visiting a country and writing about that country from their perspective. This often neglects the voice of the actual citizens of that country.  

This is neo-colonialistic in nature because it takes the control of the worldview of a country and its culture out of the hands of its people and gives it to people of more developed and dominating countries.

Volunteer-Tourism Industry

The volunteer-tourism industry can also sometimes do more harm than good to local communities by falling into neo-colonialistic tendencies through contributing to harmful hierarchies and savior-victim narratives as well as sometimes participating in corruption or misdirection of resources. 

Savior-victim narratives emerge when travelers (consciously  or unconsciously!) view people from less-developed countries as victims in need of rescuing from people from more developed countries. This is harmful because it perpetuates a hierarchy that puts people from one place above (as saviors) people from another place (as victims) instead of encouraging agency and equality.

Corruption and misdirection of resources among organizations is actually a lot more common than one would think! This happens when organizations are not well-intentioned or properly directed. Sometimes organizations that require a large sum of money in order for you to volunteer use that money to fund the operations of that organization and give healthy salaries to its employees. Unfortunately, sometimes, that money is funneled in corrupt ways that don’t actually help the community, but more often than not, supports the people running the organization instead.  Other times, organizations that are very well-intentioned run operations that are completely out of line with what the community wants or needs, but instead runs operations that the organization thinks the community should do.  

The most efficient way to combat both of these misworkings is to make sure that the organization you want to work with is community-lead and community-based.

Community-lead means that there are people from the actual community in which the organization is based that are in leadership positions participating in executive decisions about the operations of the organization.  

Community-based means that the organization was born out of the community’s own initiative or in collaboration with the community’s initiative.  This means that community members expressed a need and were involved with the formation of the organization or the organization’s operations.  At the very least, it means that the organization actively makes sure that its operations are needed, wanted, and in line with the culture and expectations of the community members themselves.  

When deciding to work with an organization, feel empowered to ask them: How do you make sure your operations are in line with community wants and needs and build upon the community’s strengths?

What we can do going forward

While we can’t erase history and a true reversal of the effects of colonialism is a huge undertaking, there are some things we as travelers can do to not exacerbate the effects of colonialism.

Here are a few examples:

* Pay fair prices at the markets, acknowledging that someone’s livelihood depends on this, and further that that person’s livelihood depends on market sales to tourists in part because of colonialism in the first place

* If you participate in a street performance of any kind by watching, pay the performers - the same can be said about the livelihood of performers

* Research the organizations you are volunteering for -> are they community based and community lead?

* Get to know locals, listen when they tell history from their perspective and include these voices and narratives when sharing your description of a country you visit

* Try to learn the language, or at the very least don’t expect them to know yours. 

* Remember that it is your privilege that allows you to travel and be welcomed into a country that is not your own, a privilege that many people in the world do not have.


I am not an expert on these topics and this is not an extensive analysis of neo-colonial tourism. This article only seeks to provide a little context to help build a more informed, productive and healthier framework for looking at how you travel.  The information provided in this article has been collected from my notes from a university course entitled “Contemporary Issues in the Global Economy,” reports from the World Travel and Tourism Council, the encyclopedia Briticana, and my own personal experience and observations.


Go Travel and Talk Writer Maggie
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An avid writer, gardener feminist and explorer of both inner and outer worlds.
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