As Travelers Search For Meaning, Indigenous Tourism Is Taking Off

Visitors are “shocked” when they come to his native community in central Chile, says Mauricio Painefil, one of the village elders.

“They do not expect the richness of culture,” he says, standing in front of a traditional Mapuche home called a ruca. “They do not expect the profound links with nature.”

A visit with the Mapuche is filled with other surprises. Like the stunning views of Budi, the largest saltwater lake in the world. Or the intricacies of Mapuche huicha huichahue backstrap weaving. Or tasty Mapuche stews made from homegrown potatoes, carrots and cochayuyo seaweed harvested from the nearby Pacific.

With “revenge” travel over, many U.S. travelers are searching for meaning when they go somewhere — a deeper connection, a transformational travel experience. Indigenous tourism offers that.

“Americans want a native experience when they come to a place like Chile,” explains Sarina Hinte-Simecek, proprietor of Elementos Experiential Tourism in Pucón, Chile. “They want to see the volcano, to be near the lake — and to meet the Mapuche.”

What is indigenous tourism?

Indigenous tourism — also called cultural or ethnotourism — allows visitors to experience the traditions of indigenous communities. It’s also a way to support these communities economically while respecting their cultural heritage.

Here are some of the hallmarks of indigenous tourism:

Authentic cultural experiences

Indigenous tourism offers real interaction with locals. This may include a traditional ceremony, crafts, or storytelling.


True indigenous tourism has a strong educational component that allows visitors to learn about the tribe’s history and tells their often-forgotten stories.

Heritage preservation

The revenue generated from native tourism often goes toward preserving indigenous languages, traditions, and natural resources.

Sustainable development

Travelers contribute to the economic development of these communities in a sustainable and respectful manner. Sustainable food is one of this year’s biggest trends.

There’s no certification agency that verifies if a tour or homestay is an authentic indigenous tourism experience. But often a real cultural tourism attraction will incorporate some, or all, of these.

Indigenous tourism has always been a niche market for travelers. But that’s starting to change.

Indigenous tourism is growing

Native tourism is gaining traction. A recent study showed that the market for indigenous tourism is growing at 4% annually. It’s a sprawling trend that includes restaurants serving indigenous food, hotels and casinos owned by indigenous people, new museums and interpretative centers, immersive experiences and guided tours.

For example, in Painefil’s village in central Chile, called Llaguepulli, you can spend the night in a traditional windowless thatched hut, participate in native arts and learn how to prepare indigenous food.

Painefil says the Mapuche hadn’t even considered tourism until the late 1990s. But people saw potential in homestays. The tribe recognized it as a way to introduce Chileans to their way of life and help overcome prejudices against the Mapuche. But the idea also caught on with Europeans, who were intrigued by the tribe’s customs and their spiritual connection with nature.

“Over time, we have seen more tourism in our area,” says Painefil.

And they may be about to see even more if this trend goes global. Many countries are doubling down on promoting their indigenous tourism opportunities in 2024.

“It’s one of our key messages,” says Kim Logan, a manager at Banff & Lake Louise Tourism in Canada. Her region had already been promoting native tourism for the last few years. But in 2023, when tourism officials began researching industry trends, they noticed a strong interest in indigenous culture and decided the time was right to go all-in on native tourism.

Entire regions in Canada are committed to promoting native tourism. For example, Manitoba’s new Indigenous Tourism website allows indigenous tour operators — defined under the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada’s criteria as 51% owned by an indigenous member of the community — the opportunity to engage in support, training, and educational programs to build their brand on a provincial and national scale.

“Promoting indigenous tourism is a pillar for Travel Manitoba,” says agency spokeswoman Jillian Recksiedler.

Here are the latest indigenous tourism experiences

Indigenous tourism experiences span a range of activities.

Indigenous tours

You can book an entire tour that will let you live like a native. For example, Remote Lands‘ six-day “Ancestral Adventures in South Sulawesi” itinerary in Indonesia allows you to meet the chief of the Kajang, a tribe that lives deep in the forest. You’ll have the opportunity to understand how the challenges of modernity impact their traditions.

Native cooking classes

At Ananda in the Himalayas, you can take Ayurveda cuisine lessons, offered to guests twice a week. Ayurveda cuisine, which is primarily plant-based, focuses on a lifestyle to achieve state of balance, or saatva. All guests are encouraged to be part of these lessons because they build the base for lifestyle change.

New indigenous attractions

Some indigenous experiences don’t require a guide or a resort stay. In Macon, Ga., the local community is collaborating with the Muscogee Nation to create Georgia’s first national park and preserve. Pending approval from Congress, the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park will be named Georgia’s first National Park and Preserve and the 64th National Park. It will be jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Muscogee Nation. The park sits along a 54-mile stretch of the Ocmulgee River where artifacts reflect more than 17,000 years of human habitation. You can step inside the Earth Lodge, where Native Americans have held council meetings for 1,000 years.

Expert travel advisors

More travel advisors are specializing in indigenous tourism experiences than ever. For example, Global Travel Moments has contacts with many special-interest tour operators and can offer clients a variety of options if they want a native travel experience. “Destinations such as the Amazon rainforest in Brazil or the Maasai Mara in Kenya allow travelers to immerse themselves in the unique traditions and lifestyles of indigenous communities,” says Duncan Greenfield-Turk, the company’s chief travel designer.

Vacationing on tribal land

For some visitors, just being on tribal land is enough for an indigenous cultural experience. For example, guests at the Pechanga Resort Casino in Southern California will find reminders of its Native American heritage everywhere in the resort. “Each artifact, piece of art, mural, and more here emphasizes our culture,” says Myra Masiel, Pechanga’s cultural curator and archaeologist. (For example, the casino’s ceiling depicts various streams on Pechanga land.)

There’s such a variety of opportunities to experience indigenous culture. But let’s get back to the Mapuche in Chile.

Warning: Some “indigenous” tours exploit local populations

Not everything that says “indigenous” is worth it, warns Kimberly Davis, a former cultural anthropologist and current travel advisor.

“The goal is to support local communities rather than exploit them, and hopefully leave the community better off as a result of your visit,” she says.

When you choose a tour, ask yourself: Who developed the tour? Who will profit from it? Are the indigenous people stakeholders — or are they simply a sideshow?

There’s also the level of authenticity. I recall being on a tour in Australia with a guide who claimed to be indigenous but barely had any Aboriginal ancestry and didn’t speak the language. The guide spent most of the tour railing against the evils of colonialism but hardly mentioned the cultural traditions that I was so curious to learn more about.

Tour operators are wary of sending their customers to a less-than-authentic indigenous experience. To avoid this, tour operator Trafalgar has created a coalition with the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, the Indigenous Tourism Association Canada and The Indigenous Tourism Collaborative of the Americas. It’s working directly with local communities to amplify indigenous-owned businesses. The goal: to increase access to ancestral wisdom, preserve and reclaim culture and ultimately drive economic benefit to support the livelihoods of native peoples.

But there’s no Good Housekeeping seal of approval for indigenous tourism. You have to do your research.

Chile’s emphasis on indigenous tourism

Chilean tourism officials are actively encouraging tourists to visit places like Llaguepulli and Pucón, and to discover the traditions of the Mapuche.

Chile’s efforts to promote indigenous peoples such as the Mapuche began in 2019 as a collaboration between the Chilean Undersecretariat of Tourism, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada and the Mapuche Tourism. (Canada developed the “market ready” methodology adopted by Chile.)

“Indigenous tourism consists of authentic, culturally relevant and sustainable indigenous tourism activities, services or experiences,” explains Veronica Pardo, Chile’s undersecretary of tourism. “These activities, services or experiences must be based on the philosophical values of each people and their ancestral knowledge — planned, designed, developed and controlled by indigenous people, communities, organizations or businesses.”

The history of the Mapuche in Chile is complicated and controversial, as it is with many other indigenous nations. But for most tourists, learning about the native tribes may mean climbing to the top of the Villarrica volcano in Chile’s Lake District. The indigenous name of this mountain is Ruca Pillán, which means “the house of the spirits.”

Ruca Pillán plays a central role in Mapuche culture, explains local guide Joaquín Figueroa. When people treat the earth well, the volcano is peaceful. But when the earth is out of balance, or, more specifically, when people treat the earth badly, Ruca Pillán shows its anger by erupting.

Lately, the volcano has not been pleased. Gas is billowing out of the top, and scientists have warned not to get too close to the crater. Authorities have closed the ascent, leaving tourists to admire the volcano from afar. The last major eruption happened in 2015, but the volcano erupts every decade or so.

“So another eruption may happen soon,” adds Figueroa.

At night, from the town of Pucón, you can see the lava glowing on the top of the mountain. A tour of the volcano is all the more meaningful when you consider its place in Mapuche culture and its historical significance to the indigenous people.

If you visit Chile, you don’t have to spend time with the Mapuche. You don’t have to climb Ruca Pillán or see the Pacific Coast. But if you don’t, you’ll miss one of the most fascinating parts of the country.

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