Altai Indigenous Ecotourism & Climate Change

Dear friends,

I was invited to give this talk at the UNDP/GEF International Practical Conference ‘Ecotourism, Climate, Local Communities – Developing Ecological Tourism as a Climate Change Adaptation Means for Local Communities in the Altai-Sayan’ held last October at Lake Aiya near Gorno-Altaisk. I am no expert on eco-tourism but I made the most of the opportunity to speak and share a few observations as a foreign visitor in Altai. I share it here as it was possible for me to take part at this conference thanks again to support from the Altai Pilgrim Friendship Circle. The man in the photograph is a dear friend and the ‘kaichi’, ‘throat singer’ I mention in my talk.

Supporting Indigenous Community Based Ecotourism Project in Altai: ‘White Ail’?

Good afternoon!  When I first came to Altai eleven years ago I came as a tourist. I travelled on a three week trip advertised on the internet as ‘Sacred Journey to Altai’. Two years later, I returned to Altai, again as a tourist and this time, stayed for a decade. I moved from England first to Novosibirsk and then to the Ongudai region in central Altai. Over the years that followed, I spent long periods of time living in Altai indigenous communities getting to know the Altai people and studying their culture and history. It is almost impossible to live in the Altai Republic and not somehow be dealing with the development of tourism. My own invoIvement has mainly been with foreign tourist groups, usually as translator and working together with nature parks and local NGO’s. What interests me most about ecological tourism in Altai is how it relates specifically to the Altai indigenous population.

I began my journey in Altai as a foreign tourist looking from the outside in and having been here for ten years now have the opportunity to look from the inside out.  I would like to thank the conference organisers for inviting me to speak and share some of the conclusions I have drawn from this experience.

I am not alone in my deep interest in indigenous cultures.

In Western Europe, America, Australia and Canada interest in indigenous people and their cultures continues to develop. This is reflected in media content, in the emerging academic fields of Traditional Ecological knowledge and sacred ecology, in contemporary forms of spirituality and of course in the growth of eco-tourism which provides opportunities to become acquainted with indigenous cultures. I’d like to say a few words about this interest because, in my view, it underpins the demand for a specific type of eco-tourist product in Altai. Rather than go into the details of how that product could be designed and what services it would include I think it is more important today to say something about the wider cross-cultural context. Given that the majority of conference participants are based in Altai and other parts of Russia perhaps it would be relevant for me to say something about the potential foreign eco-tourist. Who are we and how do we differ from the Russian so-called ‘New Age’ tourist?

In my view, interest in indigenous cultures is part of the philosophical development taking place in the western world and is specific to it. This interest is driven by a widespread search for a new set of values that include a meaningful relationship with the natural world. As far as I remember it, in the nineteen nineties two movements strongly stood out in the UK. One of these was the green movement: at that time, the green movement became mainstream. It became common-place for businesses to have an ecological policy and to be using the term ‘green’ in one way or another. The other was the ‘new age’ movement. (I mention this of course because ‘new-age’, is the term used in Russian to refer to the main form of spiritual tourism that is developing in Altai) The essence of the ‘new-age’ movement lay in a mass shift in consciousness. That shift occured with the realisation that the world is made up of energy and that individuals are responsible for creating their own reality with their thoughts, emotions and actions. Although this principle is evidently embedded in the traditional Altai culture, for the UK in the nineties it was quite radical. At that time you couldn’t talk about ‘energy’, ‘subtle energies’ or ‘spirit’ without being considered ‘hippy’ or scientifically naive. The new-age movement gave birth to all sorts of popular motivational and healing products. The realisation that one can absorb energy from nature through resonance also resulted in a new fashionable type of tourism which we humourously call ‘vortext hopping’ after ‘back-packing’ and ‘island hopping’. ‘Vortex hopping’ is really the same as what here in Russia we call ‘new-age’ tourism. This is a type of tourism in which people seek out ‘vortices’ or ‘places of power’ on the planetary energetic grid for the purposes of healing, energetic renewal and meditation. For the same reasons, interest in shamanism and the attractiveness of the personal power that was the privelege of the ‘shaman’ also peaked. In the nineties, these two movements, the ‘green’ and the ‘new age’ appeared pretty much to exist seperately from one another.

What can be clearly observed now is a movement in which the ecological imperative no longer exists separately from the search for a new set of human values, a new paradigm. The green movement is exploring the world of spirituality in the form of sustainable values, and spirituality is being sought in a practical and cultural context with a component in nature. It is widely accepted now, that no truly substantive solution to the ecological imperative can be found without a parallel shift in human values. This idea is being explored via various metaphors and has generated the term ‘sustainable values’ which unlike the original new age movement, is now very much mainstream. 

Within this context indigenous cultures have great appeal. It would be fair to say that among certain circles in the west they are attributed high status and are also surrounded with a certain aura of mystery. For many people, indigenous cultures have come to symbolise the search for values and knowledge that are perceived as necessary at this stage to meet the social and ecological challenges we face. Indigenous peoples are perceived by many as having preserved a combination of sustainble livelihoods and wisdom or spiritual values that are informed by many generations of experience of living in intimate connection with nature.  Many people therefore, are keen to try to understand how ‘value-systems’, ‘spirituality’ and ecological knowledge co-exist within the day to day life of an indigenous community widening the notion of Traditional Ecological Knowledge from an extractable set of data or skills to the dynamic processes that make up a lifeway. In the light of climate change indigenous cultures are particularly being examined for their ‘resilience’ and ‘adaptability’.

In my view, this general interest in indigenous cultures is not a passing fad. It is now mainstream and potentially a powerful driver for the development of indigenous eco-tourism. In Altai, many foreign tourists are looking for a kind of indigenous eco-tourism product; one that offers respectful homestays and a window into the indigenous worldview; one that is associated as much with protection of the environment as it is with culture and spirituality.

This product, however, doesn’t yet exist. I am not saying that no-one is working with members of the indigenous community or their culture. They are, but there is still an unfilled niche for a very targeted indigenous eco-tourist product that is designed from the very initial stages together with experts and indigenous community members. What I often hear foreign tourists and specialists discussing when they visit Altai is ‘why isn’t indigenous spiritual tourism being developed here’, because for many foreign tourists, the benefits of this type of tourism seem obvious. Other forms of tourism in Altai are clearly developing such as extreme sports, trekking, opportunities for travel with an environmental focus, and independent automobile travel along the Chuisky Highway. Spiritual tourism on a large scale, however, is represented only by the ‘new-age’ tourists as they are referred to in Russia, or followers of the Nicholas Roerich Movement who travel to the Ust-Koks District and Mount Belukha. Neither of these forms of tourism show any particular interest in the Altai indigenous culture and worldview. The potential that the indigenous culture holds for a distinct tourist product seems in danger of being excluded from the industry altogether.

Maybe the demand has to be more strongly expressed by foreign visitors. Maybe there is a lack of experience and confidence as well as fear among indigenous communities in the Atai as to the impact  tourism will have on their villages. Perhaps they are afraid that the places they consider sacred will not be treated as such; they may also be unsure of why tourists would want to visit them if they can’t offer higher standards of comfort. There seems to be a competitive attitude over resources coming from various quarters which strongly dissasociates the indigenous people from their sacred places and historical monuments as if this isn’t their home at all.

And perhaps, there was a hope several years ago that nature parks in the Altai Republic would initiate the process of creating indigenous community-based tourism in a way would create tourist services at the same time as preserving cultural traditions and increasing respect and understanding for the Altai indigenous relationship to the immediate natural environment as a ritual landscape. Clearly, this has not entirely been the case. A pilgrimage type of trekking has been offered by some nature parks to small conservation groups as part of the collaboration that has taken place between foreign and local NGO’s. There has also been some experimentation ‘Noosphere Tourism’ in which mountain pilgrimage has been adapted as a way of teaching indigenous ways of interacting with the environment. Unfortunately, however, this experiement has not really tapped the potential for developing eco-tourism among foreign tourists on a larger scale, perhaps in part because the understanding of the ‘Noopshere’ has been reinvented in Altai as part of a local philosophical development that hasn’t been shared in the same way within the philosphical development we witness in the west.  A lack of common cross-cultural references for what is being offered and what is being sought has not helped to facilitate a meshing of interests among stakeholders. No one process has really captured the interest that exists among a wider range of stakeholders  to develop an indigenous form of eco-tourism in Altai.

In my experience as a foreign tourist the values of indigenous eco-tourism are distinctly different from the values of non-indigenous forms of tourism. I’ll try and give an example of what I mean by describing a home-stay experience;

I have visited an Altai ail as purely as a museum experience. What normally happens is that the guide explains that there is a left/men’s and right/women’s side of the ail, that the door is placed to face the east, and that the space between the hearth and the back wall of the six-sided ail is sacred and that you mustn’t walk there. This is interesting information and sometimes the guide’s text can quite easily develop into a description of the architectural principles of the universe. Visiting or staying in an Altai ail however, is a totally different experience. The principles of the layout of the ail is indeed interesting but what really makes an impression is how people live in the ail. When you are greeted with traditional hospitality, with ‘chegen’ and even a little ash from the hearth and treated as a special guest it makes a big impression. Of course, the fire itself is impressive but when you sit with a family and learn that they don’t throw rubbish in the fire, that they feed the fire and continue to attend to it as it crackles or responds to the group and their conversation – you realise that the ail today is more than a mini museum for tourists; it is home to people who have a very different worldview fro our own. Meaning is given to the fire in the hearth. This is enough to make a westerner think. It may be banal to a local person, but witnessing the different foods a woman makes from milk or watching how a sheep is killed outside the ail leaving nothing on the ground to waste and learning how every remaining bone is integrated into custom or ritual is not at all banal to a westerner. In the UK, I doubt all children today know that milk comes from a cow, let alone how to make several foods from milk.

A significant moment for me was when I was with a group staying in an ail with an Altai family and one of their relatives visited. Other neighbours drifted in and we all sat around the hearth, listening to the fire, everyone with their own thoughts. The relative was a ‘kaichi’, a throat singer performer of Altai epic. He warmed his instrument by the fire. Everyone was silent and there was a tangible sense of expectation. Then he began his throat singing. Even though I couldn’t understand the words I felt the change in atmosphere. It was as if the sounds of the man’s voice, the strings, our thoughts and the atmosphere inside and outside the ail was switched on, becoming electric. I have never experienced anything like that, accept perhaps at a pink floyd concert at wembley stadium. This was a little gentler! What I realised then, was that this was more fulfilling than all the long walks I used to take alone into the hills looking for a sense of oneness. I realised sitting there with this family that what many new-agers are looking for out there in the mountains can be experienced in an Altai ail – you don’t always have to leave people to feel at one with nature – you can be together with people and that special vibe in nature will come to you because that is part of how the culture functions.

I could talk for a long time about my impressions as a western tourist from visiting Altai families spending time in the ail, at the stoyanka, in the taiga, visiting knowleadgable people or healers, visiting sacred places and historical monuments, with all the effect they have of causing one to explore and consider different values. We as foriegn tourists are caused to consider a way of life that acknowledges the high value of spirit in nature, sees meaning in ritual, observes certain codes of behaviour- ‘bai‘.  This is fulfilling. It is very much the type of experience that I think a lot of people are looking for.

The point I really do want to make is that there is a difference between the non-indigenous ‘museum’ experience of looking on and being told about the Altai culture and taking part for a short time in people’s lives during a homestay.  When foreign visitors encounter the Altai worldview on Altai land they undergo an inner process of transformation. And so even if the geographic location is the same, and you visit the same monuments and places, look at the same mountains, when you do those things with the Altai people for whom they have a specific meaning you have a different experience, and if you can offer a different experience then you have a different tourist product.

Many models exists for indigenous community-based tourism. The kind of project one would hope to see in Altai would be an analysis of other models and an appropiate form chosen and recommended to Altai communities. For a project to be successful it would need to take full account of the starting point of the local community, their concerns, fears, attitudes and value-system. With the necessary preliminary research, a feasibility study and the participation of experts and community members from the very initial stages, I believe that a model could be designed in Altai that meets the market demand and brings benefit to local communities. The ‘Zeleny Dom’ – ‘Ecological Homestay’ project has been successful in the Chemal District of Altai. Perhaps what many foreign tourists are looking for is perhaps something similar, but culturally specific to the Altai indigenous peoples. Something equivalent perhaps to ‘White ail’, White obviously being symbolic of the ‘White Faith’. Perhaps, if such a project were to be developed then the eco-tourist who seeks to experience the natural landscape via the prism of the indigenous culture could offer an alternative experience to local communities than the rather negative image of the ‘new-age’ tourist who seeks to acquire the power of the natural landscape by accessing excess energy held in the dimensions of sacred lands bypassing the local culture of centuries entirely.

Where could the support have to come from I wonder for an indigenous eco-tourism development project that does what eco-tourism is claimed to do: reduce impact of the tourism on pristine areas of the natural world; enhance the carrying capacity of the people who inhabit those areas and build respect for their culture? Who might see the potential of such a project? With that thought I end my talk. Thank you for your attention.

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4 responses to “Altai Indigenous Ecotourism & Climate Change

  1. Joanna: a beautiful and thoughtful talk. Thank you. It brought back memories of walking in the mountains of Altai and feeling history and culture and nature flowing powerfully. We are in final editing of the film we shot now, and one key scene is European tourists at Mt Belukha, trying very hard for an authentic experience in nature but totally disconnected from Altai history and culture, with a highly paid European shaman guiding them. It is sensitive footage, delicate to edit. Hoping to be in touch again soon and thanks again for your good work! Toby McLeod

    • Dear Toby,

      Thank you for your thoughts. I very much look forward to seeing your film, particularly the parts filmed in Altai and Hawaii. Is there any way that I can see a copy?
      Will look forward to hearing from you again. Wishing you every success with the film. Joanna

  2. Joanna, What a beautiful, learned and powerful talk. (For anyone with a short time to spare, the sections in italics are excellent.) This is very important and deserves to be read widely. Your understanding and special position in Altai as a westerner is unique.

    Jenny Turner

  3. That’s my experience too, in 2008 I was out of necessity staying with some shepherds between Akkem and Kucherla, and didn’t feel the experience awkward at all to either bodies, even though my Russian was nearly nonexistent at the time and communication was slow… It was a good experience, altough I had to stay outside in my tent for the night since the ail came full of the herders returning from the mountains in the late evening.

    That was a beautiful speech, and a good point that it’s a shame if the local communities are excluded from the tourist business, at the same time when money is becoming a more necessary part of life even in previously more self sufficient communities.

    Also, thanks for the book, I just finished it, it was an interesting read!

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