How the social, cultural and economic changes brought on by tourism influence the Maasai culture.

Posted by Petra Gurin on Sep 19th 2019

“Tourism is one of the main forces absorbing indigenous peoples into the modernist world system”6and the Maasai culture, like many other indigenous groups are facing these challenges every day. “Indigenous tourism often focuses on the relationships between people and their natural habitat“4 says Chambers correctly, and safari tourism is a perfect example of this. Essentially safari tourism is a distinct tourism itself, but it incorporates elements of eco tourism, cultural tourism, recreational tourism and adventure tourist under one umbrella. Progress, partially brought on by safari tourism, can destroy important part of the Maasai cultural heritage. The nations’, where these ethnic groups reside, in the case of the Maasai, Kenya and Tanzania, financial objective doesn’t always correlate with the preservation of ethnic heritage. But it’s unfair to only mention the negative effects of tourism on indigenous people; tourism brings positive changes as well. It’s a dilemma of the 20th century that modernization helps with progress, but the cost inevitably can cause an irreversible loss to the ethnic group’s identity.  

Most of us are looking for authentic experiences on our travels. Last year I was fortunate enough to travel to Kenya to visit my boyfriend’s family in Nairobi, and we spent the whole month traveling around this breathtaking East African  county. I was able to spend time in Maasai Mara National Reserve and Lewa Conservancy. Bruner uses the expression, the “questioning gaze” and describes it like “tourists’ doubts about the creditability, authenticity, and accuracy”1 is exactly what I felt during my stay at the eco-camps in the safari game-parks. I met several Maasai safari tour guides, and this experience was reinforced later on from the autobiography “The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior” by Tepilit Ole Saitoti, that Maasai tour guides are educated, they posses great knowledge about their wildlife habitat, they have deep love and devotion towards their land. 

The Maasai is a seminomadic group, population estimated around 400,000 people1, and one of the most fundamental challenges they are facing is that they are forced to change their nomadic pastoral lifestyle to more of a settled, sedentary lifestyle. Because of British colonization, privatized land ownership was introduced, and they are also losing land in the name of preservation. As a result Maasai territories being turned into game parks, but sadly “Socio-economic and cultural factors related to land use and indigenous African communities were not considered when park boundaries were demarcated”3. 

They’re previous communal pastoral system does not provide the necessary financial means anymore, keeping in mind that tourism is a major source of income for these regions, indigenous people turn to this industry as a source of new revenue to feed their families. The problem stems from that the tour operators and the Maasai are not partners in this endeavor, but “economic and cultural domination exercised by foreign tourism investors”3 is being forced on them.

Being a tour guide is a somewhat a newly established position among the Maasai (20th century development) with a limited number of opportunities, which makes me wonder; if you can’t feed your family with traditional means like they’ve done for centuries, what choices do you have to survive? Some Maasai go and work at expensive hotels and lodges to look after the tourist, but the hotels pay very little, and while guests are enjoying a fancy vacation, the locals are struggling to make ends meet. Many of the Maasai find it hard to live without their pastoral lifestyle, so they move to cities in a hope for a better life. Some Maasai migrated to the coast of Kenya, to Zanzibar, where they use the Maasai “look” to entertain tourists, and they become the attraction themselves. The people whom decide to stay are eager to use the funds they earn from tourism to build better schools, stronger communities so the children can have a western education, as Simon, a Maasai tour guide tells us in the Masai On The Move documentary. So how can the Maasai community adapt to these changes without loosing their cultural identity? The answer is complex in it’s nature. Bruner notes, that the Maasai are represented as male warriors for defining characteristic and if you look at any marketing brochure advertising safari tourism, you will find images of stunning Maasai warriors dressed in traditional ethnic outfits, with beaded headdresses (Maasai Association website is a great example). When I met Legei, the Maasai tour-guide during my stay at Sirikoi Lodge, a luxury eco-lodge in Kenya last year, he was the exact manifestation of this stereotyped image of a Maasai warrior. Due to their cultural norms, the Maasai men interact more with the tourists and this could partially add to the reason why the warrior label of representation was developed. They are portrayed as primitive, natural man yet in reality Legei was very educated with great knowledge about Western cultural norms. Looking back, I probably insulted him by asking how he poses such a wide array of knowledge about the African wildlife habitat, but his answer was very polite and jokingly he said he went to school for it for four years. As I learned from Legei, he has a family and he comes from the Maasai Ngwesi sub-tribe. Whether my experience was authentic or not, it’s hard to say, but it was certainly a life changing one.

Even though, I personally didn’t experience any of the Maasai dances during my Kenyan vacation, and having a conflicting view myself on the subject, I find Bruner’s points valid about the Bomas of Kenya (organized, folk dance group) and the dances they perform. Bruner contrasts three different ways of celebrating Maasai dances, directed to different audiences; one is done by the Bomas which is open to the public, performed by professional dancers to present a cultural heritage of the nation, the other is done at the Mayers Ranch, a private tourist attraction built by a British family, the Mayers employing local Maasai. The third one is by Maasai Mara, called The Sundowner. I would like to focus on the first two; the Bomas use the word, preservation to describe their goal with the dance performances; their message is that these dances belong to the nation. Whereas, Bruner claims the Mayers Ranch was shut down because the government thought that the Mayers were exploiting the Maasai. The reason why the Mayers caused concern, is because they “discovered, the performance culture of the junior warriors is easily adopted to tourism-with important consequences for the Maasai”2. So Bruner’s conclusion on the differences between the two approach is that “Mayers was a Western fantasy. Bomas is a national fulfillment. Mayers and Bomas are equally political and each tries to present its own version of history. Mayers was not an accurate reflection of contemporary Maasai culture, neither is Bomas an accurate reflection if Kenyan traditionalism.”1 Which one is a more authentic experience? Bruner’s answer is “There is no one authentic Maasai culture, in part because Maasai culture is continually changing and there are many variants.”1 I feel like the Mayers unconsciously disrupted the Maasai traditions, and also contributed to reshaping the Maasai identity with letting women sell beadwork to the tourists. 

During my trip to Kenya, I’ve seen some amazing beadwork, and it is definitely one of the symbols of Maasai individuality. There are several Maasai markets in Nairobi where they sell mass produced handicrafts. I was always wondering about these identity marker beads because they are made out of plastic and glass, and as I suspected, they are not made by the Maasai, but were “imported from Czechoslovakia to make jewelry and other handicraft”9 to supply the demand from travelers and tourist since the 19th century. The original Maasai ornaments were made out of sticks, seeds, shells and other organic materials that were found locally. This is another example of how tourism and travelers can influence the identity of a culture. These changes do not always affect the culture negatively claims Chambers, he says “tourist interest has helped revive traditional arts and crafts and perhaps even improve the “quality” of their production.”4 There’s no doubt that the Maasai handicrafts are a beautiful and they are one of many expressive symbols of their ethnic identity. 

We’ve seen how the hosts and the locals, the Maasai view this business association through Bruner’s words, but another important factor we have to take into consideration is the role of the mediators, because they “play such a great role in structuring the tourism experience.”4 Mediators, like travel agencies, organizations or even the marketing companies play an important part in tourism. Salazar notes “image-making has emerged as a crucial marketing tool, it variously influences peoples' attitudes and behaviors, confirming and reinforcing them as well as changing them.”9 And this is exactly what happened to the Maasai; romanticized, exotic images were created of the Maasai warriors, and this served as a great marketing tool to draw attention to this ethnic group and the region itself. Throughout movies and documentaries the West developed a fascination with the stereotyped Maasai images; glorified them as fierce warriors, exposing their bravery, and their untouched, “primitive” culture. As Salazar mentions in Imaged or Imagined?, Saitioti played a great roll in the development of Maasai warrior stereotype, “Saitoti has become a tourism icon in his own right, with regular cultural tours being organized to his Olbalbal house in the Ngorongoro District”9. Some of the underlying forces behind this romanticized imagery are similar to what Pruit and LaFont writes about Jamaican romance tourism in Romance Tourism: Gender, Race and Power in Jamaica; “features of masculinity available in their culture that have the greatest appeal to foreign women”. The combination of romantic masculinity and the dance traditions of the young warriors, the morans enriched the already perfect exotic destination in West Africa.

But image-making doesn’t just influence the view of the tourists, Salazar adds that “tourismification proceeds not from the outside but from within a society, by changing the way its members see themselves”9. As much as Maasai culture has it’s important key role in safari tourism, because of safari tourism the Maasai suffer greatly. In the name of conservation and game park development, Maasai groups are being relocated. There has been a recent incident in Tanzania in 2015, despite of presidential promise; where thousands of Maasai were evicted from their homeland, near the Serengeti National Park. Their homes were burned as part of the plan to make way for a luxury safari park owned by foreign investors. This wasn’t the only time this happened, there was a mass eviction that took place in 2009, leaving 3000 people homeless. The need for new land is because of the wildlife population has been declining for the past 30 years, and to entertain tourist, to keep safari experience exhilarating and exciting there’s a need to add more land. It’s a vicious cycle, as some of the reasons why wildlife habitat declining is because of “unsustainable development, consumptive use of resources, land degradation, unsustainable land use practices, population pressure and climate change”3. In some cases the so-called “leakage”, profit that goes to the local community generated by tourism is an unfair amount, “due to the foreign ownership of tourism’s key players”5 says Gmelch in Why Tourism Matters. But in Kenya, take it as a positive example, the Maasai Mara Reserve is partially owned by the Maasai, so they have a stake in protecting the wildlife, and they do pretty well financially.Tourism has other positive influences on the Maasai culture as well. With the influx of tourist money flowing in to the region there’s opportunity for schools being built and the Maasai are getting Western education. Western education allows the Maasai to find better employment opportunities, but those opportunities are not necessarily located on Maasai land.

The impact of tourism brings irreversible changes to the lives of indigenous peoples. “Culture has become a flexible capital to be used profitably and has to yield a return”8 notes Salazar. The Maasai alters their cultural heritage to gain financial benefits from it; their artistic heritage is changing to cater to the mass tourist industry, to fulfill the need for tourist souvenirs. They are also using age-old ceremonies, (originally were only performed on special occasions) and turning them into shows, something you would watch on Broadway. But you can’t blame them for doing so, they are simply trying to adapt to the changing world around them. Safari tourism has influenced the Maasai way of living in every aspect; it brought social, cultural, economical, educational and political change and with these modifications Maasai identity is being altered forever.


1 Bruner, E. M. (2001). “The Maasai and the Lion King: Authenticity, nationalism, and globalization in African tourism.” In Tourists and Tourism: A Reader, edited by Sharon Gmelch, 207-236. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

2 Bruner, E. M., & Kirshenblatt‐Gimblett, B. (1994). Maasai on the lawn: Tourist realism in East Africa. Cultural Anthropology, 9(4), 435-470.

3Akama, John S., Shem Maingi and Blanca A. Camargo. "Wildlife Conservation, Safari Tourism and the Role of Tourism Certification in Kenya: A Postcolonial Critique." Tourism Recreation Research 36(3): 281-291.

4 Chambers, E. (2009). Native tours: the anthropology of travel and tourism. Waveland Press.

5 Gmelch, Sharon. 2010. “Why Tourism Matters.” In Tourists and Tourism: A Reader, edited by Sharon Gmelch, 3-24. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

6 Garland, E., & Gordon, R. J. (1999). “The authentic (in) authentic: Bushman anthro‐tourism.” In Tourists and Tourism: A Reader, edited by Sharon Gmelch, 249-265. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press

7 Saitoti, T. O. (1986). The worlds of a Maasai warrior: An autobiography. New York: Random House.

8 Schmidth, R. (Director). (n.d.). Masai On The Move [Video file]. In Vimeo. Retrieved from

9 Salazar, N. B. (2009). Imaged or Imagined?. Cahiers d'études africaines, (1), 49-72.

10 Tanzania breaks promise - thousands of Maasai evicted to make way for lion hunt. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2016, from

11 Pruitt, D., & LaFont, S. (2004). Romance tourism: Gender, race, and power in Jamaica. Tourists and Tourism: A Reader. Waveland Press: Long Grove, 317-335.