While the children were sweet and endearing, it felt wrong, all of it. It felt wrong being there, stopping by the village to ogle and take photos. And, when I thought about all the boats that stopped here everyday, I figured it must be a very exhausting existence for them.I think
"I walked away from the experience with a renewed commitment to really thinking about how and where I am traveling and making sure my presence is delicate communities is not just as a spectator but that it has purpose."is a wise and honorable statement, though I think the "spectator" bit may be a bit overdone. Not being "just a spectator" is about you. While I agree it is easier to be callous as just a spectator. By demanding they engage with you to get the economic benefit that may well be more "exhausting" every day than short quick visits. Though it would be more rewarding for the tourist to be engaged for the tiny portion of their vacation maybe that is what those being visited would like; but maybe not.
I do think it is tricky to figure out what actions are most honorable. My Mom doesn't like supporting beggars on the street, with the belief it encourages that behavior. Especially pushing children to beg (the same with encouraging kids to sell to tourists at tourist attractions). When a mother with two little kids is begging it isn't easy for most people to just ignore it.
Even ignoring kids trying to sell stuff in Cambodia at tourist isn't easy. But the non-profits that know the situation best seem to agree that tourist buying from them just encourages parents to force them into that even at the expense of going to school. And while it is easy to vilify that behavior by parents, many of them don't have easy choices - they can be desperately poor and trying to do the best they can for the family. This isn't always the case, some parents are just bad and exploiting their kids when they could easily avoid it, but often it isn't as easy as that.
What I do is give to charities where I am going to travel (in poor countries - I don't do this when going to rich countries). Good Charities: Global Giving, Trickle Up.
For doing things like visiting Hill tribes I think it is confusing without knowing the details (which often are not easy to get). When I chose such options, I do try to chose situations where there is evidence the economic gains are being equitably shared with the community (which usually means they are more expensive than alternatives as they have to both share the wealth and take the time to explain it in a way that is convincing). In some ways it can be very beneficial and allow them to earn money while largely maintaining their way of life. I don't often do these kinds of things though. Partially for the reasons you mention, partially I just don't do tour stuff hardly at all.
I did go to a Maasi village in Kenya and it did feel a bit intrusive but it was also interesting and I could see how it would be very helpful to those living there also. At least for situations where it is arguably good (not purely bad exploitation) there are likely people supporting both sides (and people in debate with themselves on the issue) of pursuing tourist dollars.
There was another Native American village attraction in New Mexico that seemed intrusive (and a bit expensive) that really wasn't worth it but it was right on my path so I tried it. There were really expensive new cars all over which was not common in Native American. I did a bit of research and economically that village did very well. People can still argue about the benefits and costs of chasing tourist money but when there are significant economic benefits that the people actually get (that are not taken by others) it is very hard for me to say it is wrong.
I do get a bit annoyed at people from rich countries that downplay the importance of money. It is easy to say other things are more important when you have lots of cash.
And that brings me back to a specific point about the quote "must be a very exhausting existence for them." While this may be true it doesn't mean that they would be better off without being bothered. It may well be without the botheration of tourists things would be even worse. That doesn't mean I don't wish boorish behavior, which sadly many tourist exhibit, would be eliminated. I find the boorish behavior of people to other people (and even mores by rich people on poor and desperate people) very frustrating and sad.
Related: Highway Poses Threat to Uncontacted Tribe in Brazil - Supporting Virtual Workers - Using Capitalism to Create a Better World - GDP Growth Per Capita from 1970 to 2010 - China, Korea, Indonesia, Singapore...