Responsible Travel and Cultural Sensitivity
Responsible Travel and Cultural Sensitivity
When it comes to responsible travel and cultural sensitivity, there are a number of guidelines which will get any traveller through most situations.
Before you depart on any trip, take the time to understand the cultural sensitivities of the country you will be visiting. The information you discover should inform your attitudes, behaviour and attire for the duration of your journey.
Do Your Research
When visiting a country you are unfamiliar with, try doing a bit of research beforehand to gather some insight into local values and culture. Read the local newspapers online before you go to find out more about the religious, cultural and social norms of the country to which you will be traveling, as well as the history and recent politics of the area. With Facebook and the internet making all this easily available, this is not a huge call, but can make all the difference to your understanding of the country you are visiting. And being informed gives you interesting and relevant things to talk about with locals, and it shows them you care about the issues facing them.
As a tourist, picture yourself as a guest entering someone’s home. This is the ideal attitude of anyone visiting a foreign country or culture. If the local community take their shoes off before entering another’s house or place of worship, do likewise and take your shoes off. Similarly, if the local people are made uncomfortable by T shirts with no sleeves in public places, then wear shirts with sleeves. It is not really that hard. The way you dress is something you have complete control over. People have different views on how far you should take this—especially for women traveling in religiously conservative cultures. And surely it goes without saying to avoid wearing T shirts with offensive slogans. (Australian tourists in Bali and Thailand – we’re looking at you!)
Take the time to research how locals dress in various situations, especially for cultural or religious events. And you’ll find that you stand out less if you make an effort to dress more like a local. Dressing appropriately is just basic good manners and would seem like common sense, but it is an unfortunate aspect of travel that many people abuse the enormous privilege of visiting another’s country.
Speaking the Language
Most of us end up in countries where we cannot speak the local language and have to resort to body gestures to communicate with others. Take a few minutes to read up on what hand gestures are used, or could be offensive in the places where you are travelling. Similarly, a few basic phrases, even just a simple ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’ will go a very long way to demonstrate that you respect the local language and culture and will get you started communicating in a culturally relevant and appropriate manner. Accompanied by a few hand gestures and a genuine smile, this is the bare minimum that will get you by in a variety of common travel situations. It will also make you more confident and comfortable in everyday situations like transport and ordering food in local eateries. And with countless new language apps available, there are really no excuses for not having few basic phrases ready to go.
Remember that you are just a visitor.
You should leave as little trace as possible.
Travel photography should always be approached from a place of respect. Always ask before taking a photo. Just think of a reverse situation- someone taking a photo of you without asking permission. This came home to me once when a small group of tourists entered the property I owned at one stage in my life, to take photos of our “cute cottage” and the local kangaroos. I was shocked at how it may me feel and this feeling has stayed with me ever since.
If it is not possible to ask whether it is OK to take a photo, be willing to forgo the opportunity or ask a trusted friend or guide who is comfortable enough to tell you “no.” Remember that there are parts of the world where it is genuinely believed that a camera captures the soul. Do a bit of research before you travel and try to understand local attitudes towards photography. Be aware of when you could offend someone whose religion or culture opposes its practice. Be willing to forget the photograph if it feels intrusive or exploitative. Make sure you’re not taking a photograph when it would be disrespectful – such as at a religious site. And it is not difficult to work out that taking photos of people’s faces without their consent is a no-no; it is not only considered exploitative by many, but rude and arrogant by just about everyone.
Remember that you are just a visitor. Never assume that your knowledge, medicine, food, or equipment are better than the locals’.
You should leave as little trace as possible, whether it be on the environment or with the cultural practice of the people. Being culturally sensitive, abiding by the local customs and behaving like the guest that you are, allows you to experience deep, authentic moments with the people that you meet. In the end, following the guidelines above will enrich your travels and turns precious moments of interaction into lifelong memories.