When people think about sustainable travel, traveling green is often the first thing that comes to their mind. And while green, or eco friendly travel, is incredible important, there are more aspects to sustainable travel. Not sure where to start? Read my “Why Sustainable Travel Matters” article first! Already read it? Perfect, let’s start with the second pillar of sustainable travel: society. Focussing on society and culture while traveling is important because difference in culture is a large reason why many of us travel. We want to explore, to learn, and to witness other cultures. But if we don’t respect culture, there might not be a lot left to explore in a couple decades. Not sure where to being? Here are 9 tips on how to be a more responsible and cultural traveler!
How to be a cultural traveler
1. Respect local customs & laws
Let’s start of easy, respecting local customs. The customs in any county other than your home county might differ largely from what you are used to. You might be used to stores being open 24/7, but don’t get angry when you find stores being closed during Siesta. Another simple mistake, check if taking photographs is allowed. Some religious sites, museums or even cultural historic sites, do not allow photography. If a sign says no photography, that means you will have to leave your expensive camera, and your phone, in your bag. Lastly, a one that might surprise you, in not every country it is common to tip, it might be even insulting!
2. Watch your dress code
Traveling means adapting to the country you are visiting. Being able to walk around in shorts and tank tops at home does not mean you will be able to do this in every country. For example, in Iran as a women you will be asked to cover your arms, legs, and wear a headscarf. In India, besides the beaches of Goa, long pants, a long skirt or a maxi dress will all do. This especially applies when visiting religious sites. It is common knowledge that churches, mosques, temples or various other religious sites will require you to dress conservatively. Packing a pair of long pants, a maxi skirt, a t-shirt with sleeves and a scarf will get you a long way.
3. Focus on Culture
Don’t travel just for the beaches, the parties, or just to see a city. Instead, try to immerse yourself into culture. Visit a local craftsman shop, take a cooking course, visit temples and museums and learn about the culture from the countries you are visiting. A small step can go a long way, we just have to take that first that step. Focussing on culture will allow you to gain a better understanding of the country and the people living in it.
4. Ask Questions
There is so much to read in books, on the internet or you can even find information in documentaries and movies. But when you are actually visit a country it can be so far from what you had expected, or what you had read or learned before. The best advise I can give, travel with an open mind, ask questions and learn from the people you meet along the way. Be careful what you ask and who you ask, in conservative or religious countries it might be inappropriate to speak about sex and religion. In strongly controlled political countries you might be better off talking about day to day subjects instead of someone’s opinion about the regime. This brings us to number 5…
5. Build Bridges
Build bridges with locals. Visiting countries is not visiting a human zoo. By talking, asking questions and connecting with locals you build bridges between your culture and theirs. They might be interested in the food you eat at home, or how warm or cold it is. Simple things, discussed in the form of broken English and sign language can go a long way.
6. Respect Local Culture and Religion
Obvious to most of us, but still unheard of to many of us apparently. Don’t forget that when you are visiting a country you are there to observe, not to change it. You might encounter traditions, local customs and religious believes that differ largely from yours, but it is not up to you to change that. You don’t have to accept it, but you have to respect it. You are a visitor to their country, you expect them to do the same when visiting yours. Example: don’t go climbing Uluru in Australia just for a good view, the rock is actually holy to many people.
7. Ask for Permission
Nowadays almost all of us travel geared with a mobile phone with camera option, a digital camera or DSLR, or perhaps even polaroid. I mentioned this briefly in #1, but asking for permission also goes for snapping pictures of people. Yes, we all want to take photographs of the beautiful people of the world but asking for permission makes a big difference, and is a lot more respectful than just snapping a picture. Not everyone speaks English, but simply pointing to your camera and to the person you want to photograph can be an easy way of asking for a picture. Showing the picture afterwords can also show a smile on someone’s face.
8. Learn Some Words and Phrases
In addition to #5, learning key words and phrases and some simple numbers might help you on your travels and will make it easier to build bridges! Don’t expect everyone in this world to speak English, not everyone was bless with good education or even the possibility of having education. Some keywords and phrases you might want to learn before visiting a country:
- How are you?
- My name is….
- Thank you!
- Have a good day.
9. Do Your Research
Learning about a country’s culture in advance, and on the road, can make a large difference and impact to the society you are visiting. Be aware of “human zoo tours” where large groups of people are guided through slums or remote regions just for a few quick snapshots. Try to find tours that are sincere and benefit the local community.
Leave Nothing But Footprints
To wrap it up, and if I try to wrap it up in one sentence it would be “Leave Nothing But Footprints”. You are a visitor to a country, you can learn, admire, respect but not change. Build bridges to overcome cultural differences by learning a few key words and phrases, by having a simple conversation and by asking questions. Dress modestly, act appropriately and do your research before you go. A few small steps, and you will make a difference in the world of travel. Don’t forget, we all make mistakes, but it is our reflection of our mistakes and our future behavior that makes a difference How about you, do you have any other tips on how to be a more cultural traveler? Share it in the comments down below!