When people think about responsible 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 other aspects of responsible travel that are often overlooked, including the importance of cultural travel. Culture is one of the reasons that many of us decide to sit for hours on flights, buses and trains, because eager to learn about cultures that are so different from our own. But the reality is that if we do not respect the culture of the country that we visit, or even criticise it or mock it, in a couple of decades there will not be a lot left of these cultures to explore. So if you love exploring new destinations and new cultures, keep on reading to find out how you can be a more cultural traveler.
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How to be a Cultural Traveler
1. Follow the Dress Code
One of the most important things of traveling to a foreign country is adapting to the culture you are visiting. One of the easiest ways to respect and adapt to the country you are visiting is to research and follow the dress-code, especially in more conservative countries. 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 as many countries around the world. For example, in Iran as a women you will be asked to cover your arms, legs, and wear a headscarf. Or in India, besides the beaches of Goa, you are expected to cover your knees and shoulders and to dress more modestly.
While dress codes are often not enforced, they are expected to be followed, and to do otherwise can be considered quite rude in some countries. One of the most important places to adhere to dress codes is when visiting religious sites as these almost always require you to dress conservatively. In churches, mosques and temples all around the world, even in countries where there is no conservative dress code, you will be requested to dress modestly and to cover your knees and shoulders, and in some situations your hair.
2. Respect Local Customs & Laws
Besides adhering to a countries dress code it is also very important to respect local customs and laws. The customs and laws in any county other than your home county might differ largely from what you are used to. For example you might be used to stores being open 24/7, while in other countries they might be closed for Siesta. One of the most common mistakes we have made in the past during our travels was using our left hand, especially as Rob is left handed. In many countries around the world the left hand is used to clean yourself after doing a number 2, and therefore should not be used to hand money or eat food. Doing a bit of Googling before visiting a country on local customs, laws and traditions will help you to avoid these mistakes, it sure does for us. And in the end even if you make the mistake, don’t worry, the most important part is that we learn from it and try to change our behaviour for future visits.
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. 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. Not sure where to start? here are a couple of ideas of things you can do during you travels to focus more on culture:
- Visit museums to learn more about a country’s history, culture and traditions
- Take a cooking course and not only taste but also learn how to cook the local cuisine
- Visit temples, churches and mosques to learn more about the religion of the country you are visiting
- Research local festivals and celebrations to see if there is a way that you can respectfully participate
- Visit local performances during your travels such as dance or music performances
4. Respect Religion & Beliefs
One of the most important aspects of culture in many countries is religion. So don’t forget that when you are visiting a country you are there to observe, not to change it. You might encounter religious believes and and traditions 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. One of the easiest ways to respect the local religion brings us back to point number 1: adhere to the dress code when visiting religious sights but respect for religion and beliefzs doesn’t stop there. You can respect religion by following the spoken and unspoken rules that are bound to the religion. For example don’t let your feet point towards buddha when visiting a temple, don’t visit mosques during prayer times or climb Uluru, a sight that is sacred to the aboriginal tribe living in that area.
5. 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 we 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 and in strongly controlled political countries you might be better off talking about day to day subjects instead of someone’s opinion about the regime. But in general we have found people to be very open minded, excited to share their stories and their culture with people visiting their country. So just ask, and you never know, you might learn a thing or two!
6. Do Your Research
Learning about a country’s culture in advance can make a large difference and impact to the society you are visiting. Doing research before leaving a country will give you a better and deeper understanding of the country or culture you are visiting and could even help you prepare for a possible culture shock. Here are a couple of things you can do to learn more about a culture before leaving to your next destination:
- Read a book about the country and its culture you are visiting
- Watch a documentary on the history, festival or religion of a country
- Read blog posts about things to know before visiting a country and try to find info on etiquette, customs and local laws for example
But doing research doesn’t just end when you arrive in the country. When you are traveling and booking tours make sure to be aware of for example “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 and preferable try to find local guides!
7. Build Bridges
Doing research and asking questions will help you to learn more about a culture it will also allow you to engage with the locals, it will help you to build bridges. Building bridges will not only help you to understand certain aspects of a culture, it will also allow foreigners to understand aspects of your culture. You will build bridges between two cultures that might have been foreign to both of you, and as interested you are their culture, they might be just as interested in yours. We’ve had many conversations with locals who were curious what it was like in the Netherlands and Canada, they wondered about how warm or cold it was, what we eat, what it looks like. You don’t need to speak a mutual language to have a simple conversation, hand gestures, google translate and photos can go a long way.
8. Learn Some Words and Phrases
In addition to our last point, 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 it is actually estimated that only 20% of the world’s population actually speak English, with the majority of people speaking it as a second language. So take this opportunity to learn a couple of keywords and phrases, or perhaps even take the time to take a language course if learning languages is something that interests you. These are some keywords and phrases we always like to learn before visiting a country:
- How are you?
- My name is….
- Thank you!
- Have a good day.
9. Ask for Permission
And last, but definitely not least is to 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. 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. Even if someone doesn’t speak your language you can use hand gestures to ask, simply pointing to your camera and to the person you want to photograph can be an easy way of asking for a picture. Just be sure to stay respectful, and if someone doesn’t wish to have their photo taken don’t try to sneak one in, in some countries this might even get you into a lot of trouble. Be sure to show the picture afterwords, it will often result in a smile on someone’s face.
In the end we are just simply visitors passing through, we can learn, admire, respect but not change. And don’t forget that through this learning curve we will all make mistakes, Rob and I sure have and probably will, but the most important thing is that we learn, that we grow and together become more responsible travelers. How about you, do you have any other tips on how to be a more cultural traveler? Share it in the comments down below! And before you leave, be sure to check out some of our other articles on responsible travel:
- A beginners guide to sustainable travel: Why sustainable travel matters.
- How to be an eco-friendly traveler
- 10 Must have eco-friendly travel products for the responsible traveler