How to Be a Culturally-Sensitive Traveler
When we travel abroad we are tourists in someone else’s home. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as “blending in” and “another one of the locals,” we are tourists at the end of the day.
In many communities, tourism is the lifeblood of the economy. But in some ways, it can also take a toll on the destinations we love so much. Tourism can have negative environmental impacts, place a burden on locals, or threaten the longevity of important monuments and landmarks. It doesn’t have to be this way. The right kind of tourism and the right kind of traveler adds value to the places they go. Cultural sensitivity is a part of this. If you look at traveling from the perspective of being a guest in someone’s home, it changes the way you talk and act. Cultural sensitivity helps you slow down, listen, and learn.
7 Ways to Be a Culturally-Sensitive Traveler
1. Get a taste of culture before you go
One fun way to prepare yourself for an upcoming trip abroad is to try and experience a bit of your destination before you go. This could be shopping at an Indian market before a trip to India, or visiting an authentic, Greek restaurant before going to Greece. America is an incredibly and richly diverse country. While a trip to the market or a family-owned restaurant won’t be the exact same thing as a trip abroad, it’s a great starting point. Look around, try something new, and ask questions when appropriate!
2. Read up on culture, history, and politics
Do you know which historical and political events have helped shape the cultural landscape? It’s amazing to learn how a single historical event can impact everything from clothing and food to laws and governing. You might be able to think of a few countries or cities that have two commonly-known names. Do you know why? Often using one name over another has political implications. A little brush with history can help you understand what they are.
3. Learn common practices
A Google search or a library book can help you figure out a bit more about important cultural practices to observe while you are traveling. You will want to know if there are any major taboos to avoid, how to greet someone politely, table manners and more. You don’t know what you don’t know and it’s best not to find out the awkward way!
4. Plan your trip during a local festival or holiday
We asked travel agents for tips on how to get an authentic travel experience. Many suggested visiting during a local festival, holiday, or attending a sporting event. If you really want to understand a culture better, find out what’s important to the locals and join in!
5. Stay with a host family
Rather than book a nice hotel, look for an opportunity to stay with a host family while you are abroad. You will learn so much by observing daily life, having conversations, and asking questions. Even more, you may end up with some life long friends!
➡️ Related: Why You Should Meet Locals While Traveling
6. Be careful with photography
You might see some cool architecture while traveling. But is that pretty building someone’s home? You might see someone wearing a beautiful, traditional outfit. Do they want their photograph taken? Think twice before taking a picture. Always asking before taking a picture of another person.
7. Ask, listen, learn.
The best way to learn is by asking questions and listening. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with the waiter at the restaurant, your tour guide, or a friendly local you meet on the street. Listen a little more than you speak and you never know what gold you’ll find.