In the past month there have been two significant changes in the world of travel; Uluru was closed to hikers permanently after years of campaigning by the aboriginal Anangu people after the sacred rock suffered from years of pollution, and Kyoto announced a ban on photography (and subsequent fines) on the private streets of Gion after geiko (geisha) and maiko (geisha apprentices) expressed concerns over harassment from foreign tourists. Respecting the cultures and people of countries we visit isn't difficult; information is at the end of a quick Google search after all, but evidently this doesn’t stop local customs, traditions, and even people being turned into overcrowded, and sometimes dangerous, spectacles by tourists. As a collective we need to make our travelling more culturally conscious and responsible otherwise so many beautiful destinations will be closed or destroyed. So how do we do this?
Let's start with an easy one, and the overarching theme of this article; respect. Tourists have a bad reputation, and it's not hard to see why, yet respecting customs and traditions can be as simple as covering up when you visit a religious site or trying the local food. We can often be inclined to mock what we don't know or understand; need I remind people of the Logan Paul incident in Japan (don't worry, this is not a link to any of his videos - rather a Japanese-American's criticism of his behaviour in Japan)? Having an open mind therefore, is the best way to learn more about new cultures with respect at the forefront of your experiences. In the case of Kyoto, tourists were found to be incessantly harassing geisha and maiko to the extend that taxis transporting them were surrounded and they couldn't get to or from work. They were commodified; turned into a tourist sight rather than real-life people doing a job and preserving a dying tradition of Japanese culture. This isn't limited to geisha however. Tourists have been known to harass and impede on the duty of members of The Queens Guard for humour. It's a dangerous narrative that has seeped into mainstream tourism for years; that the customs of a culture are nothing but a jovial facade of a bygone time.
Remember, you are an observer to hundreds (if not thousands) of years of culture in the making. For cultures that have faced the wrath of imperialism, the 'quirkiness' we often see in their traditions are an integrally important part of their cultural foundation. For the most part, people of these cultures want to share their cultures with you and yes, that might just include the parts that we find 'strange' rather than endearing. My point is, being able to take part in new cultural experiences respectfully is a gift. So many amazing opportunities can be found when you hold off on the judgement and experience cultures in their most authentic form - you’re in a new country after all!
It might feel alien at first to take part in a religious or spiritual ceremony that’s completely different to your own, or eat food you’d never consider trying at home, but this is where the best memories are made and culture is truly experienced. It’s also important however, to remember that the countries that you’re visiting aren’t the romanticised versions of Hollywood to be fetishized; this isn’t ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and you probably aren’t going to “find yourself” in India or Thailand (no matter how much yoga you do or how many Buddhist retreats you take part in), but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your time there and take from it a new perspective of life. This is a whole other kettle of fish however...
You also can't ignore the elephant in the room that is wreaking havoc in modern-day tourism; environmentalism. A good thing of course, because mass tourism is causing devastating affects to local wildlife in many parts of the world. In 2018, Thailand closed Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Leh island to tourists after over 80% of the coral growing there was destroyed by littering, boats (getting tourists to and from the island), and sunscreen. Growing very little per year, it’s going to take years (most likely decades) for the coral to grow back to how it once was and regrettably, this is the fault of us, the tourists. Much like with Maya Bay, the Great Barrier Reef has been a victim of too much tourism; with much of the reef suffering from chemical damage from ingredients in sunscreen, and waste pollution. Similarly, in 2017 the popular Indonesian tourist destination Bali declared a “garbage emergency” as many of the islands once-stunning beaches were inundated with litter from its millions of tourists. Big Major Cay in the Bahamas (also known as Pig Island), famous for its feral pig inhabitants, suffered a great loss as seven of their pigs died from consumption of food and alcohol, given to them by tourists who had flocked to the island to see them.
Much like the instance of Uluru where tourists left the rock covered in litter despite pleas from the Anangu people not to, human indifference to our environmental impact on tourist destinations is destroying the planets most beautiful sights, species’, and sacred places. Thankfully, environmental awareness is becoming more common and hopefully this will trickle down into tourism, but until then we have a long way to go to reverse the affects we have had on our favourite tourist destinations.
If we are to continue to see these beautiful destinations, and experience their awe-inspiring cultures, we must change how we approach tourism before it’s too late. The solution? Be respectful, be open, and leave nothing but footprints for the most culture-conscious travelling experiences.
For more information on 'ecotourism' please visit https://ecotourism.org
Feature Image credits: Corey Leopold from Flickr (Uluru) (CC BY 2.0), and Daniel Bachler from Wikicommons (Geisha) (CC BY-SA 2.5) (images combined in Canva, no other changes made)