As wonderful as it is to be able to explore this beautiful planet that we live on, tourism comes too often at a cost for the local people of our ‘bucket list’ destinations. Being conscious of the culture we visit when we go travelling is paramount to getting the most out of these amazing countries.
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 shouldn’t be 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 must strive 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?
Respecting customs and traditions could be as simple as covering up when you visit a religious site or trying the local food. Yes, these traditions may be ‘odd’ to you, but mocking or laughing at them is incredibly disrespectful, as is gawking and treating them like a circus act rather than an integral part of a country’s culture and history. In the case of Kyoto, tourists were pulling at geisha’s kimono, harassing them in the streets with selfie sticks and cameras in their faces, and taxis transporting them were mobbed by tourists hoping for a good photo opportunity. They were commodified; turned into a tourist sight rather than real-life people doing a job and preserving a dying tradition of Japanese culture.
Remember, you’re just an observer to hundreds (if not thousands) of years of culture in the making. Throughout history there have been many attempts to wipe out lots of cultures, and yet they have survived against the odds and now belong to a group of incredibly proud people who for the most part would love to share their culture with you. Being able to take part in new cultural experiences respectfully is such a gift and 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 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.
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. 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 rubbish 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. Our planet, already suffering from the effects of global warming, must be protected and nurtured so please, pick up your litter and don’t touch or feed the local wildlife when you go travelling. On the same note, respect places that are sacred to the people regardless as to whether you agree with the beliefs or not.
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)
Last modified: 11th November 2019