How to Travel: Find Authenticity Through Respect for Local Cultures

“I pledge to read up on and understand the local culture in the destination I am travelling to, and promise to respect my hosts, their way of life, and their way of dress by packing appropriately.”

World Travel & Tourism Council
6 min readJun 19, 2017

The quest for the authenticity in travel has shaped the international Travel & Tourism industry. With the world increasingly accessible and travel-able, and global populations steadily rising, statistics show that tourism will only continue to see strong growth in the coming decade. These travellers have a range of interests, which has created a number of subsets within the tourism industry: adventure, luxury, wellness, gastro-tourism, cultural travel, and more. And underpinning each T&T sector is a push to create for the traveller an authentic travel experience. But what is authenticity, and even more, what are those travellers really looking for from their trips? Let’s take a closer look at the role of authenticity in tourism, and the steps travellers can take to respectfully engage with cultures and communities across the world.

Although authenticity is a common term used to sell travel, modern trends are shifting to authenticity connoting a specific type of experience. The ABTA Travel Trends Report notes that “‘living like a local’ has become an essential part of getting under the skin of a destination for many travellers. They are looking for more authentic holiday experiences and many holiday companies are now offering people the chance to enjoy hidden gems alongside traditional tourist attractions.”

Travellers asked the industry for a chance to connect more deeply on the road, and the industry responded. The UN World Tourism Organization found that “tourism products related to cultural routes, cultural cities and cultural must-do’s — those which are connected to popular culture, arts, the search for authenticity of destinations and local cultures, are probably the core elements forming the basis of the new scenario of worldwide cultural tourism.”

In an increasingly globalised society connected through technology, the drive for authenticity comes from a desire to form personal connections to the people and places travellers encounter on the road. More than seeing the sites, travellers are looking for creative ways to immerse in the culture. Olivia Ruggles-Brise, the Director of Policy & Research for the WTTC, wrote that the core of authenticity is “connecting in a personal way with the people or place you are visiting. A moment of shared experience. And it doesn’t matter if you’re also being a tourist on that same trip, staying at a luxury hotel or Airbnb, or sightseeing along with your ‘authentic’ activities. If a traveller feels an authentic connection then surely that is as genuine as needed.”

It’s interesting to consider that authenticity cannot be manufactured in the travel experience. It’s about more than booking a homestay or scheduling a private cooking class, and instead it relies on the traveller finding a window into the local culture through personal connections. It’s about the shared connections and conversations at every stage of a trip.

In the on-going quest for authentic travel experiences, it’s those travellers prepared to meet locals on their terms who are best positioned to find the connections they seek. Justin Francis runs a responsible tour company and writes: “there is a very strong relationship between acting in a caring and responsible way and being given the opportunity for authentic experiences. … At a simple level it makes sense that if you treat local people right they will be more likely to share their world with you. The sense of wonder about different places and ways of life seems to me to be the essential emotion of travel.”

If respect is an underlying requisite for authentic travel experiences — and it is — what the actions you can take, right now, to become a traveller led by respect and curiosity?

It comes down combining knowledge with actions. Pre-trip research is an integral part of traveling respectfully. Understand the local customs and culture by reading books about the country. Consider how history has shaped modern attitudes, religion, and traditions. Research ethical tourism options for popular activities before you arrive so you are clear on which activities are harmonious with your intentions for sustainable, responsible tourism. Below are four ways to show respect for local cultures when you travel.

1. Dress appropriately.

Consider the local religion, culture, and climate when packing for a trip. Dress codes vary even within a country, and especially at important religious and cultural sites, where conservative clothing is nearly always the most respectful option. Take your cues from the locals. Although you certainly don’t need to wear traditional attire, pack culturally appropriate clothes that fit with the tone of a place.

2. Be mindful when photographing.

Always ask permission before photographing locals — even a smile and questioning eyebrow-raise is enough to communicate the question. Although it seems like a passing moment for you as the tourist, that photo often represents the daily life for any locals living in a touristy area. In 2016, Bangkok received 21.47 million overnight visitors and 85% of those travellers visited for leisure and tourism purposes. That’s a staggering number of tourists wandering the city snapping photos of the people, streets, and sights. In addition to asking permission, consider if photographs are even appropriate in a given situation. Some compare aspects of modern tourism to our dark history of human zoos. From tourism-specific hilltribe villages in Thailand to the rise of slum tourism, photographing some destinations requires a nuanced understanding of where pro-poor tourism (which the UN describes as tourism aimed at poverty alleviation) crosses the line.

3. Learn a bit of the local language.

Before you leave, take the time to learn a handful of words in the local language. Words like “hello,” “thank you,” and “please” grease the wheels of communication with locals. Even more than communication, however, learning how to greet and express thanks in the local language expresses a willingness to better understand the culture and people. A number of free apps, YouTube tutorials, and phrasebooks exist for nearly every language in the world — make the effort to learn a few language basics to better open yourself to spontaneous conversations and moments with locals.

4. Adhere to the cultural etiquette, mannerisms, and superstitions.

Show respect for the local culture by researching appropriate gestures and traditions. Even the most commonplace action might be culturally inappropriate in another part of the world. Sometimes the gestures represent interesting cultural quirks and superstitions, and other times represent significant religious beliefs. And etiquette covers everything from if you tip in a destination to how you eat, show appreciation, and the codes of behaviour appropriate in public. While it’s impossible to list them all, a few examples include: the ‘thumbs up’ gesture is offensive in Greece, Italy, and Nigeria; eating with your left hand is taboo in India and Morocco; and large swaths of the world frown upon public displays of affection. eDiplomat offers an extensive list of cultural etiquette guides for countries around the world, and Wikipedia has a growing list of crowd-sourced etiquette suggestions for Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Europe, Latin America, Middle East, North America.

When you travel with a sense of respect for the cultures and traditions you encounter, it shifts the entire travel experience. Respect is the first ingredient in making travel a force for good. Long-time world travellers Dan Noll and Audrey Scott call this the “the two-way transformational power of travel — where the traveller is transformed by the experience, as is the community he visited through the benefits of economic development and cultural exchange.” It’s clear that leading through respect is an ideal way to not only find that elusive “authenticity” many travellers crave, but it’s also the only way to ensure Travel & Tourism has a reciprocal positive effect on countries and cultures around the world.

This post is part of a series about the various pledges that are part of the Is It Too Much To Ask campaign. You can view the campaign microsite here.

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