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.”

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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.

2. Be mindful when photographing.

3. Learn a bit of the local language.

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

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.

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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.

For an overview: Do you want to be on the endangered species list?

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