Why I focus (and write) on sustainable cultural tourism

Why I focus (and write) on sustainable cultural tourism

When I decided on the path of sustainable cultural tourism for this blog, I knew the success of Tripper as a blog would be different than others’ stories.

A travel blog that focuses on something so specific may push away potential brand partnerships, invitations for press trips, and opportunities to work in various travel-related marketing campaigns. 

For those who don’t travel blog for a living, becoming too nichey from the start could be a poor business strategy, but I stand by my decision.

Tripper could very well be another generic blog if I had put my mind to it. Still, I’d rather nag present and future readers with sustainable cultural tourism principles and why I vouch for this traveling type. 

I think the real first click happened when I did extensive research and wrote a particular post about sardines in Lisbon from the heart – my most famous blog post to date.

I’ll do my best to spread my knowledge to those who don’t know what sustainable cultural tourism is (or should be). If you have questions or additional tips, leave a comment below or drop me an email.

What is cultural tourism?

According to UNWTO (World Tourism Organization), cultural tourism is “a type of tourism activity in which the visitor’s essential motivation is to learn, discover, experience and consume the tangible and intangible cultural attractions/products in a tourism destination.”

Considering this cultural tourism definition, I’d say most travelers visit a destination because of all this, specifically to experience and observe the “other”. So, cultural tourism in itself is not as nichey as most people believe.

This kind of tourism is becoming more popular, and cultural tourists spend more money on their destination than other tourists.

I want to focus on the money part when adding the sustainable adjective here. I’ll specifically use Lisbon’s example (because it’s the one closest to me).

There’s no doubt that the influx of tourists in the last 5 years played an essential part in kicking the Portuguese economy back on its feet. 

Tourism is one of our best assets and one of the best products we can export with minimal effort: great weather, welcoming people, extraordinary food and wine, diverse culture. Portugal will be part of many “top destinations to visit” lists in the future.

But I have one concern, one that began when I was trying to dodge a free guided tour with a group of 20+ people in the busy (and narrow) sidewalks of Chiado

For those who don’t know, a free tour is one you take and decide what to tip in the end (yes, tip, not pay) depending on how much you enjoyed it and your guide. So, the more people the guide takes on the tour, the more chances they have to turn a profit (after the tour company owner gets their cut, of course).

Some of the people in Lisbon’s tourism industry began to look at cultural tourists as money bags. Anything is an opportunity to make more money, including (if needed) giving false information about any building with a façade of tiles. Sometimes, folks, it’s just a building with a façade of tiles; there’s no historic relevance whatsoever. 

Does charging a tourist €20 when you should charge €10 make a difference? Probably not. Considering most rates in other European cities, €20 is probably still a great deal. But parading a group of 20+ people through the city, blocking entrances to metro stations, and cutting blindly through traffic does make a difference.

The tour companies focusing on sustainable cultural tourism will keep their groups small (10 people, tops), charge you a fair price for their service, find a way to support the local economy, and keep in mind the residents’ quality of life. 

Any cultural tourist who is committed to sustainable and responsible tourism principles will understand and expect this behavior from a service provider.

My take on the importance of cultural tourism

On April 25th, 2015, the Lisbon City Council opened the Aljube Museum inside the former political prison during the Portuguese Dictatorship years (1926-1974). 

Although we study Portuguese History in school, the most recent historical events filled less than a chapter on our textbooks, particularly the Dictatorship years. 

Most of my knowledge came later through independent films, documentaries, books, anti-regime songs, and random stories of friends’ family members who survived torture at the Political Police’s hands.

For many years, the Portuguese identity was built on the Age of Discoveries’ achievements, portraying the colonists as heroes and the colonized as grateful savages who had willingly accepted our teachings. 

No one in their perfect minds would believe this, especially if they grew up in one of the former Portuguese colonies. Yet, most of the top must-see landmarks in Lisbon pay tribute to the Age of Discoveries and the brave reconquest of Lisbon from the Moors (North-African Muslims) by the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques.

More recently, there’s been a more significant effort to focus on other aspects of our cultural identity:

  • Cultural diversity.
  • Contemporary History (mostly 20th century).
  • Winning the Euro 2016 (in soccer).
  • Winning the Eurovision song contest (2017).
  • Paying tribute to communities that were once marginalized (specifically the Jewish community in Lisbon).

A few months ago in the summer, I was on an assignment on a guided tour of Lisbon, in a tiny group of three people (myself included). We stopped by the Aljube Museum, and the guide explained the importance of the landmark in our recent history. 

One of the tourists in the group had a eureka moment: “That’s why the Portuguese decolonization happened so late! It benefitted the regime’s propaganda to keep the colonies, and the democratic revolution in 1974 put an end to it!” 

This man left Portugal with a completely new understanding of our History, the reason behind some of our most recent events, and a long list of book suggestions. 

Most importantly, by connecting with the local guide who willingly answered all his questions (even when they were not tour-related, like the campaign for the City Council election), he could tap into some parts of our cultural identity that none of the “top 10” content out there could give him.

To me, this is the importance of cultural tourism. The more you connect with locals, and they connect with you, the more you learn about each other and the more you understand how and why we live a certain way.

This, however, doesn’t give anyone the right to barge into the lives of people in a slum, a historic residential neighborhood, or a tribe without their consent.

Sustainable cultural tourism is meant to help a destination build and reinforce its own cultural identity (which, by the way, changes in time), but it’s also meant to teach visitors something beyond the fascination of must-see landmarks.

Talk to the local populations and business owners, hear their stories, and look to your own country or city first before you care about sustainable cultural tourism elsewhere. We tend to see the exotic only on “other” destinations, but promoting your hometown for what it should be known for, gives you a chance to approach foreign destinations differently. 

To see and experience how people in a certain destination live, you have to let people in a certain destination live.

What types of cultural tourism do I write about?

When people ask me for cultural tourism examples, I’ll tell them that, well, the list could be virtually infinite. Do you travel to visit famous filming locations? That’s one type of cultural tourism around pop culture.

Do you want to explore all the world’s UNESCO Heritage Sites? That’s another type of cultural and heritage tourism. Traveling for an art festival, a music festival, a specific event, an art museum? Yep. All kinds of cultural tourism.

Whatever allows you to glimpse other people’s forms of artistic expression, how they keep their traditions alive, or the architectural landmarks that best represent their cultural identity is a form of cultural tourism.

The elephant in the room is how do you, as a traveler, tackle your favorite type of cultural tourism sustainably and responsibly?

I recently worked on a Lonely Planet project as a Lisbon Local, covering a typical ride on tram 28 for their Instagram stories. I hadn’t been on the route for almost 20 years and what you could see on my shots was a glimpse of what the ride is really like.

During high season, it’s impossible to travel in the 28 comfortably, not to mention how inconsiderate most tourists are towards frequent passengers of the tram. It doesn’t get better in the low season (if there still is such a thing), except that maybe the crowds are a little smaller.

Is riding the tram 28 one of the must-dos when in Lisbon? I would wholeheartedly say yes under a few conditions: that you do it very early in the morning (before 8 am, preferably) and treat it like the public transportation that it is (therefore, offering your seat to who needs it most).

The idea that sustainable cultural tourism can only cover the offbeat or most expensive attractions of a destination is wrong, but, somehow, I’ve heard this misconception a couple of times before. 

Any type of cultural tourism can be sustainable because you choose to have a positive impact on your destination. It doesn’t have to be extremely expensive (but you do have to decide how to spend your budget by making conscious choices), it doesn’t have to be restrictive (but you do have to consciously choose your activities in a way that doesn’t risk the life balance of the residents), and it doesn’t have to be elitist (on the contrary, I believe everyone should have easy access to all kinds of culture).

It’s time for travel publications (websites, blogs, magazines) and travel companies (airlines, hotels, tours) to shift their message. If they keep following the trends to turn a place into what tourists want to see, there won’t be authenticity or cultural identity left. They can’t (and shouldn’t) please everyone and must remember that tourism is a product based on the best the destination has to offer, not the other way around.

Lisbon recently won the award for World’s City Break Destination, so, obviously, the city is trending right now. Every travel publication under the sun is publishing pieces on the Portuguese capital. 

There’s nothing wrong with it if they weren’t the same wishy-washy poor copies of one another. There’s no insight. The coverage is superficial (albeit beautifully written most of the time). It doesn’t add value to highlighting Lisbon as a sustainable cultural tourism destination.

As a freelance writer who often (and gladly) focuses on Lisbon, I want to continue to write for visitors with the locals in mind. I want to continue to respect the balance between local resources and what tourists come to see. The same for any other destination I visit in the world.

The types of cultural tourism I cover the most on the blog are linked to independent horror film festivals (a personal preference), local cuisine, art, heritage, and urban exploration

Most of these topics start with an informal conversation with locals and small business owners, and I then take it from there. Let me rephrase this. A good story about a place’s local culture always starts with a somewhat informal conversation with locals. What it leads me to is always a surprise.

What cultural tourism trends can tell us about the future

Since 2015, according to UNWTO official reports, cultural tourism has been a fast-growing travel trend. It has also become broader, with tourists often seeking to experience the cultural identity through so-called immersive experiences. 

Well, I don’t believe that you can have a truly immersive experience in someone else’s culture (particularly in a short period), but it sounds like a travel product that sells well, especially in destinations with a completely opposite culture from ours.

With growing concerns around “overtourism,” where is sustainable cultural tourism heading? Can we work to reduce the negative impact of tourism in a destination without antagonizing anyone and without turning cultural tourism into an expensive travel product? Who draws the line between what tourists think they’re entitled to see and what the locals have the right to protect?

“Cultural tourism has a long history, but its recent past shows evidence of particularly rapid change and transformation. These changes potentially herald new forms of cultural tourism that may become more important in future.”Tourism trends: The convergence of culture and tourism, Greg Richards, NHTV University of Applied Sciences

Cultural tourism is obviously not new, but we can work on different approaches to it, educating travelers on their destination’s residents’ behavioral traits, different sets of values, and what is considered offensive. 

This education, this cultural exchange, if you will, is mutual, and I’ve experienced it before. I think this is one thing that we as travelers tend to forget – when we travel abroad, we’re not only observing but also being observed.

One of the trends I would most wish to see in the future would be the end of the urge to “speed travel.” The places you have to see before you die, counting countries and passport stamps, striking countless worldwide landmarks off a bucket list.

Experience more, even if it means you’ll travel less. Make a positive impact wherever you go, even if it’s a day trip to the neighboring city. Establish a connection with people in your destination, even if it’s something as simple as asking for directions or a bus number. You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve connected to like this while traveling.

People in the destinations you choose to visit are just as curious about you as you are about them. This is the foundation of sustainable cultural tourism.

2020 update: sustainable cultural tourism in Europe

Since the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage, the European Union has focused more on sustainable cultural tourism, and I was delighted to hear about it. Suddenly my nichey blog didn’t sound so nichey after all!

Among other projects and programs to continuously support local heritage and tourism, a workgroup has defined sustainable cultural tourism as “the integrated management of cultural heritage and tourism activities in conjunction with the local community creating social, environmental and economic benefits for all stakeholders, to achieve tangible and intangible cultural heritage conservation and sustainable tourism development.”

You can read more about their work, recommendations, and conclusions here.

2 thoughts on “Why I focus (and write) on sustainable cultural tourism

    • Very interesting aspects of the tourism industry and how to deal with growing crowds around tourist attractions. I am a big fan of slow travel and travelling in regions that are less explored and therefore less crowded. Which is cultural and sustainable too :-)! Your niche is definitely becoming more and more important these days.

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