Focus on the Experience: What Cultural Travel Is Not

Cultural travel is not a product, it's an experience. The term has been used by the tourism industry, often to fabricate authenticity and illusion of culture immersion.

“Cultural travel” was first used by Gary Langer, to describe “a type of travel that emphasizes experiencing life within a foreign culture, rather than from the outside as a temporary visitor. Cultural travelers leave their home environment at home, bringing only themselves and a desire to become part of the culture they visit. Cultural travel goes beyond cultural exploration or discovery; it involves a transformation in way of life.” The year was 1977 and this quote is from the first issue of magazine “Transitions Abroad”.

The definition no longer makes sense, but since then the term has been used and abused by the tourism industry, often resulting in fabricated semi-authentic events that perpetuate this nonsense that to experience travel you must immerse yourself in a new culture. Why do I call it nonsense? Because one thing is to observe objectively (as much as humanly possible) the customs and routines of others, another thing is to completely shed off your “own” skin and become someone different. People seem to have been mistaking “cultural” with “acculturation,” but for publicity, it’s best if the confusion continues.

In the early 2000’s I had my first encounter with such fabricated events through an Anthropology professor in College. She had specialized in Anthropology of Tourism, and I was attending her Islamic Contexts course — the class had nothing to do with tourism (on the contrary), but she often shared stories of her trips to Morocco where she had done most of her fieldwork (and which by then was much like a second home to her). She told us how locals in Marrakesh pretended to offer camels to tourists in exchange for their women because they knew the foreigners enjoyed it, so they decided to play along — apparently, they have no interest in giving away camels in exchange for white women. My jaw dropped when I heard that story. Part of my enchantment with anything “Arabic” was built around such tales. I wasn’t entirely disappointed, but part of me felt somewhat betrayed!

There is a quote by Anaïs Nin that is widely used and fits this topic perfectly: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Unless you’re a toddler who hasn’t experienced much of life besides learning to stand up, you will always see others’ culture through your own; you may respect it, tolerate it, even understand most of it, but you will never be a part of it.

This is the Truth: You Are Always a Tourist

The idea that you can immerse yourself entirely in a new culture is a myth. You will always be a foreigner, but that doesn’t mean you have to be an outsider. You won’t be able to understand most of another country’s customs (and some of the traditions are so deep-rooted that most people might have a hard time explaining them in the first place) but you can try to learn and replicate some. If it goes wrong, they understand. My biggest challenge while in India was my Hindu wedding, and I still managed to do it 97% the right way with a lot of coaching and guidance from my new family. It was a beautiful ceremony but if you asked me to replicate it exactly right here and now, I would probably only get about half of it right.

This romanticized idea that you can become “local” for a few days is not real. You can mingle, but you don’t immediately become part of culture just because you shared some customs. It doesn’t work that way.

To think that cultural travel should be done outside museums, essential landmarks and “touristy” sights is also another misconception. How do you expect to understand the culture of the place you are visiting if you don’t get a glimpse of its History? I know if you skip an art museum if it features only foreign pieces, but can you overlook a monument that stands for a significant moment in time for that country? You have to find the balance between several expressions of culture (art, music, theater…) and must-see attractions.

It’s Not About You

For years, I had returned home from my travels referring to it as “my” experience. My memories, my stories, my findings. For years, I had overlooked the impact I could (or should) have had at my destination. Often I was one of those people who complained about how the world wasn’t diverse anymore because technology made us all look the same. There I was, inside my bubble, assuming the “rest” of the world was my living zoo — a projection of authentic life elsewhere as I thought it should be. Unless you travel to remote rural areas, life in the city is pretty much the same as it is in your country. Something the sociologists have labeled as globalization. Is that a menace to authenticity? My old self used to think it was and used to oppose it strongly.

How incredibly selfish was I? I was meant to have the comfort of broadband, the ability to consume (freely) as much diverse art as I wanted (music, cinema, television…) at the cost of keeping the rest of the world as a permanent live museum for when (if ever) I decided to visit? Your perception changes when you’re on a different continent and suddenly become the person from the “other” side of the world. If that blow doesn’t impact you in any way, then you’re still inside the bubble.

As much as I was curious about their customs, they were curious about mine. I answered all the questions, discussed politics and human rights, argued about notions of freedom, independence, democracy. It was never a matter of different race, gender or religion (although it’s not always quite this simple); it was always a matter of having different points of view.

“Be a Local” and “Do the Typical” (With a Grain of Salt)

Early this week while we were photographing Lisbon I started to feel overwhelmed by the hordes of tourists. The air felt dry and thick, the bus was crowded, and the AC was off. These days, the “real” independent traveler takes the public transportation like the locals do because THAT’S what a traveler does. They endure the long queues for the bus or the tram, check the time nervously and even complain about the delays — under the illusion that they, as the locals, have to be somewhere fast and have no time to waste. I wanted to peer out the window and shout another bus number that took an alternative route to the same place, but I was too tired even to explain it.

You know what? Your travel isn’t less valuable if you choose to rent a taxi for the day or book a guided tour.

The vertiginous rush for the ultimate top lists, bucket lists, [insert number here] things to see/do/go, what you can’t miss in [enter travel destination du jour here] are great for immediate consumption but add very little to the travel experience. Nor does the tyranny of “if you’re not traveling THIS way then you’re doing it WRONG,” masked as authentic travel.

Cultural travel should be about the experience, the journey, what you take from it (and by “taking” I mean learning something along the way).

What’s your take on cultural travel? Do you feel your trips are less authentic unless you do things a certain way?

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  3. 3

    This is tricky, I’ve travelled a lot with friends who can be snobby about doing typical ‘tourist’ things and often have to remind them that they ARE a tourist. Especially in poorer areas, the big difference is that a tourist can leave – the local community usually can’t.

    • 4

      Some “tourist” things you have to do: like visiting certain museums and landmarks. Because they are part of the History and culture. Other things that are “typical” are usually fabricated (which is why I don’t mention them in my upcoming guide to Lisbon).

  4. 5

    Well said! I agree with everything in this article.
    One of me pet peeves is the all-knowing, arrogant “travellers” who turn down their nose at the rest of us because they “live like locals, “experience the local culture, “don’t do touristy attractions” and the like. Ugh

    • 6

      I agree Ana, it has to be a combination of both and above all something that matches your taste. Most times people leave a country disappointed because they were seeing things without actually knowing why they were seeing them. Has to be a balance 🙂

  5. 7

    I think “travelers” struggle with their identity just as other people do. I’ve ranted, raved, and denigrated all kinds of travel throughout my life if it wasn’t up to my standard. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s an awakening, but you are sooooo right! Travel is unique to the traveler…and ALL travel is good. All travel! Great post!

    • 8

      Thank you Corinne! I think we all evolve as travelers because we grow as people too (hopefully!) and yes I agree, with age I’ve become more tolerant. The trick is to keep traveling 😀

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