Your Part in Responsible and Sustainable Cultural Travel

Your Part in Responsible and Sustainable Cultural Travel

Although I graduated in Portuguese Literature, the courses I loved the most were the ones about oral tradition, folklore, ethnology, and cultural anthropology. Those were the ones that made me forget about the outside world and simply submerge under the layers of a hidden culture – the customs that are passed on from generation to generation, the stories, the little things that everyone does without remembering why.

When I started Tripper, I didn’t really have the cultural travel niche in mind, but the stories I wrote kept leading me there and I knew this interest was something I had to take seriously again. I did, and today it’s time to be very serious about it and how you and I can contribute to the success of responsible and sustainable cultural travel.

International tourism demand continued to be robust between January and April 2015 with tourist arrivals increasing 4% worldwide according to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer. Almost all regions enjoyed strong growth. Prospects for the May-August period remain upbeat, with close to 500 million tourists expected to travel abroad during these four months.

UNWTO Press Release July 2015

Your Part in Responsible and Sustainable Cultural Travel

It took me a while to accept cultural travel as an industry because I believed it was doing more harm than good, turning developing countries into a hot destination for mass tourism. We’ve all heard stories of tourists desecrating local heritage and we’ve all seen alarming photos of crowded sites. That raised all sorts of flags in my mind: how are these countries’ heritage being protected? Will they always choose profit over legacy? Do they care about cultural preservation at all? I cringed at all the tour companies that promised “cultural immersion experiences” thinking how they were riding the wave of a new travel trend at the expense of ruthlessly exploited locals.

The reality is that it is a travel trend, one that most likely will continue to grow in the next years. People are starting to look more for the “why” in travel than the “where to”, as Justin Francis puts it in his article “Travel Trends and Predictions”.

I used to think of trends as fads until I began blogging professionally and learned to look at trends in an analytical way. I now look at it as the big picture of where we’re heading (as people, as travelers, ultimately as brands) and how we’re walking that path. Regarding cultural travel specifically, I’m focusing my attention on the “how to” so for me, as a blogger who writes about this niche and who is concerned about the sustainable continuity of this type of travel and its impact on local communities, it’s important to know the right steps to take.

UNESCO defines heritage as “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations” and attests that “our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. They are our touchstones, our points of reference, our identity”.

The World Travel Organization (UNWTO) aims to help all the stakeholders to “understand and identify the opportunities tourism can bring for sustainable development in destinations around the world.” You and I, as cultural travelers, are one of those stakeholders, therefore, you and I, as cultural travelers, have the responsibility to make informed decisions about our next travel destination. The “Sustainable Tourism for Development Guidebook (2013)”, that you can download here, states that as stakeholders we must behave “responsibly towards the environment and local communities in travel choice and actions” and communicate “information and opinions on destinations and sustainability issues accurately and fairly”.

That sounds pretty straightforward and simple to follow but in the era of quick entertainment, selfie sticks and blog posts about “how to start your travel blog and travel for free” (without any attention to skills, hard work or the impact of your actions) people seem to be focusing more on themselves and what they can get out of it, then on the destination they are supposed to be experiencing. This topic has risen lately in a couple of Twitter chats (some related to that topic, some not), to the point that even a new term was (sort of) coined: egotourism. Unfortunately, the waters of professional travel blogging are still murky and sometimes the travelers turned bloggers (who, in many cases, have been “promised” a fast rise to fame and huge payments) fall quickly into a whirlpool of self-promotion and unscrupulous third party advertising.

What can we as travelers do to respect and protect cultural heritage? How do we know if we are supporting the right tour companies and are doing what it’s best to the host country’s economy? Should we take tours to rural villages in Africa, visit slums in India and favelas in Brazil?

Sometimes we are so eager to do good and to help that we become easy targets for companies that look to profit from foreign naivety, without giving anything back to the community. Sometimes we want to travel but stick to a budget, and we settle for the first deal we find. At some point, we’ve all been down the wrong path with the best of intentions, which is why knowing where to search for unbiased information is key.

To prevent any faux pas in the future, these are some of the reliable sources to help you kickstart your research in responsible and sustainable cultural travel:

  • “The Responsible Tourist and Traveller” brochure from the UNWTO for a quick look into what’s expected from you as a visitor (you can download the English version in .pdf here)
  • The “Global Code of Ethics for Tourism” to, amongst other things, assess that the information you were given about the destination you wish to visit (or the post you’re about to write if you’re a travel blogger) is compliant with article 6, paragraph 6

The press, and particularly the specialized travel press and the other media (…) should issue honest and balanced information on events and situations that could influence the flow of tourists; they should also provide accurate and reliable information to the consumers of tourism services (…).

Article 6, Paragraph 6, “Global Code of Ethics for Tourism”

  • Join the Responsible Travel and Tourism Collective community on Facebook or join the #RTTC Twitter chat every Wednesday (topics may vary, but they all fall under the responsible travel umbrella)
  • The book edited by veteran responsible travel advocate Ethan Gelber, “Adventures Less Ordinary – How to Travel and Do Good” (follow this link to download a free copy)
  • Before you go, apart from knowing that there is no such thing as “full cultural immersion” (at best, there is an attempt of acculturation while you’re there), read this set of “how-tos” that summarizes what is expected of you as a responsible tourist.

What are your thoughts about responsible cultural travel? What are your go to resources for this topic and your best practices?

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