Why I focus on sustainable cultural tourism

Passengers waiting for tram 28 in Lisbon (photo by Paul Green via Unsplash, used as cover in a blog post about sustainable cultural tourism)

When I decided on the very niche path of sustainable cultural tourism for this blog, I knew I was at risk of deeming Tripper as the most unsuccessful travel blog on the face of the Earth (yes, I’m THAT dramatic).

A travel blog that focuses on something so specific may push away potential brand partnerships, invitations for press trips, and opportunities to work in a variety of marketing campaigns that are travel related. For those who don’t travel blog for a living, becoming too nichey from the start could be a poor business strategy – the viewership is significantly smaller – but I stand by my decision.

Tripper could very well be another generic blog if I had put my mind to it, but I would rather nag present and future readers with the principles of sustainable cultural tourism and why I vouch for this type of traveling. I think the real first click happened when I did extensive research and wrote a certain post about sardines in Lisbon from the heart – my most famous blog post to date.

At the end of every year, I write a somewhat personal and reflective blog post about the blog’s vision and mission and the future. I could make a recap of all the amazing opportunities the (incredibly nichey) blog brought me in 2017 – covering the 5th edition of the Azores Fringe Festival on Pico Island; reviewing a budget hotel in Madrid that restores buildings and blends in with the local communities; connecting with small wine producers at the slightly offbeat Rota das Vinhas do Pó; interviewing Gonçalo Almedida, the young film director who’s on his way to presenting his short film at the Sundance Film Festival; becoming a Green Destinations Ambassador; discovering the city of Maia and its commitment to sustainable tourism; getting to know travel startups willing to make a dent in the tourism industry by supporting the local economy; being part of an international tourism board’s campaign on tribal cultural tourism.

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

What is cultural tourism?

Well, it’s logical that the first point I cover should be the attempt to define cultural tourism (I’ll address the sustainable part in a while).

According to Wikipedia, “Cultural tourism is the subset of tourism concerned with a country or region’s culture, specifically the lifestyle of the people in those geographical areas, the history of those people, their art, architecture, religion, and other elements that helped shape their way of life. Cultural tourism includes tourism in urban areas, particularly historic or large cities and their cultural facilities such as museums and theatres. It can also include tourism in rural areas showcasing the traditions of indigenous cultural communities, and their values and lifestyle. It is generally agreed that cultural tourists spend substantially more than standard tourists do. This form of tourism is also becoming generally more popular throughout the world, and a recent OECD report has highlighted the role that cultural tourism can play in regional development in different world regions. Cultural tourism has been defined as ‘the movement of persons to cultural attractions away from their normal place of residence, with the intention to gather new information and experiences to satisfy their cultural needs’. These cultural needs can include the solidification of one’s own cultural identity, by observing the exotic “other”.”

Considering this cultural tourism definition, I’d say most of the 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 types of tourists. This is the section I want to focus on when adding the sustainable adjective, and I’ll specifically use the example of Lisbon (because it’s the one closest to me).

Lisbon is crowded. All “must-see” spots are crowded. Senhora do Monte used to be that viewpoint nobody went to (not too long ago) and now it’s one of the places everybody goes to. It’s impossible to keep writing about Lisbon and pretend that we don’t have a problem with managing crowds. Tourism is good and we are hospitable but this is not sustainable right now. I saw countless free tours today with groups no smaller than 20 people! 20! And free tours? Really? Pay the workers not tip them in the end. Your experience will be 100% better if you invest in a proper tour. Guys, €15 for a guided tour (it was the cheapest I could find) is not that expensive. If you can’t afford it, explore on your own. I ramble… *sigh* 🤐

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There is no doubt that the influx of tourists in the last 5 years played an important part in kicking the Portuguese economy back on its feet. The tourism industry is one of our best assets and one of the best products we can export with very little effort – we have great weather, welcoming people, extraordinary food and wine, and diverse culture. It’s obvious that Portugal will be part of many “top destinations to visit” lists in the future.

But I have one concern, one that arose last year 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 that you take and decide what to tip in the end (yes, tip, not pay) depending on how much you enjoyed the tour and the guide. So, the more people the guide takes on the tour, the more chances he/she has to turn a profit (after the owner of the tour company gets his/her cut, of course).

Some of the people in the tourism industry in Lisbon began to look at cultural tourists as money bags and 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 is 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 (to a maximum of 10 people), will charge you a fair price for their service (if you don’t want to pay for a guided tour, you can always explore a destination on your own), will find a way to support the local economy (stopping for an espresso and a pastel de nata in Lisbon, for example), and will keep in mind the residents’ quality of life. Any cultural tourist who is committed to the principles of sustainable and responsible tourism will understand and expect this behavior from a service provider.

Not sure if all the signs in Lisbon advertising authentic and artisanal products are real? Read this blog post on how to spot a tourist trap in Lisbon.

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 years of the Portuguese Dictatorship (1926-1974). Although we study Portuguese History in school, the most recent historical events filled less than a chapter on our textbooks, particularly the years of the Dictatorship. Most of my knowledge on the topic came later through independent films, documentaries, books, anti-regime songs, and random stories of friends’ family members who had survived torture at the hands of the Political Police.

For many years, the Portuguese identity was built on the achievements of the Age of Discoveries, 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 on one of the former Portuguese colonies. And, yet, most of the top must-see landmarks in Lisbon pay tribute to the Age of Discoveries – the age of great feats, of conquest, of wealth – and to 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 bigger 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, paying tribute to communities that were once marginalized (specifically the Jewish community in Lisbon).

I’m referring to this for a reason. A few months ago in the summer, I was on assignment on a guided tour of Lisbon, in a very small group of three people (myself included). We stopped by the Aljube Museum and the guide explained the importance of the landmark on our recent History and 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 would willingly answer 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 (and they would probably only direct him to the Age of Discoveries period anyway).

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.

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

Talk to the local populations and business owners and hear their stories, 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.

Not sure about what sustainable cultural tourism is all about yet? Read this blog post on what cultural travel is not.

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 types of cultural tourism.

Whatever allows you to have a glimpse at 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 in a sustainable and responsible manner?

Recently, I worked on a project for Lonely Planet 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 see on those shots is 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 that you 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 impact your destination in a positive way. 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 extremely restrictive (but you do have to consciously choose your activities in a way that it doesn’t jeopardize the life balance of the residents), and it doesn’t have to be extremely elitist (on the contrary, I believe everyone should have easy access to all kinds of culture).

This is the phase when travel publications (websites, blogs, magazines) and travel companies (airlines, hotels, tours) need to shift their message. If they keep following the trends to turn a place into what tourists want to see, there is no 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 and every travel publication under the sun is publishing pieces on the Portuguese capital. There is nothing wrong with it (in fact, we are honored by the coverage) if they weren’t the same wishy-washy poor copies of one another – there’s no real insight, the coverage is superficial (albeit beautifully written most of the times), and it doesn’t add to highlighting Lisbon as a sustainable cultural tourism destination.

As a travel blogger and a freelance writer who often (and gladly) focuses on Lisbon, I want to continue to write for visitors with the locals in mind and 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 the local culture of a place always starts with a somewhat informal conversation with locals – what it leads me to is always a surprise.

What is one of my favorite blog posts about Lisbon? This one about buying souvenirs in Lisbon while supporting the local economy.

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 of a destination 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 of time) but it sounds like a travel product that sells well, especially in destinations with a complete opposite culture from ours.

With growing concerns around “over tourism”, where is sustainable cultural tourism heading? Can we work to reduce the negative impact of tourism in a destination, without alienating 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 and the duty 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 behavioral traits of their destination’s residents, different sets of values, 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 of those things that we as travelers tend to forget – when we travel abroad, we’re not only observing, we’re also being observed.

I think 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.

In 2018, experience more, even if it means you will 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, even if it sounds like a mouthful of a tagline.

I hope you enjoyed this post! Every month I send out a newsletter with the latest blog posts and curated articles about sustainable cultural tourism. Because Tripper strives to be GDPR-compliant, for detailed information about the monthly newsletter and how to subscribe please read this page.

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