Tips to Choose a Responsible Cultural Tour

Photo by Redd Angelo | Tips on Choosing a Responsible Cultural Tour @tripprblog

“A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.” – Moslih Eddin Saadi

According to the World Tourism Organization, tourism accounts for “7% of worldwide exports, one in eleven jobs and 10% of the world’s GDP (…). If well managed [it] can foster inclusive economic growth, social inclusiveness and the protection of cultural and natural assets.”

As someone who blogs about cultural travel to offbeat destinations and focuses most of the blog’s content on those destinations’ cultural diversity, I couldn’t be happier.

The upside is that more and more destinations will be put on the tourism industry map for their cultural heritage, appealing to visitors with a strong sense of what sustainable cultural tourism means.

The downside, as one can expect with the rising trend of cultural tourism, is that there is always a share of shady businesses who will try to make a quick profit out of gullible travelers and desperate locals. How does that saying go? You may be full of good intentions but are really buying a pig in a poke.

(Photo by chuttersnap) | Tips on Choosing a Responsible Cultural Tour @tripprblog

Activities like “slum tourism” is on the rise and, for the most part, has little or no benefit at all to the locals that it impacts.

The line between cultural immersion and cultural invasion is at risk of becoming very thin.

If you haven’t started planning your cultural trips for this year, please read these tips to choose a responsible cultural tour first. I would appreciate it if you could share them with as many people as possible and if you have any other tips on sustainable cultural tours you’d like to add, please let me know in the comments below.

The United Nations defines a slum as ‘a run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security’(UN, 2007). From street tours of the homeless in Amsterdam to funicular rides above shanty towns in Rio, visits to these run down areas are becoming a familiar adjunct to tourism itineraries around the world. Tourism Concern Research Briefing

1. List a Set of Questions about Ethical Travel that the Cultural Tour You’re Researching Should Be Able to Comply With

This should be a straightforward first step but more often than not we are mesmerized by well-designed websites, public figures endorsements, and a gallery of happy, smiling locals with a couple of glowing reviews by recent visitors.

Nothing looks bad with the package and our mind is at ease. But remember that great marketing doesn’t always mean you’re looking at a great company.

The first of all questions should be one that you ask yourself, what do you wish to accomplish with this cultural tour?

Other questions may include:

  • Does the cultural tour the company is advertising provide context or is it focused only on showcasing a specific area of your destination (like putting poverty or homelessness on display) without a bigger picture approach or intention of investing in improving the local community’s life conditions?
  • Do they set a maximum limit of people per tour under 10? (I was once part of a cultural tour group of 15 people, which, as I wrote it then, was not sustainable. Although a group that big doesn’t seem like a lot, when you’re navigating through the narrow streets of the pols in the old part of Ahmedabad, a group of this size was hard to manage. They weren’t unethical in any way and the tour was great but the group was too big.)
  • Does this company’s cultural tour allow you to contribute to the local economy in any way (supporting local restaurants, markets, heritage sites, etc.)?
  • Does the local tourism board have a responsible travel certification program that the company is part of and that you can easily refer to?
  • Does the company have their own guidelines or policy for responsible tourism?
Tips to Choose a Responsible Cultural Tour | Photo by Amruta Mahakalkar

Ahmedabad | Photo by Amruta Mahakalkar

2. Educate Yourself on Local Cultures and History, Preferably from Independent Sources and Different Points of View

This is the first step everyone should take before traveling somewhere, even if you’re visiting your own country.

Our perception of the world is shaped by our personal set of values and our definition of right and wrong. So skip the travel guides and the glossy magazines to learn about your destination but keep them at hand to find useful information like opening hours, important landmarks, and traveling tips (like currency, Visa information, etc.).

Make a list of local fiction and non-fiction authors and their most significant work to read before your trip. Watch a movie or two, throw in a documentary directed by a native if you can easily find one.

By the time you’re ready to book a guided cultural tour at the destination you’re visiting, you can quickly scan through their offers and be able to make an informed decision.

Educate Yourself on Local Cultures and History, Preferably from Independent Sources and Different Points of View (Photo by Pavan Gupta) | Tips on Choosing a Responsible Cultural Tour

Educate Yourself on Local Cultures and History, Preferably from Independent Sources and Different Points of View (Photo by Pavan Gupta)

3. Ask Questions to Locals on Online Forums

Most Google searches of “top things to do in [insert place]” often provide similar results. The first page will be filled with must-see landmarks lists that you and every other tourist who has visited the place or is planning to already knows.

Those lists have important information, but to choose a responsible cultural tour or to know what to look for regarding the destination you’re researching, you need to dive in deeper.

My favorite place to hang out at is the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum. My profile is clear on what are my expert areas and I only seek to answer questions about my two homes, Lisbon and the Azores.

You won’t benefit much from it right now if the person answering your questions is someone who’s been to the destination you’re researching for a couple of weeks in June of 2012.

Set up an account (it’s easy and it’s free), browse through existing posts and if you can’t find what you’re looking for, post your questions.

Ask Questions to Locals on Online Forums (Photo by Alejandro Escamilla) | Tips to Choose a Responsible Cultural Tour @tripprblog

Ask Questions to Locals on Online Forums (Photo by Alejandro Escamilla)

4. Don’t Beat Yourself Up If You Feel You Have Been Tricked. Report It.

In a world where online trolls and public shaming on social media are the norm, it’s normal to feel self-conscious for every travel mistake you make. Especially if people are telling you that you should have known better.

Sometimes spotting a company full of bad intentions may not be that simple. Some companies will be trickier than others and lure you in with exactly what you expected to hear.

I have visited a slum before but because of the amazing artwork those families produced every year. Before visiting, we drove by many times until I was sure I wouldn’t be invading their space. In fact, they were more than happy to allow me to photograph their work and to explain to me the process of building Ganesh statues.

But this is not always the case and there will be times when you can’t anticipate everything. That being said, if you’re in the middle of one of these so-called cultural tours and the people at the place you’re visiting don’t seem like they were waiting for you or feel visibly uncomfortable with your presence, that should be a major red flag.

Gather all the details of what caused you to believe this cultural tour company was operating unethically and contact the UNWTO.

There doesn’t seem to be enough information out there on how to report such cases, so reaching out to the World Tourism Organisation seems to be the first logical step.

The family of artisans in Hollywood, Ahmedabad, India | Creating a Ganesh idol is a family trade in the Hollywood slum in Ahmedabad, India. We met some of the artists.

The Family of Artisans at the “Hollywood” slum in Ahmedabad

5. Still Not Sure You Can Do It On Your Own? Double Check Your Information with Reputable Websites

To broaden your perspective about cultural tourism and to be absolutely sure that you’re choosing a responsible cultural tour, here’s a list of other resources you can use:

Still Not Sure You Can Do It On Your Own? Double Check Your Information with Reputable Websites (Photo by Joshua Newton) | Tips on Choosing a Responsible Cultural Tour @tripprblog

Still Not Sure You Can Do It On Your Own? Double Check Your Information with Reputable Websites (Photo by Joshua Newton)

What is the best responsible cultural tour you’ve been on and that you’d like to recommend to other readers? Share it with us on Facebook or Twitter. If you’re not much of a talker, follow us on Instagram and Pinterest for your daily dose of travel inspiration.

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