13 Unique Ways to Ethically Connect with Local Culture Abroad + Mistakes to Avoid

In light of successfully completing another heritage tour through the Dominican Republic, I wanted to share the unique ways travelers can connect with local culture via immersive travel…and a few mistakes they should avoid.

Cultural heritage is the unique set of traditions and/or legacy of a society passed down by generations. This includes the arts, gastronomy, medicinal remedies, spirituality, values, landmarks, and more. With the rise of tourism, more travelers are now interested in connecting with local cultures abroad. This type of cultural travel can be done in a number of ways for an educational and personally enriching experience while helping support the preservation of local heritage and small businesses – if done ethically and sustainably, of course.

Why Culturally Immersive Travel That Is Ethical & Sustainable Matters

Ethical and sustainable cultural travel can help:

  • Foster positive economic and social impact
  • Establish and reinforce cultural identity (especially for multicultural/diasporic communities)
  • Preserve cultural heritage – this is important for a number of reasons but especially because social and cultural diversity enriches humanity’s perspective on medicine, politics, history, love, science, thought, everyday life, etc.
  • Promote awareness/understanding among people

MISTAKES to Avoid in the Pursuit of Cultural Travel

However, cultural tourism can also lead to tensions and problematic tourist behavior that can cause detrimental effects on locals. Below are a few examples of mistakes to avoid when traveling in the pursuit of culture (or in general).

  1. Saying things like “there’s no culture here” – there is culture everywhere even if it’s not so distinct from yours. Culture isn’t limited to poverty and “exoticism.”
  2. Exoticizing/fetishizing locals and their culture especially if you come from a more privileged background/country
  3. Cultural insensitivity – When arriving in a new country, consider reading up on history and the cultural norms of the people. This will help you avoid offensive behavior such as dressing inappropriately in temples. Cultural sensitivity also includes checking any superiority complex at the airport gates. Arrive with an open mind that tries to understand people before judging them.
  4. Only photographing/presenting one side (the poverty/”exotic” part) of a country instead of portraying a more holistic picture.
  5. Visiting orphanages – Read more here about the detrimental issues behind this form of tourism.
  6. Volunteering unethically
  7. Handing things out to children encourages unsustainable habits such as begging and truancy (skipping school) and leaves children with long-lasting negative psychological effects especially in regards to race and power (among many other adverse effects)
  8. Taking pictures of locals without asking for permission first. Would you like it if someone showed up at your job and started taking your picture and then walked away?
  9. Taking pictures of babies and children. How would you like it if an indigenous Bolivian man went to your hometown and began taking pictures of your American babies and children to post on the internet? Black and brown children are not photo props. Read more about this here: Dear westerners, please stop taking pictures of other people’s children while travelling in developing countries
  10. Disrespecting rules for entering holy places/local dress codes
  11. Your educational system is one of the millions. The way you study or define certain things in your country is not all-encompassing or more “correct” than the way others around the world have been taught. For instance, the debate about the applicability of the term “America/American” and geography studies such as how the number of continents varies per school systems around the world.

Related: Can Tourism & Conservation Intersect?

Fun Ways to Connect with Local Culture as a Traveler

Without further ado, here are some of the unique ways to connect with culture while traveling in an ethical and sustainable manner.

1. Slow Down to Savor More

As travel is becoming more accessible, we no longer need to cave to the fear of missing out (FOMO). Zooming from one destination to the next while checking items off bucket list items can be a fun adventure. But on your next trip, consider the profound value in slowing down to appreciate the nuanced details, the different historical impacts, and the rich cultural heritage.

Slow travel can not only help curtail travel burnout but it can also allow you to feel like you’re on a “vacation” too, instead of a marathon race. Most importantly, slow travel can feel more culturally meaningful, sustainable, eco-friendly, and economical when you do things like hike the Rota Vicentina and Fishermen’s Trail in Portugal.

Continue Reading: Dealing With Travel Burnout – Why it Happens & How to Overcome It

2. Connect With Locals

Cultural exchange does not have to entail going on a safari deep into a remote village. Simply chatting with those who live in the destination you’re traveling through can open up a world of wonder and cross-cultural interaction via conversations. From your Airbnb host to your taxi driver, you can learn so much by connecting with those around you.

3. Explore the Local Gastronomy 

One of the easiest ways to explore local culture and history is through food. Make a bucket list of dishes to try, stop by a local market to try exotic fruits, and/or take a cooking lesson! All wonderful ways to learn about the culture while indulging your taste buds.

This is also a great conversation starter with locals! Ask: “What’s your favorite dish here?” or “What’s a fruit/drink I should try before I go?”

4. Contextualize Your Experience With Books & Film

myanmar book stands

What better way to prepare for an upcoming trip than to contextualize your experience via incredible books about travel and culture, documentaries, and/or movies? If you don’t have time to read an entire book or watch a film, then go on Wikipedia and look up the country… Here you can briefly read up on the country’s history, religion, demographics, etc.

This is something all travelers to another country should do, even if they’re not going for cultural tourism. This helps maintain cultural sensitivity when traveling so you don’t, for instance, order a hamburger in India or touch someone’s head in Thailand. Make an effort to prioritize reading decolonized histories and non-Eurocentric perspectives, too!

5. Pop Into the Museums

So maybe you don’t have time to read through Wikipedia either… that’s OK! Pop into one of the many museums available in your travel destination. What better way to learn about the history, arts, and culture of a country/city than to peruse through a local museum exhibition?

With the aid of visual arts, audio guides, and/or interactive learning, you’ll be able to better familiarize yourself with the destination’s cultural heritage. There are different types of museums too, of course. Consider going to more than one: modern arts, classic art, general history, resistance movements, natural science, etc.

6. Visit Cultural Heritage Sites

Kathmandu Sightseeing

Here is a list of all the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites around the world. However, please note that not all cultural heritage sites are designated as such by UNESCO. You can stumble upon a cave with ancient hieroglyphics only known to the locals of a certain community… or find a site of natural importance to the local culture which only a few people know about.

Landmarks or areas selected by UNESCO for having cultural, historical, scientific other types of significance. The preservation of these sites is deemed of important interest to humanity. China, Italy, Spain, India, and Mexico are some of the countries with the most World Heritage Sites. Famous World Heritage Sites include Great Zimbabwe, Machu Pichu, Chichen Itza, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Americans: You don’t have to go all the way to China or Peru to visit World Heritage Sites; We have some in our very own backyard. Here are 23 Remarkable World Heritage sites in the U.S. by the Washington Post!

7. Support Local Small Businesses

Shopping for artisan crafts in Cap Haitian, Haiti

What easier way to give back while traveling than to support local small businesses around the world? Stay at a local homestay or Airbnb, shop at family-owned corner stores, go to the local markets, buy from street vendors, and pay local guides for tours.

8. Take Local Workshops & Classes

If you’re someone who loves to learn and channel their creativity in different forms, this one is for you. Consider taking dance lessons, a cooking class, an artwork shop and other forms of interactive education to better understand the creative values of local culture in a fun way!

This is by far, one of my favorite ways to culturally immerse myself while traveling. Pictured above: learning to make azujelo tiles during an Airbnb Experience in Portugal. Click for $45 off your first Airbnb experience.

9. Long Term Rentals via Homestay, Airbnb, Petsitting, etc.

dog sitting abroad

This is one of the BEST ways to really absorb and connect with the local culture while saving a ton of money! Rent out a place long term and live there for at least a month. This way you can slow down, familiarize yourself with the pace of life, become a regular at the nearby grocery store, take public transportation, and learn the rhythm to the everyday way of living.

10. Go off the Beaten Path & Visit Surrounding Areas

A great way to connect with local culture while curtailing the negative effects of over-tourism is to visit places that are less popular. Consider going to the surrounding areas of a popular destination, going to more remote towns, driving out 5+ hours away from the crowds.

11. Attend Local Festivals

At a music & arts event in Havana, Cuba

Cities and countries around the world host famous festivals highlighting special niche interests. Festivals can range from music, activism, dance, film, food, etc. Festivals are also a great space to connect with locals who will likely be more sociable during a special event of share interests.

12. Check Out the Local Arts Scene: Galleries, Live Music, Theatre & More.

Art galleries? Live music? Theatre? Dance? How fun! Here are some of the many exciting examples of ways to absorb and embrace the local culture:

  • An evening of live fado music in Lisbon
  • Drinks as a live jazz bar in NYC
  • Going to see 15-minute plays on Dominican life in Santo Domingo
  • Listening to a throat singer performer in Mongolia
  • Flamenco performance in Seville, Spain
  • Ballet show in Havana, Cuba

13. Join a Cultural Heritage Tour 

Dominican Heritage Tour – February 2020

So maybe you’re shy, don’t want to solo travel, and/or don’t have time to build an itinerary for an immersive travel experience. That’s OK. Considering joining a heritage tour or hiring someone to plan your travels for you including cultural attractions. This can also be great to support local small businesses in that country!

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