What’s the Best Way to Engage With and Honor Local Cultures When I Travel?

Experiencing a new culture can be one of the best parts about traveling—here’s how to engage with local communities respectfully.

An illustration of a person dressed in traditional Hawaiian clothes and a white make traveler watering a tree.

Use these tips to embrace and honor cultures on your travels.

Illustration by Solji Lee

When I think back on my favorite trips, it’s the cultural moments that stand out: the shake of feathers on a Black Masking Indian’s Mardi Gras outfit in New Orleans; the laughter I shared with Fijians around a kava bowl. To me, the most rewarding parts of travel are learning about—and being invited to experience—a community’s traditions. But how can we ensure that we’re doing right by the people who share those moments with us? Here are some tips.

Read up

Advance reading on local history, customs, and culture can help you get more out of a trip. For example, DestinationIndigenous.ca, from the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC), has advice about attending a powwow.

Consider who controls the storytelling

If you’re thinking about booking an activity, performance, or tour that is presented as a cultural experience, consider its context. Will it take place in the tradition’s natural environment or somewhere staged? Who’s benefiting, financially or otherwise? Ask about its history, suggests Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā, a Native Hawaiian and chief brand officer at the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority. “Nine times out of 10, if they’re able to recite and share where their knowledge comes from and what their responsibility is to it, it’s going to be a solid experience.”

ITAC’s Original Original mark denotes businesses that are at least 51 percent Indigenous owned (plus other criteria) and offer accredited, authentic experiences. These include the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, which showcases the area’s First Nations communities, and Coastal Rainforest Safaris, which leads wildlife tours in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest.

As Tamara Littlelight, ITAC’s director of marketing and a proud Anishinaabe from Keeseekoose First Nation, says, tourism gives Indigenous peoples “a chance to rediscover and take pride in their cultural heritage, while also sharing it with others.”

Uplift traditions and crafts

There are several ways travelers can help sustain cultures around the world. For example, UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list showcases hundreds of endangered oral traditions, performing arts, and skills, some “in need of urgent safeguarding.”

Similarly, the U.K.’s Heritage Crafts Association has identified dozens of crafts at risk of becoming extinct within a generation. And at the Fife Arms, a hotel in Braemar, Scotland, travelers can support local skills by learning how to make traditional rag paper and sporrans (pouches).

The U.N.’s World Tourism Organization publishes an annual Best Tourism Villages list, which recognizes places with social, economic, and environmental sustainability initiatives that enable travelers to help preserve local heritage. The 2022 list includes Dazhai, in China’s mountainous Guangxi region, where a cable car allows visitors to witness 1,000-year-old farming techniques of plowing and harvesting rice terraces. In Angochagua, Ecuador, another designee, guests are encouraged to take part in farming, cooking, and crafts as a celebration of the Caranqui people’s ancestral heritage, providing a source of income and strengthening traditions.

Participate—and respect boundaries

Don’t be a passive observer. Try to spend time with your hosts. In eastern Canada, Fogo Island Inn’s Community Host Program matches guests with a lifelong Fogo Islander for customized half-day orientations about the island’s natural and cultural heritage.

Exchanges like this can often be two-way conversations, but some aspects may be off-limits: Sacred ceremonies or ritual practices might be kept from visitors. Of course, obeying local rules, respecting privacy, and asking permission before taking any photos are paramount.

Ka‘anā‘anā says curiosity and humility are “the recipe for how best to engage with, and be respectful of, culture.” Hawai‘i is like a mirror, he says, promising that if you come with those two qualities, you’ll get them back tenfold. “We have a saying in Hawai‘i: Aloha aku, aloha mai. In giving love you receive love.”

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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