S1, E6: How to (and How Not to) Engage in Cultural Tourism

In our sixth episode of Unpacked by AFAR, we discuss the best ways to engage with all the different cultures we encounter during our travels.

In our new podcast, Unpacked by AFAR, we explore the world of ethical travel in a friendly, accessible—and dare we say—fun way. Every other Thursday join us as we answer your ethical conundrums from how to engage with animal tourism (“I know I shouldn’t ride an elephant, but can I swim with dolphins?”) to travel that doesn’t harm the Earth (“What is zero-waste travel—and is it even possible?”). Here’s the transcript from our August 25 episode.


Jennifer Flowers, host: This is Unpacked. I’m Jennifer Flowers, the senior deputy editor at AFAR. Have you ever had an incredible cultural encounter on your travels and wanted to take a picture, but you weren’t sure if it was OK? Or have you ever come across a traditional performance and wondered whether you should be there? These situations—and the questions they raise—are forms of cultural tourism. Today we’re going to explore the answers to those questions, and much more.

I was born a traveler. My dad was a hotelier, and as a kid I lived in Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, and the U.S. So naturally, when I grew up, I became a travel editor. And over the course of my life, I’ve had wonderful experiences all over the world. But some of the most life-changing moments, for me, have been the times I’ve connected with cultures that are different from my own. I’ve gone on eye-opening walks with the San people in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. I’ve stayed in a Tibetan family’s beautiful home in rural China. And I’ve sipped on yak butter tea with Sherpas in the Nepalese Himalayas.

I’ve also had challenging moments. I cringe when I remember a day in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. I casually took a faraway picture of a group of Berber people who were standing on a rocky outcropping. When they saw me take the photo, they reacted with frowns and hand gestures. I realized I had invaded their privacy, and to this day, I still feel awful about it.

I always try to do my best in these moments. I also know I can do better. And sometimes I don’t know what to do at all. So I reached out to a few experts who represent Indigenous communities and think about these things all the time.

Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā is Native Hawaiian, and his family has called the O‘ahu town of Kailua home for generations. He’s a hula practitioner, a fluent speaker of the Hawaiian language, and the chief brand officer at the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority.

Kalani says that he struggles with the term “cultural tourism.”

Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā: I think it positions culture as a means to an end. It feels somewhat transactional. And for me, our culture is our worldview. It’s the way we perceive things, it’s how we perceive our relationship to aina, or to land. We believe that we have a familial relationship with land and ocean and all of the elements. Now, when you put that in the space of hospitality and tourism, I struggle a little bit to translate that.

I think in its most basic form, one might think cultural tourism is a desire of a visitor to go to a place, to be immersed in, to see authentic representation of a culture. And that’s where I think it gets really gray. And I think that’s where we’re all having these conversations today, about what that means.

Jennifer: Kalani and other Hawai‘i residents have been asking hard questions about the relationship between Native Hawaiian heritage and tourism, which is the state’s largest economic sector. How is Hawaiian culture benefiting from tourism, and in what cases is it being commodified beyond recognition?

Kalani: I think in Hawai‘i, we have a historical sort of relationship with hospitality culture, performance-based culture, this idea of stereotypes and kitschy Tiki culture, and an industry that portrayed Hawai‘i in a certain romanticized, hyper-sexualized way, where it was all about coconut bras, grass skirts, mai tais, and beaches. And really Hawai‘i is a place with much more depth and significance and spiritual energy and so much more than just the hula girls.

Jennifer: Kalani’s words struck a chord. My Japanese American mother was born and raised in Hawai‘i. While we don’t share the Native Hawaiian experience with Kalani, we have seen the negative effects of appropriated cultural displays—the hit HBO series White Lotus being a great example of the uncomfortable power dynamics at play. And Hawaiian culture is not alone in the struggle with this.

According to the World Bank, Indigenous peoples make up 6 percent of the world’s population and 19 percent of the world’s extreme poor. For centuries, Indigenous peoples have faced displacement, discrimination, and violence, while often missing out on the economic benefits of tourism inspired by their own cultures.

However, Indigenous peoples are the biggest custodians of the natural world. They own, occupy, or use 80 percent of the world’s most biodiverse places. Their ancestry is deeply rooted to the land and can often be traced back for millennia. As travelers, of course, we want to explore and engage with those incredible cultures.

With all of this in mind, what does an experience that truly benefits Indigenous communities look like?

A group of dancers move close to the ground, with a male dancer crouched atop them, looking out.

Terrain, a nine-part dance number from the Sydney-based dance troupe, Bangarra.

Photo by Daniel Boud

Frances Rings: Cultural tourism is important. It’s important that it’s driven from the community, that it’s driven from the people themselves, that, economically, they are benefiting from it, but also that it is done their way and the way that they want to share it.

Jennifer: That’s Frances Rings, the associate artistic director of Bangarra, a contemporary Indigenous dance troupe based in Sydney. Frances’s mother is from the Kokatha tribe on the west coast of south Australia. Frances, who will become Bangarra’s artistic director in 2023, collaborates with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, who give Bangarra permission to tell traditional stories using contemporary dance.

We talked about all the different ways a visitor can engage with culture in Australia: for a theatrical experience, they can buy a ticket to a Bangarra performance in Sydney. Or they can go to the country and take a guided walk with somebody whose connection to the land goes back millennia and learn about the creation stories of that region. But the important part of any cultural experience, she says, is that the experiences are driven by the custodians of that culture. She shared with me the big-picture questions she asks around cultural tourism.

Frances: I think those frameworks of “How do we do this with integrity, without kind of selling out who we are? How do we protect the things that are sacred, that we need to ensure [are] protected? What is the public domain stuff that we can share, that we can create better awareness of who we are? That our young people can see and can be like, ‘Oh wow. These fellows are interested in my culture? Wow.’” That also means that’s jobs coming in, economically—that money that comes in feeds back into the community, they can be better resourced, they can grow, they can expand, but there are so many benefits from it.

Jennifer: A culturally sensitive experience takes time to build—sometimes a long time. When Frances has been given permission to work on a new piece of choreography with a community, it can take months and sometimes even years. That’s because she needs to build a rapport with them to understand how they want their story to be told.

Frances: How we translate that information has to be done with care and with guidance. We have 400 language groups of living song, dance, story, customs, arts, law, knowledge. So each community is very distinctive and very different. And the way that they want their story to be told, we have to be guided by them. You always, it has to be driven from, from the community. So we engage with a cultural consultant from that community. And they’re basically a lifeline.

Jennifer: When she begins a new piece, she asks herself: What is the story? Why is it important to be told? How is it going to help people understand Australia at a deeper level? For Terrain, a nine-part choreographic work, Frances went to northern Australia to spend time at Kati Thanda, or Lake Eyre, home of the Arabunna people. She spent time with Reginald Dodd, an Arabunna elder. As they sat together, she had a vision that became the inspiration for “Spinifex,” the third piece of choreography in Terrain.

I think in its most basic form, one might think cultural tourism is a desire of a visitor to go to a place, to be immersed in, to see authentic representation of a culture. And that’s where I think it gets really gray.
Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā

Frances: I had this moment where I was sitting on the lake and looking into the distance and it was very quiet and it was kind of shimmering horizon and mirage coming off the lake. And there were these trees off in the distance and they looked like women, they just kind of looked like they’re breathing and they were arching and they were contorting. Then they were moving into each other and then moving away. And I just had this sense of these ancestral women, who were suspended in space and they were waiting for water to arrive in this desert, and for this life cycle of transformation to happen.

I took that image away with me and I created this piece called “Spinifex.” These ancestral women are in the space and they’re contorted and they’re kind of other worldly, but they have these forms that are distinctly, you know, the female form. To celebrate the female form, to celebrate the way that we move, to celebrate what we carry from our ancestral mothers and grandmothers—what other platform allows you to do that? And to share that.

Jennifer: Even just describing the scene that inspired her work, Frances gave me goosebumps: She offered me an entirely new understanding of the people and landscapes of that region. These deeper perspectives are what she intends to bring to audiences who come to see Bangarra perform.

Like Frances, Kalani thinks a lot about how Hawaiian traditions are protected and perpetuated, especially around hula, the Hawaiian dance tradition that he’s been studying and practicing for more than 15 years.

Kalani: When we think about hula presented in the visitor industry or in hospitality, you have to understand that it’s being presented in a context that is foreign in nature. It was not our practice to share our culture for money. And, and so you just got to understand that we start in a place where it’s already weird. Is it bad? No. Do we have to adapt to the times we live in? Yes.

Jennifer: Kalani took me through the two overarching types of hula found in the islands: There’s ‘auana, a modern version of hula that’s set to music. It was created for travelers in the early 20th century and is a legitimate art form on its own, and one where visitors can and should feel free to enjoy. And then there’s kahiko hula, the ancient form that’s rooted in ceremony and ritual and set to chanting. Most of the time, it’s not intended for a public audience.

Kalani: We have this concept in Hawaiian called au’a. And it’s things that are withheld on purpose because they’re sacred. And that there are some things that are meant to be behind that veil of sacredness. And then there are other parts of our culture that are very open to being shared, and I think about more sort of modern hula with hula ‘auana, which was accompanied by string instruments, right. It’s this more modern evolution of hula and music and dance, and it is for parties and it is for a good time and it is to enjoy.

Jennifer: In other words, if you see a hula performance at a hotel, feel free to take pleasure in capturing the spirit of the performance in a space where practitioners are delighted to share their art with you.

When people think of cultural tourism, performance art is often the first thing that comes to mind. But some of the most meaningful connections happen when our communication is unscripted. On a trip to Colombia in 2021, I was one of the first travelers to join a new cultural experience. Colombia-based outfitter Retorno Travel wanted to connect travelers like me with members of the Wounaan community. Over the last couple of decades, they’ve been displaced from their ancestral land in the Colombian jungle near Panama, and they now live in Bogota.

We went to their community center and were invited to participate in a spiritual dance, and we dined with them on steamed fish and plantains. After lunch, through a translator, some of the elders began to talk about their generations-deep connections with the land, and how they had to leave that way of life behind because of illegal guerrilla warfare. That’s when our conversations got really interesting.

The community healer candidly began to share his ambivalence about tourism and photographers documenting their way of life. He lamented that city living was removing the next generation from their cultural roots. Soon after that, the schoolteacher placed a black tree seed from the jungle where he was born in the palm of my hand. I had to hold back tears as he told me that whenever I needed to reconnect with nature, I just had to close my eyes and focus on the texture of the seed’s rough exterior on my fingers. I still keep that seed by my bedside today.

Genuine connections like these lie at the heart of Wild Expeditions Africa, an outfitter with experiences in Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe. Wild Expeditions runs mobile camps that access rural areas of Ethiopia with no tourism infrastructure. One of their permanent camps in southern Ethiopia’s culture-rich Omo Valley is called Lale’s Camp, and it’s run by Lale Birwa, a member of the region’s ethnic Kara group. In this region, many employees come from the villages guests visit, and they help to maintain good relationships with communities. Bemnet Gizachew is one of the founding members of Wild Expeditions, and he heads up mobile tented camp operations in Ethiopia.

Members of Ethiopia's ethnic Kara group gather and dance.

Members of Ethiopia’s ethnic Kara group gather and dance.

Photo by Andy Haslam

Bemnet Gizachew: We try to create a sort of authentic travel experience for the clients. So that when the travelers go and visit particular tribes, the ultimate purpose is not taking a good picture and, you know, going back with that. Rather, you know, it’s trying to make some kind of connection, a human to human connection and learning from each other. It’s not only the travelers who learn, it’s also the tribe, who also learn about who are the visitors who are coming to visit us.

Jennifer: Bemnet grew up in Addis Ababa. A student of history and literature, he developed a passion for cultures at an early age, and that’s why he joined the travel industry. Over the years as a guide, he’s seen tour operators that visit the more accessible villages, the ones located near the road. And some of them simply line members of a village up, and then ask them to make certain poses so that travelers can get the picture they want. The idea of interacting with people and their culture this way made my stomach turn. The focus of Wild Expeditions is the opposite of this: They’re all about genuine human connections. Bemnet and his team tell guests that before they ever think about raising their cameras to take a photo, they should get to know the elders and observe day-to-day life. Eventually, he says, when you’ve built a relationship of mutual respect and trust, you can ask for permission to take a photo.

Bemnet: We try to humbly explain for them what’s important here. If you want a lifelong memory, just leave the camera and spend some time with people that you came to visit rather than taking a picture, making your camera as a barrier between you and the tribe that you visit.

Jennifer: Welcome back to Unpacked by AFAR. Frances, Kalani, and Bemnet all spoke about the importance of two-way communication in any cultural exchange. It’s not just about us as travelers getting something from an experience, but it’s also about participating in it and sharing a part of ourselves, too. On a safari in Kenya in 2019, I was determined to learn Swahili, but didn’t always get it right. On a game drive one morning, during a breakfast in the bush, I meant to ask for coffee, or “kahawa,” but instead asked for “kuhara,” which my Masai guide, Nelson, quickly informed me was the word for diarrhea. Minutes later, when our laughter died down, I stumbled my way into another faux pas, this time, by asking him how many cattle he had. Laughter erupted again: This question is the nosy Western equivalent of asking how much money he has in his bank account. I’ll never forget the difference between coffee and diarrhea in East Africa, will surely never pry into a Masai person’s finances, and will also never forget the bonds I made on that bright morning on the savanna.

I was fascinated to hear Bemnet’s observations on visitors to the Omo Valley. For some tribes, a man’s economical status is also measured by the number of cattle he has. One of their most common questions to male guests is whether they have their own herd.

Bemnet: Most of the time, they ask our clients, “Do you have cattle? And do you have sheep, goats, or oxen?” And they say, “No, we don’t have [any].” Then [the tribe members] feel such pity: “I will give you. Once you start, it’s not too late, you know?”

Jennifer: I took so much delight in the idea that a visitor could have as many yachts, mansions, and dollars in the bank as they’d like, but in this part of the Omo Valley, if they don’t have cattle, they’re basically considered broke—to the point where people offered to help them with a donation of cattle.

Sometimes travelers are quick to judge a particular tradition or decide that it’s backwards. But Bemnet encourages visitors to keep an open mind.

Bemnet: If you go to the United States, you’ll find the family who has their own culture. The same case for the tribe in the Omo valley. So if you go to their place, you have to respect and you have to learn their thoughts about the culture, rather than saying, “This is a bad culture, this is backward, this is not well developed, this sort of thing.” So instead of making a judgment, it’s much better to immerse yourself in that culture and learn from their perspective, rather than from your own, which I think is healthier for the travelers as well as for the people who are being visited.

Jennifer: Bemnet explained the Mursi tradition where some women decide to wear lip plates, which involves the process of cutting and stretching the lower lip in order to fit a disc made of clay or wood. For the Mursi, the practice is a display of beauty and social adulthood. But some travelers tell Bemnet that they should tell the Mursi not to practice that anymore, fearing that it’s painful or oppressive. In situations like this, Bemnet encourages trying to focus instead on learning the reasons why the Mursi do it.

Bemnet: The definition of beauty is different. For some people being skinny, having long hair. those sorts of things might be the definition of beauty. But for those tribes, for the Mursi tribe, that’s one of the ways that they show their beauty. So we have to respect as we are the one who went there to visit them. So instead of making a judgment there, just learn why they do this.

Jennifer: As I thought about all the ways cultural tourism can be approached more ethically, it became clear that a lot of that change lies in the hands of the traveler. After all, the traveler is the ultimate decision maker on where their travel dollar is spent. Kalani elaborated on why this is so important.

Kalani: I think the biggest influence in changing how we do tourism is going to come from the consumer. And so as consumers start to be more aware of their footprint, they’re more aware of their impacts, and they start asking visitor industry businesses and industry and destinations to think about that, I think that’s going to be the largest driver for change.

Jennifer: The more informed we are about our travel experiences, the better chance we have at building stronger relationships with the people and places we visit. Building that trust can often grant us access to cultural experiences that make travel so rich. At the end of our meaningful conversation, Kalani invited me, and you too, to hear this special chant he composed in 2008 about his home.

Kalani: If you want to understand Hawaiians and you want to understand Hawai‘i and our language, It’s really rooted in place. And it’s really rooted in relationships and that’s not unique to Hawai‘i. And think about a place that enriches you, that recharges your battery, that inspires you, that makes you feel whole, that makes you feel well, that makes you feel healed, and whatever that place, person, thing is. And then when you think about a trip to Hawai‘i, know that you’re coming to a place that does that for us. And it’s my pleasure to share it.


Jennifer: Before we go, let’s take a look at what we learned about cultural tourism.

Takeaway #1

Read up on your destination and learn about the cultures of the place you’re visiting. Go beyond the dominating cultural lens, and dive deeper into Indigenous histories. Then look for ways to connect with that history on the ground.

Takeaway #2

When you’re looking at a cultural experience, take the initiative to understand the context for how it came into being so you know what you’re signing up for. Who is in control of the experience? Is it the keepers of that culture? And is that culture benefiting from the experience they’re offering you?

Takeaway #3

Come with an open mind. Enter an experience with no expectations and let the custodians of that culture guide you. It’s not always a smooth road, but being an open and humble guest is what often leads to true cultural exchange.

Takeaway #4

Gaining access to a cultural experience is like entering a friend’s home. You want to be respectful of the host’s space, boundaries, and comfort zones—whether that means asking permission to take a picture or wearing appropriate clothing.

Takeaway #5

A true exchange is a two-way street. Ask questions, but also be sure to invite your hosts to ask questions of you. We build trust, connections, and mutual understanding when we’re learning about each other simultaneously.

Takeaway #6

The traveler has spending power, and that spending power can encourage more ethical cultural encounters. Seeking out responsible cultural practices incentivizes outfitters and cultures to offer more of that kind of experience. It not only makes your trip better, but it also paves the way for a better tourism industry.

Thanks so much for joining me on this episode of Unpacked. From one traveler to another, I hope to see you out there. Follow me on instagram at @jenniferleeflowers and Twitter at @jennflowers.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit us online at afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. We’re @afarmedia. Check out our show notes for more resources related to today’s conversation. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, we hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And please be sure to rate and review us. It helps other travelers find the show.

This has been Unpacked by AFAR, a production of AFAR Media and Boom Integrated. Our podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene, Adrien Glover, and Robin Lai. Postproduction was by John Marshall Media staff Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhodes. Music composition by Alan Carrescia. And a special thanks for original music by Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā and composer David Page.

And remember: The world is complicated. Being an ethical traveler doesn’t have to be.