Culturally Sensitive Travel

Globalization vs. localization has been an never ending debate. Some believe that the whole world is becoming more and more alike, akin to a global village. It is said that increase in trade and travel will lead to even more homogeneity. And yet many believe and customs and culture still remain as distinct as ever and are likely to remain so. There is some truth to both the arguments. Wherever I go, I may find malls, but people dress and behave differently inside them! Culturally sensitive travel seems relevant even today. It also feels like common sense to me!

And yet it doesn’t seem to be so common. The police arrested tourists in Sabah who posed nude on the top of the Kinabalu Mountain in Sabah, Malaysia. Here is a short quote from the BBC story linked above.

Ranau district police chief Mohd Farhan Lee Abdullah confirmed to the BBC that the authorities had arrested a British woman at Tawau airport in Sabah on Tuesday. The two Canadians, who are siblings, and the Dutchman turned themselves in to police on the same day. Their lawyer, Ronny Cham, told the BBC’s Jennifer Pak that he had requested the four be held apart from other detainees in order to ensure their safety.

I might have not thought much about the incident but for a Malaysian friend asking for my views on it. I told him I found the behavior of the tourists totally insensitive to the local culture.

The people of Kazadan Dusun tribe in Sabah consider the mountain sacred. In you have visited the Himalayas, you can see that people consider them sacred too. There are prayer flags and stone formations to invoke the Gods all over the Himalayas. I wonder what is so difficult to understand about it that certain cultures consider their mountains sacred? It didn’t help at all when an earthquake followed this event, which many put to the disrespect shown by the tourists to the mountain! I know it is a false argument but it is a predictable one.

The government of Malaysia answered with the arrest of the tourists. Now that raises another question. Is that the best way to deal with the situation? I have no answer to that as well.

But it does raises a question about our behavior as travelers and backpackers. I have read countless quotes and posts exalting travel. Travel is something that should open our minds to other cultures but does it?

My personal take is that people will be people, they will behave in all possible ways and travelers are no exception.

It is important to be educated about the place one is going to visit. What is really the point of traveling if we cannot respect the local customs? One small initiative of this blog has been the dress code for women series. Do check it out.

What do you think about the behavior of the tourists on the Kinabalu Mountain in Sabah, Malaysia? What is your take on culturally sensitive travel?

* Image Source (the images are attributed to being circulated on social media)

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18 thoughts on “Culturally Sensitive Travel”

  1. I think it is extremely important to be sensitive about different cultures… I was in Roman visiting the Vatican where I wasn’t allowed to enter because I was wearing shorts… now that was shocking for me. What’s wrong with wearing shorts in Europe? But that was the norm there and one had to abide by it. I had to buy a scarf and wrap it around my waist like a wraparound skirt. So there you go… being sensitive about different cultures is key!

    • Thank you for sharing your Vatican experience Archana. I agree being sensitive to local norms is very important.

  2. It is imperative to respect other cultures to be a global citizen when the world is converging and boundaries blurring through social media. More so if you happen to be in their land…any disrespect and violation of the local traditions, laws and disrespect of their values and beliefs can land anyone in soup.

    • Totally Bushra and it feels so scary even to imagine the situation when you land up on the wrong side of the law in a foreign land!

  3. You are right! Some people are insensitive, but others are downright rude! And it hold true both for visitor and for people of the host city. It happens both ways.

  4. You’ve raised an important point Mridula. I’ve recently been a little taken aback by reports that tourists are posing nude for photographs in Angkor Vat! It’s crass and I don’t even think its about cultural sensitivity because nowhere in the world is it cool to pose nude in temples or mountains, unless it’s a designated nudist area and there’s a reason why it’s designated. People pose naked in public in new lands because they think it’s daring and nobody they know will see them. The same reason that people scratch their names onto archaeological monuments. Because they’re uncultured, crass and silly.
    Oh dear – sorry that my comment has become something of a rant.

    • Kalpanaa thank you for sharing your thoughts. It sets my teeth on edge when I see people writing their names on monuments! I was not aware of the Angkor Wat incident though.

  5. You are so right about being sensitive to the traditions and culture of places you visit.
    The timing of earthquake and the incident is a coincidence and both cannot be connected.

    • I agree Indrani that the timing was a coincidence. The tourists are back to their home countries by now as well.

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