Are Authentic Cultural Experiences Why You Travel?
Is having authentic cultural experiences the reason you travel? Is connecting with local people one of the highlights of a trip? Then you are in good company!
COVID has made many of us realize how essential travel is to our lives. Not as an escape–but as an affirmation of our desire to connect with others. Absence makes the heart grow fonder as the saying goes. You may be one of the legions of people who long for the day when you can immerse yourself in a new or favorite destination, and soak up the ambiance and local traditions of a people whose way of life you admire.
For a lot of travelers, COVID has really underscored that the meaning of a journey is about authentic cultural experiences rather than merely appreciating a beautiful locale.
But this is not a new recognition. Rather, it is a heightened awareness of what many of us began to recognize years ago.
According to Travel Weekly, “In 2019, ‘Living like a local’ will go up a notch with holiday-makers getting so under the skin of a destination, they consider themselves honorary citizens. Fueled by the rise in sustainable tourism and growing awareness to put tourist dollars to good use by supporting local communities, travelers in 2019 will seek out more local experiences than ever before.”
A December 2018 Expedia study says getting the authentic version of a place will be of growing importance to travelers in 2019. The report says that travelers are eager for cultural experiences that are more interactive than gazing through the window of a tour bus. They want to know where the hidden gems are, and they want to connect with the local culture and people.
“According to our members, travelers want to forge deeper connections to the people, traditions and customs of the places they are visiting, and these experiences add a meaningful and memorable component to a vacation,” says Terry Dale, president/CEO of USTOA, in a report published by travel industry consultants Peak & Skift.
A Skift report says 50 percent of travelers would rather not feel like tourists while traveling.
I’m not sure when being a tourist got such a bum rap. A widely-accepted definition for tourist is “a person who is visiting a place for pleasure, interest and culture“. To me, that implies a lot of positives: curiosity, respect, admiration, to name a few.
The desire to not be who and what you are is indeed a vacation—from reality. Some might chalk that motivation up to competitiveness and a desire to out-immerse other travelers.
While I don’t mind being recognized for what I am when I am traveling, I do think I understand the aversion to the label.
According to The Guardian, the “packaged tour” was first introduced by Thomas Cook in the U.K. in 1841, bringing temperance supporters between Leicester and Loughborough. In 1949, Horizon Holiday Group pioneered the mass package holiday abroad, offering charter flights between Gatwick and Italy and Spain. In the 1950s & 60s, post-war improvements in air travel, a boom in many economies and in hotel construction propelled newly carefree and affluent societies to expand their horizons—something that really hadn’t been possible for most previously, financially or logistically.
Travelling as part of a group was actually part of the appeal and fun of the experience. I can remember the day when men always wore jackets and ties to fly—it was considered a privilege of sorts. The whole plane would applaud upon touch-down for no other reason than sheer exuberance at reaching their vacation destination. Today, with travel being much more mainstream and less “exotic”, people seek experiences that provide a sense of something uniquely special just for them.
On another level, being called a tourist implies being an outsider, and not belonging. Noted American psychologist Abraham Maslow was famous for his “hierarchy of needs,” which identifies belonging as the third most important human need after physiological requirements like air, food and water, and security, such as the safety of one’s body, property, health and family.
I consider an ideal travel experience one in which I have the opportunity to learn something about a unique dimension of another culture—as well as connect on a personal level based on a recognition of our shared human condition. The best of both worlds!
Read: Learn why sustainable tourism is more important than ever today.
Ideas on Forging Local Connections at Your Next Destination!
If forging local connections is important to you when you travel, here are some ideas on how to meet people from the cultures you are visiting. Have a suggestion for yourself? Do tell! Please share your ideas by making a comment!
Nuala Kelly, Secretary of Ardfert Historical Society, Ireland
Connect with local historical societies, which exist to preserve and promote the history and culture of their unique place. These societies are generally voluntary groups run by local people and typically offer guided tours of the village and historical buildings along with lecture series throughout the winter months.The Ardfert Historical Society’s 76 members welcomes visitors to our village! Ardfert is a Medieval village in the south west of Ireland with a population of 749. It is the birthplace of St Brendan the Navigator who is credited with finding the Americas before Columbus. He also founded a Monastery in Ardfert and on the site now stands a Cathedral and interpretive center.
There also stands the ruins of a Franciscan Friary founded in 1253 along with many other interesting buildings in the village and beyond. Banna strand is within a mile of the village itself and it is where Roger Casement and his crew landed with arms from Germany at the start of the Easter Rising 1916. Casement was subsequently tried for treason and hanged in Pentonville Prison in England in August 1916. Ardfert was the only location outside of Dublin to host state commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the rising and our President Michael D Higgins attended along with the army and many other dignitaries. We can be contacted on Facebook.
Fergus Maclaren of Ottawa, Canada, President, ICOMOS International Cultural Tourism Committee
Find local groups or activities that align with your interests. Whenever I travel, I try to see if there is a local rowing club, and if I can get out in a boat on the local waterway. This gives me an understanding of how my favorite sport is enjoyed in different venues (sporting culture), and the view from the water is very different from the view on land when you are looking at a destination and its cultural attributes. Plus it’s a nice way to make to friends from different backgrounds who have a shared, common interest.
Imane Hamdi, of Casablanca, Morocco, founder of Erazan Skincare
Going to the Hammam on a weekly basis is an ancient tradition and regular practice even today in Morocco—its part of our beauty secret! It’s an important purification and cleansing ritual as well as an opportunity for women to bond and catch up on gossip either in the steam room or in the relaxing room over a hot cup of Moroccan mint tea.
Gary Estcourt, Cultural Heritage Office, John Holland Rail, Sydney Australia
The state Office of Environment and Heritage, environmental agencies and local councils have volunteer opportunities around things like animal counts, biodiversity surveys. These programs provide a chance to engage with locals as it is often the locals who are the drivers of the volunteer groups and experts in biodiversity and local natural heritage. I was on holiday in northern New South Wales (NSW) and spent an evening on a cane toad muster fun, informative and good for the environment. A muster is a bunch of volunteers going around, in our case it was a golf course with torches and sacks collecting cane toads.
Cane toads were introduced to Australia in the 1930s to control cane beetles. Having no natural predators and being poisonous they have been an environmental disaster spreading right across northern Australia (also into Kakadu) and into northern NSW.
They are then collected, weighed and then humanely put down (frozen then killed). We were given a briefing on what a cane toad looked like and the necessary safety briefings. Basically, rule 1 is try not to touch them without gloves. Gloved up with our latex gloves we hit the golf course around dusk. The edges and waterways and under bushes are where they started but as it got darker they began to come out onto the course. It was two hours running around jumping on the toads that are doing their best to get away – heaps of fun. Then there was the obligatory couple of beers afterwards. As well as being a chance to help the environment it was an opportunity to meet a wide range of people. It was a public event that was attended by volunteers, visitors and there were even a couple of backpackers from Germany.
Alicia Rodriguez, co-owner, Quinta Oasis, Ecuador
Benito & his wife Diana began opening their finca Finca Organica Pomarrosa Ecolodge in Rio Chico to the public in 2008. With about seven hectares of lush vegetation, coffee and cacao, the finca makes for a journey through time when our area was known for its agriculture and coffee and cacao production. Visitors can learn the traditions of how coffee and cacao are processed, from the harvesting to the drying and roasting to the grinding.
Tatev Muradyan, Director of Folk Arts HUB Foundation Yerevan, Armenia,
Reach out to local NGOs that are engaged in preserving and reviving traditional folk arts. Chances are there is a workshop or performance occurring during your visit. Find out where the nearest local community center is—often you can see children learning handicrafts like rug-weaving, embroidery, felt-making, or practicing folk dances and traditional musical instruments. There are usually exhibits on display of authentic traditional artisanal work.
HUB Arts Folk Foundation’s purpose is to revive traditional folk arts particularly textiles, to instill in the young generation the creative approach to hand-made environmentally -friendly products, stylized with traditional and modern designs.
Nana Asase, Business Development Manager & Client Consultant, LOCALIKE, New York, New York
Always look for people who don’t appear to be on their way to the next thing. Though it might not seem that way, they abound even in New York: in parks, shops, at cafes or wherever you can imagine. We have found that there are many ways to engage with locals in a city as large as New York, so individual interests will have to lead the way. Whether you’re dining amidst locals in Jackson Heights or pausing at a community garden in Brooklyn to observe & chat with urban gardeners, the key to connecting is taking transience out of the equation.
Ana Valle Schut, Destination Expert, Netherlands
I always say that when you come to the Netherlands you have to see this country beyond stereotypes. You have to go deeply and discover what Dutch culture really is.
Find activities with locals such as helping to clean the canals. Starboard Boats offers monthly “fishing trips”, in which passengers clean up the plastic waste that is dropped into the canals. After scooping up the plastic waste in nets, Starboard passes it on to their partner company Sharepack. This brilliant company turns the waste plastic into everything from office lamps to clocks and children’s toys and even souvenir key rings for our guests! This is a unique way of turning something negative, such as the tons of plastic waste that ends up in the canals annually, into something beautiful.
Travel off-season, and get into the countryside. In the Netherlands, visit the Friesland region, especially during the winter. The Dutch people love to ice skate and the pastime is celebrated with the Elfstedentocht, the world’s longest ice skating competition on natural ice, which runs through 11 Frisian cities. Even if you don’t skate with the 16,000 competitors, take the Eleven Cities Tour through picturesque coastal villages. You’re sure to find an opportunity to skate with locals and be a part of this long-standing and beloved tradition.
Meg Pier, Founder & Editor of Best Cultural Destinations
I value the expertise of local guides who can offer access and insights that I readily admit I can’t presume to achieve on my own. Around the world, there are local entrepreneurs who have made their livelihood sharing their heritage, customs and cultural landscape. Some of my deepest experiences of connection have come from such people sharing their personal life story.
Jaruen “Harold “ Enrique is one of these people. A naturalist and bird guide in Colombia’s Tayrona Parque, he not only showed me the spectacular lay of the land of this preserve where the foothills of the Santa Marta Mountains meet the Caribbean coast, he introduced me to the incredible culture of the Kogi people…and shared his own moving story—one I think you’ll find worth reading!