Cultural Exchange & Responsible Tourism

By Julian Page of  Livingstone Tanzania Trust

We used to go on holiday, this is now called tourism. Then there was mass tourism and independent travel. Now we have eco-tourism, community based tourism, responsible tourism, sustainable tourism, ethical tourism, volun-tourism, pro-poor tourism and doubtless many more types of tourism. It is a muddle; with tour operators eagerly trying to differentiate their holidays from each other. In some cases organisations have grabbed the terms for their own benefit to market themselves as being responsible when in reality they might not be as responsible as they claim.

Sharing a moment

We all assume that we know what the terms mean and what others mean by them and as long as we have a nice time on our holidays we don’t really pursue it. But I suspect there is a huge difference between what we think a responsible holiday is; what they think it is; and what it really is, but because there are no legally binding definitions the interpretations are left open ended. Of course the Holy Grail of tourism is deemed to be “Sustainable Tourism” with everything being a subgroup of that.  So what is Sustainable Tourism?

The concept of sustainable development originated from the Brundland Report of 1987 and subsequent Earth Summits applied sustainability to tourism through Agenda 21. Sustainable tourism is not a product but a method of operation. The term “sustainable” refers to being able to meet the present needs without damaging the ability of future generations to meet their needs in the same way. In reality this means managing resources in such a fashion as to be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. To achieve a fully sustainable destination would be wildly expensive and, in such a price driven industry as this, would be unlikely to generate the type of financial reward investors seek. So you tend to find that only small venues are able to contemplate being sustainable. To compensate for this the industry developed the concept of Responsible Tourism.

So what is responsible tourism? Essentially Responsible Tourism seeks to maximise positive impacts and to minimise negative ones. But it is not that straight forward. The Responsible Tourism Partnership held a conference in South Africa and created a standard which is referred to as the Cape Town declaration which tries to establish all the criteria that one needs to consider if one is to be responsible. The guidelines include establishing a Corporate Social Responsibility programme that deals, in practical terms, with such issues as reducing social and economic inequalities at the host venue, reducing poverty, totally inclusive participation in the development process whilst recognising and being respectful, understanding and tolerant of cultural differences and approaches, open governance and a need to protect the local culture and environment.

Home in Northern Tanzania

With these factors in mind, those seeking to provide Responsible Tourism must seek to minimise the negative economic, environmental and social impacts of their work. They must generate economic benefits for local people, such as enhancing their well-being, improving their working conditions or providing access to markets. They must involve the local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances. They must make positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage whilst providing enjoyable experiences for all tourists through more meaningful connections with local people. By promoting a greater understanding, sensitivity and respect of local cultural, social and environmental issues, barriers can be broken down between people and a relationship of equals can be established.

These are fancy words and to ensure that they are meaningful, organisations are asked to make available copies of their economic, social and environmental impact assessments. They must provide data to prove that they are maximising local economic benefits by monitoring and assessing the value chain and ensuring that at all stages of their operations they are taking all reasonable efforts to achieve their CSR policies.

When we talk about cultural exchange we first need to understand what we mean by culture. Culture is the result of a wide variety of influences that culminate in the way we lead our lives. These influences will include such factors as wealth, education, environment and our relationship with it; history, food, medicine, transportation, religion, beliefs and values, laws, family dynamics, access to power, access to and use of technology. Each one of these influences can be seen as a crossroads that can separate one culture from another. Our culture will be shown in our relationship with our families and society, our architecture, dances, art, music, our leaders and our lifestyle.
On a superficial level a cultural exchange is about seeing how other people live their lives, seeing the relevance of different priorities that people have chosen or have been forced to choose. For example the availability of water is a major environmental impact. Those who are able to take water for granted have been able to grow food without worry and focus on other factors. Those, for whom water is a scarcity, find that their lives are being governed by the search for water.

A Maasai couple

A cultural exchange of any value will start to look underneath the day to day issues of life to find the factors that determine our cultural differences until we can find areas of commonality. The cultural exchange is a process of self examination to look at the factors that have determined our makeup and our personality and to assess whether we have made the right choices. By witnessing other people’s lifestyles and making comparisons with our own, we often find that there is a lot we can learn from each other and that no culture is better than another. This is what we mean by cultural exchange, a two way process, a process of education, evaluation, reflection, understanding and learning.

I am often asked; “Are we, by our very presence, altering their culture?” I am sure that the answer is yes, but there are two issues of greater importance to discuss here. One is the arrogance that the impact is only one way and the second is the arrogance that another culture is not strong enough or not able to cherry pick what it will allow itself to absorb. How much influence does a two week holiday to Crete have on your culture? Besides, how much of your culture is on show during that short visit?

So what is cultural tourism?
Cultural Tourism is a stage in the process of exchange. It is the opportunity for one culture to see another culture in its natural environment. Yet, it is only when the visitor becomes the host that the exchange really happens. But because that is unlikely to happen, Cultural Tourism is the best that organisations like Livingstone Tanzania Trust can offer. The visitor sees the environment, the food, art, music and dance, sees the lifestyle, the hurdles and challenges that create the culture. With a good tour guide the visitor gets to know about the history, the religion, belief and values and how they have influenced culture. If fortunate the visitors might witness some of the festivities and celebrations of the host community.

So what is responsible tourism and cultural exchange? It is social, economic and environmental respect in big terms. Put yourself in their shoes and consider how you would want tourism to impact on you and then just work backwards to achieve that.