Leave Behind Your Culture: Is Tourism the Newest Imperialist Enterprise?

Leave your culture behind and immerse yourself in new ways of living.


Travelling, we are told, will teach you many lessons and has often been promoted for reasons of self growth. While I wholeheartedly agree with this, I also think we cannot simply arrive in a foreign country ready to ‘Gap yah’, or to fix a midlife crisis, and expect that our presence there doesn’t affect anything. The true riches of travel might come from within you, but only as a reaction to what lies beyond the self, and while it’s tempting to buy a plane ticket to India in a bid for spiritual enlightenment, we must be aware of how our actions impact our surroundings. We’ve all heard about the shenanigans involving sex tourism and Full Moon Parties in Thailand; you might even have heard of why going to African countries to help the poor children, without any prior knowledge of the place, is increasingly seen as patronising and counter-productive. How often do we stop to think about how our role as tourist plays a part in changing - even damaging – the cultures we visit?


Envision festival is an annual ‘transformational’ event held in Costa Rica that preaches values of spirituality, moralism and freedom. I attended because, who wouldn’t want to listen to electronic music in a jungle, practice yoga and hear talks from neo-shamans and David Wolfe? The reality, however, left a bitter taste in my mouth and it wasn’t from drug consumption. Firstly, a ticket to the festival costs an astronomical 300 USD  a pop, and so Central Americans - even when faced with a discounted price - were mostly excluded from attending, given that the average person in many Central American countries makes less than 3,000 USD a year. Moreover, while Envision might have meant freedom for the festival goers - mainly young psy-trance fans from the USA and Canada - the (predominantly Catholic) locals were angry at the drug-fuelled explosion of hedonism, nudity and disregard for cultural norms in the nearby towns, so much so that the festival was termed “Invasion” and protests ensued. The message was clear: respect our culture, and if what you want to do is not in alignment with our values, please go do it where it is welcome.


This message is not exclusive to cases of flamboyantly liberal Western festivals with an overspill of glitter, breasts and cultural appropriation. In Palomino, a beautiful town near the Sierra Nevada of northern Colombia, there is an effort to make tourists aware of their impact. Handmade signs line the pathways emblazoned with a variety of messages from urging people not to litter, to respecting local customs. Although it is not clear whether these signs were made by the indigenous Kogi or by the general Colombian population, the plea, yet again, went: don’t pollute this area with your cultural baggage. The fact that there is a need for this message to be shared is demonstrative of how there is an incongruence between how the tourist goes about their day, and how the local culture wants to be acknowledged and respected.


In 2014, 38.2 million international tourists flocked to Central and South America, not including most of Mexico or the Caribbean. Tourism in Latin America has become a phenomenon so colossal that it would be negligent to assume that we don’t have an impact suggestive of a colonial hangover on the local culture. The small fishing villages and towns that once relied on farming to sustain themselves are becoming accustomed to the influx of cash that tourism brings, and exchanging their old way of life for capitalism – and the ‘values’ it instils. This is damaging in a vast array of ways, primarily because in participating in capitalist practices, these places grow dependent on monetary exchange to survive and on tourism for being the principal industry that generates capital; preserving culture becomes neglected and devastatingly often these villages become ghost towns, plastic façades of what the tourist wishes to see. This reality is often instituted by financially wealthy Westerners coming and paying large sums of money to eat at restaurants, bars and shops that serve Western products at which the locals cannot themselves afford, and paying for tours of nature and culture.


Ethnotourism involves the tourists wanting to see and experience the lives of the exotic ‘other,’ and on the surface looks like “hang out with these indigenous people and learn how to make a fire!” but in reality is a particularly ugly practice. By paying cash to see and meet people because of how ‘exotic’ they are, ethnotourists (though often well-meaning) are thus measuring people on the basis of their alterity which then assigns these people, often indigenous communities, a financial value. Traditional indigenous practices become transformed into cultural products for the consumption of tourists, and it does beg the question whether this commodification of culture is not perhaps a form of exploitation. In the case of the nomadic Batek people, jungle dwellers who are accustomed to roaming freely in what is now the Taman Negara national park in Malaysia, ethnotourism not only consists of people ogling them as if they were an exhibition at a human zoo. It also legitimises their forced settlement by the Malaysian government, which is irreversibly destructive to their culture and traditional way of life.


It’s worth mentioning at this stage that I am not arguing for people to stop travelling. But I believe it is imperative for tourists to make a conscious effort not to be complicit in these crimes against the local cultures. In anthropological debates it has been concluded that cultures are never discrete, pure entities, but rather are shaped and interact with the forces around them. Latin America is more than demonstrative of this, but also serves as a warning, with the bloodshed caused by the conquistadors embodied in the architecture and language, and the everlasting aftermath reverberating in the collective memory of society.


To be mindful not to disturb the balance of life in a place you visit, then, the best way is to live as the locals do. Learning the language and living with locals are just two of thousands of ways to do this. This immersion into other cultures benefits not only the local people with whom you are interacting but gives you the magic beans of travelling: you begin to free yourself from your cultural conditioning. By seeing how people in other cultures live and perceive the world you begin to understand how your own perception, values and ideas are specific to your culture. You begin to see beyond the money-centric Western framework that had informed the way you related to the rest of  the world, and appreciate the beauty of places that the newspapers back home had claimed were ‘dangerous’, that to experience these places is to actively invite trouble. (There was a rather ironic moment in Mexico when the locals, upon asking where I’d come from, were apparently shocked I’d survived the rampant reign of terrorism in Europe they had heard about.) It’s these realisations that catalyse intellectual growth and enrich your understanding of the world: your thinking encounters different influences and starts to evolve to be more than a product of your culture.


In the West we are led to believe – by the government, the media and advertising – that life follows a set pattern: education, job, mortgage, car, kids, heterosexual monogamous relationship with gender roles determining who does what within and outside of the house. We are conditioned to associate things like being poor or unemployed with fear and shame. Being financially wealthy, and exhibiting an image of this wealth (through cleanliness and fashion for example) are celebrated as signs of ‘success’ and therefore we are led to believe that these things are integral to our journey as human beings; that this is what we should aim for. As opposed to, you know, being happy.


It also implies that those who do not have material wealth are failures and to be pitied. Travelling in Latin America, living on a small budget alongside the indigenous people and the greater Catholic population, I see how archaic these prejudices against poverty are. These attitudes are social constructions built to establish a very specific kind of political order. If this is symptomatic of Western society, it convinces me yet again that when we visit places, we should leave our culture behind.


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