The Benefits of Being a Culturally-Conscious Traveler

When you’re traveling, there are a lot of things to consider. Of course, you’ll need to deal with logistical factors such as airfare, visas, and currency exchange rates, but that’s just the beginning. You’ll also need to be ready to interact with new people, places, and cultures that are vastly different from your own.

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To many travelers, especially those who have never left the U.S., the prospect of a major cultural shift can seem intimidating. But cultivating awareness of other cultures is easier than it may seem, and you’ll strongly benefit from performing just a small amount of research before jetting off to a particular country or region. That’s because the behavior and actions you take for granted may be taboo or even worse in another country.

For example, a tourist visiting Paris in October 2019 caused quite a stir online after posting photos of uneaten rinds of fromage. According to The Local, a number of citizens referred to the woman’s actions as “an insult to France.” While that particular reaction may be a bit dramatic, committing other cultural faux pas in certain countries can result in severe repercussions, sometimes even including jail time and fines.

Promoting Ethics and Sustainability While Abroad

No matter the destination, you should also keep ethics at the forefront of your mind, especially when it comes to the natural environment. Sustainability is a cornerstone of culturally-conscious travel, and it’s becoming more important than ever. In recent years, overtourism has significantly impacted numerous countries, alienating residents and overloading existing infrastructure while also threatening local culture. 

Overtourism is currently a hotbed issue in Japan, for example, which welcomed more than 31 million foreign tourists in 2018. Japan’s increasing tourism numbers threaten to compromise several World Heritage sites, including the Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine in Kyoto. Interestingly, the continued damage to natural areas and historic sites by tourists in Japan is effectively overshadowing bad etiquette. 

But the culturally-conscious traveler respects every aspect of local culture as well as the natural environment, and there’s no excuse for being an ignorant visitor.

The Value of Cultural Competence

People travel abroad for various reasons — perhaps you’re planning a family vacation tour through Europe, or maybe you want to give back via a volunteer opportunity through the Peace Corps or a similar organization. Medical tourism is also growing in popularity and is a major economic force. For example, in Mexico alone in 2016, the medical tourism industry brought in an estimated $5 billion dollars

Still, others travel to another country for business or work opportunities. And when you plan to conduct business in a foreign country, having at least a basic knowledge of local customs, indigenous people, and the region’s political and economic climate becomes essential. Prior to working abroad, especially if you’ll be doing so through a volunteer organization or in order to practice medicine, you may even benefit from enrolling in an educational program where subjects such as cultural competence and sensitivity to underserved populationsare emphasized, such as those nurses usually attend. 

Monetary Tips for the International Traveler

Once you have a grasp of relevant customs and proper social behavior in your destination country, there’s still more to learn. For instance, how far will your money go during your time abroad? Currency values can vary considerably between countries, and currency can even fluctuate on its own depending on political climate and various other factors.

For that reason, it will be helpful for you to figure out the financial ins and outs of your trip before you even leave home. You may be able to save money by searching for the most favorable exchange rates and low transaction fees. The good news is that there are numerous places where you can exchange currency, from your hometown bank or credit union to ATMs and airport kiosks in your destination country. 

Once you have exchanged your U.S. dollars for yen, pesos, or euros, make sure you know the smartest ways to spend that money. While a standard practice in a variety of industries within the U.S., tipping isn’t expected in many other countries, and may even be considered taboo or rude to the waitstaff. Business Insider reports that tipping is fairly uncommon in Asian nations, including China, Japan, and Korea. What more, gratuity is already included in the price in many locales in the EU; if your travels take you to Switzerland or Denmark, for instance, there’s no need to include a tip at restaurants, cafes, or pubs. 

Smart money management abroad involves much more than currency exchange rates and knowledge of tipping customs, however. Every culturally-conscious traveler should be prepared to negotiate prices, especially when shopping in the open-air markets of developing countries. Commonly called haggling, bargaining with a merchant is a common cultural practice across the world, and you can even have fun with it.

The nuances involved with haggling, tipping, and adhering to cultural standards become easier with practice. As you travel to more and more international destinations, you’re likely to evolve into a culturally-conscious traveler.

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Author: Sam Bowman

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