Travel changes cultures: what matters is how

Continuing our debate on how tourism affects culture, Ethan Gelber focuses on how travellers and travel companies should handle inevitable changes. The case study: his own experiences living in Sri Lanka just after the devastating tsunami.

Cultural change, whether through tourism or any other force, is a foregone conclusion. People change. Communities change. Countries change. Losing sleep over whether and how to stop it is time wasted, as is getting all wistful about cultural authenticity lost forever to the cruel march of time. What’s still up in the air, however – and very worthy of heated debate – are the nature and quality of the change we should be ready to accept. Will it be caring and responsible change, sustainable over the long term and sensitive to the unique qualities of a place? Or can we expect (and must we tolerate) resource-greedy, destination-blind change that is more about servicing consumers’ dollars than locals’ desires?

Listen to those who don’t get heard

I work with a travel company that has accepted that there are overwhelming forces at work all across the globe, many of them given greater oomph through tourism. Rather than trying to thwart the inexorable, we are working from within to buttress what we believe are the people and the places practicing healthy and reasonable cultural progress. We know from experience that these people need all the help they can get.

I lived this most intensely when I was resident in Sri Lanka in 2004-2005, a period spanning the tragic tsunami that upset lives and processes, but also almost recast the debate about tourism (and the pace of cultural change) in the country in a way that could have been highly beneficial to everyone. The question that dominated almost everyone’s thoughts (after the dreadful period of crisis management) was how best to rebuild Sri Lanka’s shattered coastal infrastructure.

On the one hand, most community leaders gave voice to a desire for slow-paced and low-impact development that prioritised local needs and desires and emphasised putting new market opportunities (especially those expected to come through tourism) first to the advantage of the host communities, not wealthy (and getting wealthier) industry agents. On the other hand, powerful developers (and their culturally deaf, entrenched interests, aka those same getting-wealthier industry agents) dominated the discussion by putting forward plans for top-flight resorts and cruise-ship harbours on a scale completely out of sync with reality and local desires. Lip service was certainly paid to the value of ‘ecotourism’ and things like it, but it was clear to me at the time that little would come of it. Sadly, I was mostly right.

Work together in a sought-after space

I have written extensively about travel in Sri Lanka, including researching and writing LOCALternative Sri Lanka, the first and, despite now being four years out of date, probably still most comprehensive responsible travel map of the country. I discovered most of the high-end services were working hard to capture an appealing (albeit somewhat sanitised) sense of the place, an elusive cultural quality true to local practice and appealing to visitors. But, whether driven by consumers or ushered in by locals, their efforts to toe the razor-thin line between accepting change in culture (as influenced by some powerful hotels to keep pace with their clients) and battling for its pure preservation (as some communities do as a knee-jerk reflex against the influence of some powerful hotels) always seemed focused on intangible things like arts and heritage – what needs to be done to protect it; how to shield the unknowing from succumbing to change.

This was, I think, a sly bit of misdirection, because the more concrete question of responsible cultural change is one looking at how to capitalise on it and then share the wealth in a fair and appropriate manner. Equitable profit from responsible cultural change would be instrumental in allowing for both a diversity of product from which travellers can choose (putting powerful hotels at ease) and an opportunity for locals to make decisions about how they want to move forward (putting communities at ease). Fortunately, there are tourism-industry players thinking about this. Many of them sit together under an expanding umbrella of niche travel labels vying for dominance in a sought-after space in which traveller choice and local self-determination are not mutually exclusive. Despite slightly different emphases, these labels basically deal with the same thing: a kind of travel that gives equal weight to the desires of visitors and the long-term ease of their hosts.

I suspect that I am preaching to the converted here, but in this day and age of over-analysed development paradigms, of well-documented routine misallocations of development funds, of solid best practices, of known and lauded community champions, of climate change and the search for ways to forestall it – I can’t help wonder why anyone would worry about tourism-generated cultural change in general when it comes with the reagents and tries to usher it responsibly. More importantly, why is anyone still travelling in a manner that is anything other than caring? I believe that the writing’s on the wall and that it’s increasingly foolish to ignore it. No, worse that that: I believe that it’s just plain rude to ignore it. How could you dare to disagree?

About the writer: Ethan Gelber manages media and communications for the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world. He also oversees The Travel Word, a blog of local voices aiming to inform travellers about unique and ethical ways to experience a destination, travel responsibly and help sustain the distinctive qualities of a place. For more on the the cultural authenticity debate, see

Photo: Sri Lanka Hotel by Harshula on Flickr


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