Have you ever wondered what’s beyond the tourist map, the top spots and the attractions just around the cruise port terminal? Or while you are on the touristic route you observe local people living life, moving in a different direction, gathering at a certain venue, eating different foods, or buying certain things and from a different place? As one visiting the local culture and often observing from the outside, we can put on our cultural lenses and curiosity cap to look deeper, inside the local culture and way of life to experience more of what a destination has to offer. Culturally immersive travel opens your world to ways to experience local food, local way of life, the language, various modes of transportation, and other places to visit.
Perhaps you are familiar with university cultural immersion programs. There are “cultural immersion” programs designed by universities and colleges to create a new environment to learn specific subjects and culture. These immersion experiences impact the participants’ view of self and others upon re-entry into their local community. Perhaps your college group participated in one of these.
However, if traveling like an outsider looking in usually leaves you more thirsty, World Awaits Cultural Tours highly encourages culturally immersive traveling to get the most authentic experience. Culturally immersive travel, through unique experiences, is designed to satisfy a traveler’s curiosity by opening doors to a deeper understanding of an unfamiliar place or people. You’re never going to know a place as intimately as the people who live there, but when you are able to travel for an extended period of time through cultural immersion experiences, you can begin to live in and experience a country from the perspective of the locals.
But what is cultural immersion travel?
Cultural immersion travel is the act of traveling like a local by surrounding yourself with the culture of a place or people. The tourist dives into the unfamiliar culture by immersing themselves with the locals’ activities such as:
- Cooking and dining together
- Staying with a local or host family instead of a hotel
- Renting a room
- Volunteering with a local organization
- Safe conversations and interactions with local people to ask questions, exchange thoughts, engage on a deeper level of learning and exploration
- Attending local events frequented by locals
- Joining events of local special interest groups
- Eating and socializing at venues that are frequented by local people – good, authentic food not on the tourist map or simply where, what and how the locals eat.
These ways of traveling and engaging often cost much less also!
IGI Global further distinguishes cultural immersion as living in the community 24/7, challenging one’s cultural and individual assumptions and identity. In other words, a sojourner’s engagement with and interaction in a host culture, with the goal of extensive involvement with host culture members.
When you don’t have a lot of time to travel, but only a few days to a few weeks, you can still experience the deeper culture or a country in a new way even in one day or through one activity. Your travel group may be seeking these authentic, immersive experiences in new places. It might seem like calling an experience “immersive” or “authentic” is just another way to sell tourists on an activity. But there are benefits to cultural immersion that go far beyond individual enjoyment and tourism revenue.
- Economic empowerment for the locals
Choosing an immersive way to experience a different culture and tour a place contributes directly to the economic outlook of the place you or your group are traveling to. Think of paying a truly local tour guide or tour company to guide you while explaining the intricate details of culture, staying with a family, or eating at a real local restaurant owned by a grandmother as opposed to eating at a touristic hotel or restaurant. This is a way of directly contributing to lives in whose daily affairs you can witness the impact of every dollar.
- Learning something new and from the local perspective
Have you ever heard the phrase “lost in translation”? It comes from losing someone’s main point because you haven’t heard or understood the context, tone, and concepts being conveyed from a different point of view to your own. Cultural immersion travel ensures the right translation of cultural concepts to one’s own frameworks of understanding hence we are able to better advocate for what may be lost to the rest of the world.
Proverbs are excellent examples of learning to see, think, listen, understand and behave from the local cultural perspective. Yes! You can read proverbs, idioms, expressions, etc. and their origins in a book or online. But you can’t compare book-learning to that from a local person offering context and flavor by placing it in the right frame.
- Sharing in a culture is a way of preserving it.
In some more indigenous cultures, important stories are transferred verbally rather than in writing. Culturally immersive travel experiences can help to maintain indigenous traditions and ways of life that may be struggling in the face of globalization. It’s an opportunity for communities to share their culture with travelers, rather than having to leave their villages to find work in big towns or cities.
When local communities share their culture with others, it often encourages and reminds them of its worth in the world and makes them more enthusiastic about preserving it.
- Cultural advocacy for the local culture and people.
Many tourist definitions and descriptions of historical or indigenous places tend to be done from the tourist’s perspective. Furthermore, these places tend to be commoditized in their marketing and branding yet many of the places are struggling to preserve local cultures in the face of modern technology and globalization.
By creating immersive experiences for travelers, locals have an opportunity to celebrate their culture while educating visitors. But also the visitors have the opportunity to properly represent the historical or indigenous cultures with context, truth, and more educated facts.
- Developing cultural sensitivity
Cultural sensitivity helps us to take into consideration other, differing or similar values, beliefs, practices, behaviors, ways of communicating, relating and living. Being sensitive means we do not assign right or wrong, good or bad, positive or negative to what is observed because our assessment is processed and conclusions drawn based on our cultural context or individual value, beliefs, practices and experiences. When we are sensitive to other cultures we observe and ask what is appropriate, acceptable or respectful in this culture. Then, we follow up that learning by observing how we interact, behave and how best to adapt to the culture we’re currently immersed in.
More than that, with differing cultures comes differing practices that might be offensive in one culture while totally normal in another culture. For example, some cultures in Africa, India and Asia do not take too kindly to eating with the left hand. It is considered disrespectful to the food as the left hand is used for unsavory activities like wiping one’s bottom or cleaning the feet. On the other hand, in other cultures, like in the Western countries, it is not only normal to eat with the left hand, but also acceptable table etiquette.
Cultural immersion helps us better understand, and be more sensitive to other cultures’ dos and don’ts as opposed to imposing our own beliefs and practices.
- Greater awareness and breaking down stereotypes
The unknown is a major reason why tourists do not experience the authentic culture in their travels. Tourism agendas, revenues, bigger marketing budgets, media, and the majority of travelers speak louder. These messages are more accessible and more frequent, influencing our travel itinerary.
Fear for the unknown, often caused by stereotypes and misconceptions, is also one of the common barriers that prevents tourists from seeking authentic experiences in their travels. Cultural immersion has proved to be a powerful tool in breaking these barriers. Immersing ourselves with the locals not only gives us meaningful, and often exciting, context to the stereotypes, but it also helps in shaping a more rounded understanding of the world outside our context and comfort zone.
Sometimes when we travel, we are so tired and desperate for a rest, time away or a change of scenery, we simply don’t have time or energy to search out and plan more authentic experiences. To get more from cultural immersion, plan a trip to a location you hear a lot about but haven’t really been. Perhaps a different neighborhood, city, state or country.
Let’s start planning your next travel experience beyond the surface!
- Do you have a local family member, friend, old friend or colleague in the destination that can provide some insights and recommendations?
- What type of accommodations and what districts do local travelers stay in when traveling within their country?
- Check the official tourism organization calendar and the local city or regional calendars for local events.
- Check international social and professional group websites for calendar of events and special interests group events. Examples are Meetup.com, Internations.com, Facebook Groups, and local chambers of commerce.
- On your way or when you arrive at your destination, there are always friendly people somewhere that you can safely ask questions or start a conversation. You may even encounter someone who speaks English or will be patient with your basic language skills, hand signals or even translation apps!
If you desire a deeper, more authentic experience when you travel and this is beyond your planning skills, join our upcoming cultural tours!