The rise of cultural tourism

Although culture and tourism have always been linked, it is only in the past few decades that this relationship has been identified as a specific form of consumption: cultural tourism. Labeled as such in the 1980s, this growing industry found its roots in the surge of international travel that followed the end of World War II. Research on the industry and its growth and impact has only taken place over the last decade, but studies have reaffirmed the claims of the United Nations-based World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) that 39% of all international arrivals are travelling as cross-cultural tourists.

To be a cross-cultural tourist, it is not enough to merely arrive at an international destination and to settle in to relax in a new culture’s atmosphere. In order to be considered a cross-cultural tourist, one arrives specifically in order to experience a cultural area — to greater appreciate the way of life, actively experience cultural activities and discover more of the heritage of the host place. Passive participation of a host place, however enjoyable, designates a consumer as a tourist, not a cross-cultural tourist.

If 39% of all international tourists seems like a large demographic, it should be noted that cross-cultural tourism is a wide umbrella, including anthropological studies, agricultural tourism, volunteer work (as long as it is done with the leadership of the host community), heritage tourism, indigenous tourism, culinary studies, participation in festivals or workshops for music and the arts and even architectural group tours (as long as tours are given by a member of the host place’s community).

The economic value to countries with strong cross-cultural tourism appeal is usually very high, as it can be their strongest industry. The impact of this type of soft power on the public perception of a culture is even greater. As an example, take a look at post-war Japan. Anti-Japanese sentiment was high in most of the world by the end of the 1940s, and stereotypes of them as cold and violent people were generally accepted as fact and reinforced everywhere from puppet shows to Hollywood films. As a child, I heard more about the Japanese torturing their prisoners of war than I heard anything else about Japan. This included mentions of sushi, Japanese pop groups, samurai, geishas, anime or how influential their artists had been upon great European masters. Now, however, the latter list of cultural contributions are far more familiar in mainstream culture, even among children. My four-year-old niece in Idaho prefers sushi to every other kind of cuisine.

This kind of global shift was not brought about by the economic growth of Japan’s automobile or tech industries; it was slowly nurtured by cross-cultural tourism, by one open-minded individual at a time experiencing deeply interesting and illuminating tourism with their hosts, and by young Japanese people being encouraged to study and travel abroad and to integrate as well as possible in their host places.

Tourism as experience

Reading up on the (few and recent) studies on the industry’s growth and impact only brought my own experiences to my mind. I saw a vast difference in what I took away from my own tourism based on how much of an effort I made to integrate or actively participate in the host culture. I saw a marked difference in my absorption of cultures based on which decade I traveled in. With a childhood steeped in the stories of the much-sensationalized Lawrence of Arabia and the rich imagery of Marcel Pagnol’s beloved novels and films illuminating the ups and downs of Provençal peasant life, I suppose I was never part of the demographic targeted by the mainstream tourism industry. By the time I turned 18, I had spent more time visiting the sites of mass slaughter of Native American tribes than I had spent at theme parks.

My first international travel was to Italy, where my mother had meticulously nurtured relationships with aged grocers and pensiones run by Ursuline sisters by way of handwritten letters. She and my father had always demanded we show respect to cultures other than our own even at home in conversations over dinner, so it was no small thing to be asked to write a list of what regional dishes and historical sites we felt were on our “must” list before going abroad. In a family where we were not allowed to write Christmas lists, all of us knew what was on our travel lists: the ruins of Monte Cassino and tasting grappa (me), hole in the wall family eateries in Trastevere and touching the shrine of Saint Perpetua (my mother), visiting the miraculous beehives of Saint Rita and drinking rum and Cokes on the Amalfi Coast (my papa), and so forth. In every place we traveled to, two things were consistent: we used public transport and we stayed with Italian hosts.

I was baffled by friends and co-workers who spent vast sums of money and hard-earned vacation days on tightly packed group tours, cruise ships where they had limited contact with the local populations of beautiful islands and all-inclusive packages where they scarcely set foot outside what seemed to me to be an Americanized compound.

I had never even heard the term cross-cultural tourism; in fact, the first time it came up in conversation I asked for a definition and my response to hearing it was “ … isn’t that just called travel?” I swam in the Mediterranean and went to punk rock concerts with young Italians, hitched rides on the backs of their bikes, and was shown the Scavi and the Catacombs by an Italian priest friend of my mother’s. In three weeks of intensely activity-packed immersive travel, I never met another American other than one university student who lived in Trastevere with Italians. Most notably, all the young Europeans and elderly Italians that I came into contact with were economically of the lower or middle class. Everything felt so accessible, so normal. I met the first friends I would have from another continent, met the first people I would ever know who smoked a lot of pot, and also the first young person who told me they were intentionally sober. I met liberal and conservative people my own age, and realized watching Dutch and Italians argue politics with their friends how 18-year-olds the world over have more alike than different. Did stereotypes remain? Yes, and some were reinforced — Italians talk with their hands; young British people binge drink until they are ill and use a lot of sarcasm; my French friends shrug and try hard to be provocative for the sake of an entertaining debate. However — as it always happens — I also met very shy Italians, I found French friends far more prudish than I am and I knew Russians who prefer sencha green tea to vodka.

After trying immersive travel in Italy and then living in France for six months, I returned to the United States assuming I would never travel in any other way. Five years later I moved back to Europe with no idea if I would ever return to the States permanently. I lived in Ireland for two and a half years and I experienced something that was unique for me: I was living with a host citizen, had no American friends in Ireland, absolutely was living my day-to-day life as though I would never leave, and interacted only with host people — and yet I had a distinct and somewhat distressing sense that no matter how much effort I made, I was not learning anything new about this culture that was positive. I was learning a whole lot that was negative, and could not avoid it. Even after marrying there, shopping only at local artisanal markets, frequently watching (and even studying) traditional music, I was making no new friends and was continually experiencing a side I had not seen of the Irish when visiting as a tourist — one of clannish suspicion of outsiders. The more immersed I became in the culture of half of my own ancestors, the more depressing I found it.

I next moved to London for five years, and again was surprised, but this time pleasantly. The Londoners I met were humorous, curious and open to growth. They would laugh at themselves about their own stereotypes of Americans being challenged once they knew me well. I flew to France several times a year and every time did so as a cross-cultural tourist, staying with French or Irish friends who had fully immersed in their village life. I became so comfortable there I would run to the boulangerie in my pajamas, and knew the names of the people who smiled and waved from their vehicles and doorways. I was shown particular archaeological wonders by locals, observed a medieval method of pottery making unique to specific villages, went to festivals dedicated to the humble walnut or to the L’Occitan languages and regions and listened to the Basque radio channel while driving without a map.

There are places that I enjoyed as much as London and France but did not visit as a cross-cultural tourist — like Malta and Amsterdam. Greece was an interesting cultural experience. I spent a month in a camp run by the Greek Navy and with a Greek director in charge of my day-to-day tasks, but I was predominantly surrounded by volunteers from English-speaking countries and by Syrian refugees, so I was learning more about Syrian culture than Greek. The other month I volunteered in Greece, I was living in an anarchist squat in Athens and again, was completely surrounded by Syrians, but even though I was in Greece’s biggest city I tended to be working side by side with English, Spanish and French anarchists, as well as doctors and educators. I learned more about Spain in that month in Athens than I did from visiting Spain itself with a Spanish-speaking friend. I was using Greek public transport and shopping in their markets and smoking and writing in their cafés, so I was immersing myself, but my primary purpose for being there was not to better my connection to Greek culture.

Other than the relationships I made, though, two things influenced my perception as a tourist during my time in Greece. The first was how deeply the Greek people I met yearned for people to come and experience them as they are. Greeks I met both there and even once I returned to the United States all stated a desire for me to come back for a longer period of time when I will not be working 20-hour days — to come to their grandmother’s homes, to swim in the places they went as a child, to fish and harvest with them and to learn their dances and their language. They would roll their eyes when referring to tourists who come to Mykonos and Santorini and who stay in resorts and never meet a Greek they don’t need to tip.

The second was how the people with the least money seemed to be the ones who experienced the rich core of Greek life most easily. Friends who cycled for a month in Vietnam or who spent a year working on ecological retreats in India or who even just went to Bali for a week seemed to experience more cross-cultural, host-based tourism if they went on a slim budget. Why is it that the more money people have, the more they purchase less culturally rich experiences for their travels?

Tours claiming to expose a traveler to the real life of the locals have been popular among a certain wealthier class since the 1920s. Even before the post-war boom when foreign exploration as an option for anyone other than scholars and the elite occurred, we see passels of delicate, tightly cinched women and linen-suited men in Agatha Christie novels walking among architectural wonders of Egypt with true passion, and the upper crust sometimes stayed years at a time drinking gin and tonics on verandas in Darjeeling. Colonial power was absolutely an avenue of exploring foreign culture… for a price and available to a certain class. This trend was so prevalent that  that the presence of a well-educated but non-wealthy person in those places was cause for rude public questions or circumspect telegrams shipped off to the closest social scene or military and intelligence outpost to find out why this person had the right to be there experiencing the culture they had tried to buy their way into.

Arguably, the entire point of cross-cultural tourism is to educate, inform, connect and to dispel certain stereotypes held about one culture by another. Yet for millennia, those with the most access to international travel have been those benefiting from or enforcing colonial power, and thus the least unbiased and the least likely to change their worldview from their immersion. Immersion is exactly the accusation that turned Roman public opinion against Mark Antony when he was stationed in Egypt as Rome’s sovereign representative.

The drastic shift of the last 20 years, where all a person needs now is an airline ticket, passion and a hammock — seemed inevitable. We see the current trend of wanting to live like the locals, or at least to cheaply inhabit their Airbnb properties as a natural reaction to imperial globalism.

One of the biggest transitions in the cross-cultural tourism industry has been culinary: for hundreds of years people have visited foreign countries and have been able to stay in small properties owned by host peoples, have been able to hire their host’s nephew as a translator, have been able to get a list of interesting local temples and festivals to attend from the safety of their ice-accessible hotel suite. But it was not until cross-cultural tourism expanded to cooking classes taught by host community members, or affordable rental apartments with their own kitchens that tourists with moderate resources and an interest in local botany, agriculture or markets could economically travel and still experience the width and breadth of a country’s sustenance. Historically, an interest in a foreign host country’s architecture, art and design was not reliant on adapting to a local’s pace of workday or seasonal framework; a scholar’s interest in one local tribe’s dance or fertility ritual was never tied to their accommodations. An archeologist was never very troubled by the question of cultural assimilation, as long as their work crew was accommodating, could communicate and worked hard.

Market gaps

Cross-cultural tourism is a healthy, growing industry. It is clearly defined and separate from enjoying a host place in a passive way. It serves to connect people to a foreign group and strongly impacts public perception. We know what is there, but as an industry what is missing? What gaps exist in this market? Is cross-cultural tourism reaching the demographic groups who find integration most appealing? Which countries struggle to provide immersive host-led experiences to cross-cultural tourists?

The changing nature of cultural tourism was recently brought into focus by a 2018 UNWTO “Report on Tourism and Culture Synergies.” This report included online surveys of 43% of UNWTO member states, as well as 61 international experts and academics in the field. Greg Richards writes in “Cultural tourism: A review of recent research and trends” that this UNWTO study “confirmed the importance of cultural tourism, with 89% of national tourism administrations indicating that cultural tourism was part of their tourism policy.” Additionally, the respondents indicated that they “expected further growth in cultural tourism in the following five years.”

The greatest shift in growth has been away from heritage sites, which had begun to be overconsumed by cross-cultural tourists and which had actually put world heritage sites in jeopardy. As access to various heritage sites became more strict and some closed altogether for preservation projects, there was a shift toward the cultural “experience” niche of cross-cultural tourism. Richards states, “much of this growth has been centered on the consumption of cultural sites and attractions, such as heritage sites, art galleries and museums, particularly in major cities around the world.” He says that there has “been a shift from the purely quantitative growth of cultural tourism” and instead, “special focus has been given to the increasing search for cultural experiences.”

The search for the Eat, Pray, Love experience has become a normal conversation topic with certain segments of the traveling population. The interest in and practice of Eastern spirituality in the West has never been deeper, and social media specifically and the internet in general has allowed for a substantial growth in consumers envying the “authenticity” of other tourist’s international experiences. The market has placed an emphasis on trying to find the most immersive and friendly host places, but also has allowed for recommendations for everything from a specific pottery workshop in the Cevennes to a wonderful chef and his host family in Tibet, all available at the touch of a button.

Best of all is that meeting this demand for a high-quality, connected experience is attainable for host places with very little income. Instead of needing to build a huge resort or to have the ear of the local government, a modest farmer, painter, language teacher, mountaineer or tarot reader can host tourists whose entire motivation to visit that place is to experience the daily life of their host. Consumers are paying to eat what their host families like to eat instead of avoiding beautiful but rural communities that don’t happen to have a steakhouse. There is even growth in the number of tourists who want to wake up early and work hard while immersed in the lives of their hosts, tourists who want to harvest bay leaves, hike into a jungle in search of an energy healer, who will meditate at dawn or help install a well on an organic farm.

The market shift to cross-cultural tourism is only going deeper in quality of experience and broader in niche industries. What began as a simple movement of people in search of food; and then merchants in search of commerce; empires in search of power; apostles in search of followers; has now become movement of consumers in search of their own human connection, curiosity and peace. The data is clear that those consumers are seeking the newest way to safely do so and that this trend is likely to take over the majority of tourism.