Eco tourism 6 - Culture watch
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Date: 12 October, 2002


Madurai, Tamil Nadu, Southern India - red for posterity & green for fertility. Photo: Andre Shine
'Each destination has its own cultural identity, so it's always worth swotting up pre-departure.'

In the final episode of her six-part series on eco-tourism, Andre Shine encourages responsible travellers to do their cultural homework, so as not to cause offence.

The cultural divide
No longer do you need to fly to Bangkok to seek out an authentic Thai batik, head for Istanbul to buy a genuine Turkish rug or make your way to Accra to discover the real McCoy in African woodcarving. Global influences are rapidly converging on our domestic markets.

Conversely I've wandered into a café in Meknes, Morocco, and been entertained by American artist Prince, on video. For better, or worse, Western paraphernalia has crossed many borders - most notably Nike, McDonalds and Coke.

But where does cultural convergence cross the line of disrespect?

Gender question
Women's status differs considerably between western and eastern cultures. Women are often conspicuous by their absence in many parts of the Middle East - therefore outsiders tend to attract disproportionate levels of attention. This can, on occasions, become intimidating.

Although western-minded individuals may perceive dress codes to be prudish - and a hindrance to the tanning process - they are part of the local culture. And breaching such codes can be offensive - particularly where religious customs are concerned.

Where two cultures meet
Each destination has its own cultural identity, so it's always worth swotting up pre-departure. The following are just a few cultural norms that you should be comply with - 'when in Rome'.

Mosques - Bear in mind women may be prohibited from entering a mosque. Alternatively men and women may be permitted to enter - but through different doorways. Women may also need to cover their heads. See religious sites below.

Alcohol - Although some Muslim nations widely accept alcohol, Islam prohibits it. Where consumption is illegal penalties can be harsh. Check local protocols before you arrive. Alcohol permits may also be an option.

Religious sites & customs - Avoid excessive displays of flesh. Shoulders and knees should always be concealed when visiting religious sites - shorts and sleeveless tops are taboo. Public demonstrations of affection may also be considered offensive.

Leave your shoes at the entrance of religious sites and private homes. In Southern India it is common for a footwear tender to guard your shoes for just a few rupees.

In some cultures the head is considered sacred, therefore patting someone on the head could unwittingly cause offence.

Begging - For many individuals, without access to state social security, begging is often the only option for survival. Almsgiving is also one of the pillars of Islam, and is accepted as part of the Muslim culture. Nevertheless in some places sheer numbers can be intimidating. Plus there is always a concern that beggars may be part of a more sinister set up.

In short it is your call. But small change is likely to be gratefully accepted. Concealing cameras and watches may help to divert unwanted attention.

Tipping - In some places tipping - Baksheesh - is used beyond a gratuity for good service, it is essential to get things done. That visa request that was going to take a month might suddenly be completed within 24 hours! Culturally it's impossible to generalise, but in developing nations - where travellers are perceived to be wealthier than the average person on the street - there is likely to be an expectation that a tip will be forthcoming.

Finally, happy travelling!

This article is part of a series - use these links to view the other eco-tourism articles
Eco Tourism 1
Eco Tourism 2

Eco Tourism 3
Eco Tourism 4
Eco Tourism 5


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