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How can vacationers be sure to respect local culture?

© Desmond Boylan / Reuters/Reuters

THE QUESTION

I want to travel but I don't want to volunteer. What can I do to be more respectful of the local culture on a regular vacation?

THE ANSWER

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In the depths of Canadian winter the appeal of a warm, sunny holiday is undeniable. If your concept of getting away from "it all" includes avoiding volunteer labour, that's cool, too.

Just by being a tourist, you're contributing to what in many places is a major source of a community's income. Strive to maximize that effect by choosing locally-owned hotels, restaurants, tour operators and shops as much as possible. That means doing some online digging ahead and asking around when you arrive.

To be a respectful tourist remember to ask before taking pictures, learn a few words and key phrases in the local language, be environmentally conscious, and research local customs regarding issues like appropriate dress, bargaining, tipping, and public displays of affection. Some experienced travellers suggest picturing yourself as a guest in someone else's home, rather than a tourist.

For us, respecting another culture means learning about it. We enjoy a beach holiday every once in a while, but people's perspective of Latin America and the developing world shouldn't end there.

A couple years ago we took a holiday to Cuba. We hopped in a taxi, paid the driver for the day, and asked him to take us on a scavenger hunt of sorts that would allow us to explore the hidden gems of Havana.

Our first stop was our last. We asked for help finding a place that sells old maps (we're really into maps – perhaps a side effect of having teachers for parents), and soon we were in a small bookstore chatting for hours with the owner as we pored over his collection. Some dated back to the 1600s, some had the south of the world on top, and others had large swaths of South America blank because they had yet to be explored. It was a map-geek's paradise that we would have never found on the beach or within the all-inclusive comfort zone.

For us, on that day, it was maps. Sometimes it's African masks or books by local authors. For you it may be architecture, music or theatre. Wherever we go, we try to learn more about the culture around us – seeking conversations. It may feel difficult at first to interact with locals, but if you ask about something specific, you start a conversation. We've found people are almost always willing to share a bit of insight about their community.

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If these adventures seem too far outside your comfort zone, start with baby steps. Smile and say good morning in the local language when walking down the street. Enjoy discovering a new culture at your own pace.



Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com .

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