Cultural Sensitivity: How to be a Welcome Tourist

You are going to be a guest in another country--one that is quite different from your home country. Part of this area is also occupied territory with military rule. Just as you would not go for a weekend at a friend's house and act, speak and dress inappropriately, so you would not want to do it in another country.

You are going to be a guest in another country--one that is quite different from your home country. Part of this area is also occupied territory with military rule. Just as you would not go for a weekend at a friend's house and act, speak and dress inappropriately, so you would not want to do it in another country.

In addition, in the eyes of the people you meet, you are a representative of your country, your church and your denomination. The impression you give will affect visitors who come after you and their welcome in this culture.

Third, being insensitive will reflect badly on the groups and people in the Holy Land who helped plan your trip. When you leave, they stay and work with the same local people.

1. Dress modestly. It is not acceptable to walk around the streets in shorts or halter tops in either Arab or very conservative Jewish areas. Such dress is reserved for the beach. Mini skirts are in the same category although some local women wear knee length, or slightly shorter, skirts. Israeli Jewish women sometimes wear very short skirts, especially in Tel Aviv.

At religious sites, it is customary for women to wear short or long sleeves rather than sleeveless blouses or halter tops. Alternately women can cover their arms with a scarf or jacket. Men in shorts may be refused entry or handed a long skirt to wear at a religious site. Jeans are acceptable in most areas but loose pants are even better for women and in very conservative Jewish areas women must wear skirts. Some places require women and/or men to cover their heads so women might want to carry a scarf at all times. Men are given paper head coverings.

2. Signs of affection in public are considered to be in bad taste. In many areas there is a custom of social separation between women and men so local people may be quite uncomfortable in mixed-gender groups. Approaching a stranger of the opposite sex is often interpreted by the local person as moral laxity (no matter what your age).

3. Most Muslims do not drink alcohol and that includes beer. In Gaza, particularly, and in Arab towns away from the main centers, you should not drink alcoholic beverages in public. It is acceptable in some restaurants and in your own hotel room. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims you encounter will be fasting from dawn until sunset. Their religious fast prohibits them from eating, drinking or smoking during the day time. It is respectful and polite on your part not to do these things in public yourself.

4. Photography needs to be handled sensitively. A large group of tourists, each sporting a camera and trying to get the perfect picture, is offensive in any country, especially if it is done while a local person is speaking to the group. Unless you are sightseeing, try to designate one or two people to take pictures at each location and arrange to obtain copies from each other. Ask before taking pictures of people and do not insist if they refuse.

Do not take pictures of soldiers, checkpoints, military compounds or any other place where the local leader tells you not to. You are not only jeopardizing your own film and camera but the whole group may experience difficulty.

5. Questions and comments to speakers and others who you meet, need not reflect agreement but ought not to be disrespectful or threatening of the person's position. Respect cultural differences and local tensions and remember that you are traveling to listen and learn, not to attempt to change people. Also remember that it is appropriate to show interest by asking questions.

6. Negative comments should be saved for the private times when your group evaluates the experience (e.g. in the bus or better in the hotel). Smart aleck comments are never helpful. If done at a checkpoint or other sensitive place, you may put your guide's or driver's future work, as well as your own personal safety, in danger.

7. Giving money or candy to children is unwise. You will attract hordes of children and then you will have to disappoint some. In our home countries we teach children not to accept candy or gum from strangers. We, as strangers, should not offer it. Also, it only demonstrates the difference between "those who have and those who have not." Instead give something to an institution which serves children.

8. If you are offered coffee or tea, take it even if you only take a sip or two. It is part of the Palestinian sense of hospitality to offer drinks when people arrive. If you are invited to a meal in a private home, it would be appropriate to take flowers or a box of candy and when a group hears a speaker it is appropriate to give a simple gift representing your organization, church or geographic area, as well as an honorarium.

9. If there are no prices displayed in a store, then bargaining is expected. It has nothing to do with honesty or dishonesty, but is a part of the culture. Remember that the merchant will be exaggerating the price just as you will be trying to lower it. Take time to compare stores and quality before bargaining and keep in mind that the merchant has to make a living. Some stores do have fixed prices and, in those cases, it is an insult to bargain.

10. It is often said that a scientist cannot examine a phenomenon without changing it by the very fact of observation. This can be true of tourism as well, since local people change their behavior and even their craft work and dances to cater to those who come to look and pay. It is a delicate balance. The ultimate effect of tourism can be the destruction of that which drew visitors in the first place. Be as sensitive to the culture as you can and try to find appropriate ways to be appreciative.

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