Why Travellers Should Always Respect Cultural & Religious Places
“I pledge to never visit sites of religious and cultural importance to local people if they do not wish it. If I am allowed to visit these places, I am committed to showing my respect and behaving appropriately.”
Travellers committed to responsible and sustainable travel must commit to respecting local cultures in ways both large and small. Respect should be the guiding principle behind all of your actions. Even if you don’t agree with a custom or a request, honour your role as visitor in someone else’s home and follow their lead, allowing local actions to guide all of your behaviours. The role these locations play in the lives of locals is far more significant than the fleeting satisfaction a tourist receives from engaging with a place outside of the context locals desire.
The number of potential important and religious cultural sites are far too numerous to list. From the greatest mountain peak in the world to a holy rock on a mountainside in Myanmar, it’s best to use case studies as an example of how travellers can show respect to local traditions, beliefs, customs, and requests for conduct. To that end, let’s examine three tourist sites around the world for their significance to the local culture, and look at the role travellers play in respecting that site.
Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia
Uluru is the poster-child, of sorts, for the conflict between tourism local populations. One of Australia’s most iconic images, Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is a towering sandstone monolith jutting from the earth in the country’s red centre. Featured prominently throughout Australia’s tourism marketing, it’s a major draw for tourists around the world. And although it’s open to the public to climb, Uluru is a sacred site to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu — the Aboriginal people from the area — and they ask that travellers respectfully refrain from climbing the rock.
This has created conflict between tourists and Aboriginals, who view themselves as stewards for this sacred site. Urulu plays an important part in Aboriginal creation mythology and the tourist path to the top crosses a sacred traditional Dreamtime track. The traditional owner, Kunmanara, has said this: “We prefer that, as a guest on Anangu land, you will choose to respect our law and culture by not climbing.”
And while even Parks Australia recommends that travellers refrain from climbing, the route remains open to tourists and about 30% of visitors choose to make the climb, according to one of the park rangers. Some of these tourists feel entitled to the view from the top, with one traveller noting “I just wanted a good photo,” while others visit the site and opt against climbing once they learn of the cultural significance to the indigenous people.
Uluru presents a challenge for travellers who see even though that climbing is clearly against the wishes of the Pitjantjatjara Anangu, the climb is still open to the public and many other tourists each year make the climb. As a responsible traveller visiting a new location, the code of etiquette means that even if it’s permissible to take part in an activity, your actions should align with those for whom the site holds a deep significance.
Mount Everest, Nepal
While the Himalayan communities have afforded this peak a sacred status, Mount Everest’s designation as the highest point on earth seems to have overshadowed the original respect the locals once afforded this mountaintop. Called Chomolungma by the Sherpa people who have lived in the region for centuries, the Sherpas had never summited the Himalayan peaks because they considered them home of the gods. As climbers reached Nepal in the 20th century, expeditions used Sherpas as guides and labor to affix lines and carry gear in a quest to reach the top of Everest.
And over the past century, there has been a dark burden placed on the rural communities supplying the labor to make Everest an attainable tourist experience. Outside magazine published a detailed account of devastating toll Everest tourism has taken on the local communities: “It’s a lucrative way of life in a poor region, but no service industry in the world so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients. The dead are often forgotten, and their families left with nothing but ghosts.”
And all for the right to summit a peak that locals believe is sacred. Other nearby mountains — like Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world — are afforded respect; climbers who reach the top have never actually stepped foot on the summit, instead creating a tradition of respect for the local belief that the peak is the home of their deity.
After a devastating avalanche at Everest Base Camp in 2014 and the 2016 earthquake — both with a high death toll for the Sherpa and climbers summiting at the time — some have called for an end to Everest tourism. Jan Morris, the journalist covering the first successful summit in 1953, believes that no one need ever climb Everest again. Her opinion is the minority right now, but she makes a beautiful case for why we as a society should afford Everest the same honors we have given other peaks around the world.
“Is it not time, I wonder now, for Chomolungma itself to be recognised not just as a World Heritage Site, but as a universally recognised Site of Holiness, left alone there in its ethereal majesty, out of bounds to all human beings and never to be violated again by the crudities of fame, profit, sectarian rivalry or national pride?”
One of Myanmar’s holiest sites, Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is a small golden pagoda on top of a giant gilded boulder — all perched precariously on the side of a mountain. Legend has it that the Golden Rock (which appears as if it could easily tip and tumble down the side of the mountain), balances on a hair relic of the Buddha. It’s the third most important pilgrimage in Myanmar and visitors travel from all over the country, and the world, to venerate this holy site. Like many holy sites in Myanmar, locals apply small squares of gold leaf to the surface of the rock as an act of merit. As a part of local traditions, women are not allowed to touch the rock and must maintain a distance of 15 feet — this is a rule that is surely out of sync with equality policies in many other parts of the world.
As a visitor in a foreign culture, it is sometimes disconcerting to see customs and traditions that run counter to your own beliefs. Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is just one example of a custom and belief that conflicts with some travellers’ viewpoints. But throughout the world, different religions and customs have codified behaviors, dress codes, and traditions that are significant for the locals.
And while the local culture may have rules out of step with your beliefs, understand that behaviors or jokes in one part of the world simply do not work when transported to other places. The rising trend towards naked photos at religious and cultural sites (from Machu Picchu in Peru to sacred Mount Kinibalu in Malaysia to Angkor Wat in Cambodia) is completely out of step with respectful and responsible travel.
Many times, travellers are placed in the situation where they must look to locals for instruction on appropriate behavior at a religious or historical site. No matter your personal opinions, as a traveller you willingly step into the cultures and traditions of each new place you visit. You are a guest in this person’s community, the rules and traditions often hold great significance in their lives — you must willingly travel from a place of respect.
These three case studies ran the gamut of situations you may face on the road. But there are many smaller moments that will require you to lead with a respect for the customs and a willingness to accept each new situation as a chance to learn more about this culture and people.