How to Appreciate Other Cultures When Traveling (Without Appropriating)

Cultural appropriation has received a lot of attention lately, though the debate has left some wondering what separates appreciation from appropriation.

While borrowing from other cultures is not without merit, there are plenty of ways for good intentions to go awry. Appropriation occurs when one culture borrows elements — tradition, language, cuisine, or dress — from another culture while marginalizing the originators of the tradition. Instead of celebrating a different culture, people ultimately end up exploiting and oppressing the group.

While visiting cities that have copious traditional cuisines, a plethora of unique churches, and myriad of amazing cultures, how can tourists be culturally sensitive and avoid appropriation? To ensure you’re avoiding any cultural appropriation, ask yourself the following questions during your travels.

1. Does this benefit me?

Buddhist monks lighting candles

You’re better off observing rather than assuming you can participate | ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

If you are benefiting from the music, practices, or cherished items of another culture, it likely is cultural appropriation. Appreciate the beauty of the culture without cheapening it. You might find a certain cultural practice to be quite alluring, but be mindful that it isn’t yours to co-opt. Honor and respect the culture by observing. If you’re invited to participate, feel free to do so.

2. Does my privilege allow me to participate?

banking and people concept

Money in a wallet |

If the only reason you are participating in this culture is because you have money, you might want to reconsider your actions. Buying precious cultural items without appreciation or tattooing yourself for the memory rather than for significance could both be considered cultural appropriation.

3. Will this make anyone feel uncomfortable?

baseball fans watch a game on Cinco de Mayo

You should probably reconsider the choice to wear a sombrero on Cinco de Mayo | Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

If you have to ask yourself whether something might be offensive, it probably is. If you are borrowing certain practices that come from a culture that usually is stigmatized or marginalized, be aware that not everyone will be comfortable with your behavior.

Additionally, if you are visiting the country in which the culture originated, not participating in some traditions might be considered disrespectful. Consider Angelina Jolie as a great example of how to appreciate a culture without appropriating it. While visiting the Middle East, she donned a hijab to show respect for the culture.

4. Am I harming an oppressed group?

student studying

A little research will go a long way |

Do some research to ensure you know the origins of cultural practices to help you make informed decisions about whether you should participate in a tradition. You should also know whether your behavior would perpetuate the oppression of any group. Make sure you want to embrace its practices out of honor and respect rather than attempt to get a few great vacation photos to share on Instagram.

Having an understanding of the cultures you will encounter as you travel should help you avoid potential appropriation. Millennials — the group of 18- to 34-year-olds who make up the most globally connected generation — particularly can make a difference in changing societal attitudes concerning other cultures. Likewise, they can have a positive influence on the next generation of American tourists.

Even if you are an outsider, you can still appreciate the beauty of other cultures around the world. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the practices of other cultures; issues arise when people take something from another culture and claim it as their own.

As you travel the world, research cultures ahead of time, make sure you aren’t taking anything that isn’t yours, and avoid any behavior that might make your hosts uncomfortable. Ensure a successful trip by showing honor and respect to the people you visit, celebrating their cultures as distinct and beautiful.

Tony Tie is a senior search marketer at Expedia Canada, a travel booking platform for more than 10,000 partners, including airlines and hotels, consumer brands, and high-traffic websites. Connect with Tony on Twitter @tonytie.