What is it about the behaviour of travellers when abroad?

The press and media generally has been full of stories recently about the behaviour of British travellers when abroad, most notably the case of a group who stripped off their clothes to varying degrees on top of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. This was a mountain deemed sacred by the locals, and worse still, their actions were associated in the minds of many with terrible events that then ensued, namely an earthquake in which a number of people died. Some of the travellers were taken into temporary custody, probably for their own protection, before being allowed to return home.

The story provoked a range of reactions in the media, from condemnation of the behaviour of the travellers to attacks on the local authorities for ‘over-reacting’ to their actions. The earthquake and its tragic victims were forgotten, the views of the locals seen as superstitious, and the story was portrayed as an outrage. British tourists were portrayed as having a far more exemplary record than those of other nations when it comes to respecting the views of other cultures; this was clearly just a big mistake.

A mistake it certainly was and apologies have since been issued. The story reveals a number of home truths, however, that we surely need to pursue. First, it is one of our cardinal beliefs that when we travel abroad we should respect the views and sensitivities of our hosts, even where we do not share those views. In this case, a significant number of the locals believed the mountain to be sacred and the tourists should have remembered to behave in a more seemly fashion. The fact that we do not believe in the connection between their behaviour and the earthquake is irrelevant; many locals felt this to be the case.

It is curious that this basic approach seems to have been forgotten by much of the press. Perhaps this might be put down to the relative obscurity of the site. If this had occurred at, say, at Highgate Cemetery in London, what then would have been the reaction?

Another point that might lie behind all this concerns the age of the tourists: to what extent might they be forgiven – and normal standards not apply – because they were young and indulging in some kind of ‘rite of passage’, hence the photographs of the scene? Here surely we do not make exceptions for age, any more than the popular press forgives those young Britons who give the country a ‘bad name’ by their drunken antics in coastal resorts of the Mediterranean?

A key point here surely is that we need to re-emphasise the value of foreign travel and some basic tenets about how best to travel. Travel is about broadening the mind, appreciating other approaches to life, genuinely listening and taking in aspects of other cultures, sampling foreign cuisine, taking in the wonders of art and architecture of another ‘world’. It is not simply a site for another ‘adventure’ in which we extend ourselves only within our group and culture, simply abroad.

In other words, the basic tenets about foreign travel do not permit of exceptions to decent rules, regardless of age or experience of the travellers, or the fact that they may have become inebriated, high on drugs, or simply not been aware of local sensitivities. This is not to say that any of this was the case on that mountain in Borneo; it will take time before we learn the full story of what happened there. What is at issue here is the need to re-emphasise a general code of conduct for travellers, a code that thankfully is honoured for the most part, and which we are reminded of from time to time by breaches of good behaviour from which we need to learn lessons again…. To travel abroad prepared to disparage the beliefs of those you will encounter is to travel blind.

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