Paths to cultural sensitivity in tourism business

by Monika Lüthje

Cultural sensitivity is a new concept in tourism research and development. When ARCTISEN project started, we had a quite vague idea of what it means in both theory and practice. Now, as the project has been going on for almost three years, our understanding of it has increased a lot. We see that the idea of culturally sensitive tourism boils down to respect, recognition and reciprocity among tourism actors. To support tourism entrepreneurs in developing their businesses in a culturally sensitive way, we have created a roadmap for culturally sensitive tourism business.

The roadmap is based on videos we have made for the ARCTISEN online course on Cultural Sensitivity in Arctic Tourism. In the videos, tourism and cultural sector entrepreneurs and destination managers operating in Finnish and Swedish Lapland, Northern Norway and Greenland share their experiences and advises of doing tourism in culturally sensitive ways. Interestingly, although these entrepreneurs and managers are operating with different kinds of tourism services in different places, their ideas about culturally sensitive tourism practices seem very similar. This was the starting point for our roadmap which we ended up calling Paths to Cultural Sensitivity (link to the online course).

The map consists of two interrelated practices – the practice of cooperation and the practice of being real. In the map, they are depicted as two mountains linked to each other by a bridge to tell that you need some effort and time to reach their tops and they are connected to each other. As you can see in the map, you can choose alternative paths to reach the mountains – there are several ways to do tourism business in a culturally sensitive way. (And those in the map are only some of them.)

The central idea of the practice of cooperation is to plan the business activities together with the local people whose lives the tourism activities affect. The aim is to plan the activities so that they do not disturb the locals’ lives. In other words, the business is planned so that it fits the life of the local community. Another important aspect in the practice of cooperation is to plan the business so that it benefits as many locals as possible and corresponds their needs.

The practice of being real means that the entrepreneur and her or his employees do not fake or pretend to be something that they are not. They do not need to be traditional or stereotypical representatives of the local culture if that is not what they really are. It is enough to tell about one’s own life in the local place. Nothing more exotic is needed. The practice of being real includes also telling correct information of the place, of its history, culture and people. That may mean some reading and studying and – if the entrepreneur or the employees are not locals themselves – respectful cooperation with the locals. The best practice is that those tell tourists about a culture whose culture it is.

Importantly, the same practices came up also during the online benchmarking trips we did this spring to Norway, Finland, Sweden and Canada. That means that these practices are used more widely in the Arctic than only by the entrepreneurs and managers featuring in the online course videos.

For more tips, check out the map as well as our online course and benchmark take-aways!