Having lived abroad now for three years, being labeled a “tourist” seems derogatory. Tourists stand out. You can see them on a street corner, in their cargo vests and funky hats, looking at maps and seeming completely lost. But most of us who have done any kind of traveling have been there. It happens. Tourists are bravely adventuring, so I have to give them props all the same. But tourism isn’t the only kind of traveling you can do. Tourism is fun, light-hearted, selfie-type traveling. But for those who are looking for a slightly deeper experience, there is cultural immersion.
Cultural immersion is different from tourism, and isn’t as comfortable. You want to integrate into the society you’re visiting, get to know the locals, go to the areas they like to go, maybe even try to speak their language. Cultural immersion is, I think, a much richer and more rewarding travel experience.
Tourism Versus Cultural Immersion Travel
Touring can be fun and there is certainly a time for it. You hit the well-known and well-advertised spots, often in a group. You pop about different hotspots, try top-rated eateries, and go on planned excursions. Tour buses, guides, and audio tours were made for you. You hit 37 countries in 20 days. It’s wonderful, but cultural immersion is arguably much, much better.
Cultural travel, on the other hand, implies greater contact with the way of life in your visited country. You participate in local activities and experience traditions. You venture away from the scenic route visiting with families, possibly eating from food carts, and hiking down roads less traveled. This is when you know you are a “true” traveler. It’s when you allow your surroundings to change you, it’s when you step out of your comfort zone. It’s when you start to like being challenged and in awe of what you’re experiencing.
Getting with The Program
Cultural Immersion opportunities present themselves in a variety of ways. From language programs and homestays to Airbnb and volunteer associations, the options are vast. Being a tourist is fun, but some of the best memories I have are when I was in it, immersed in the culture. Standing under umbrellas in the rain at a community concert, watching a high school student paint a magnificent mural, volunteering for a children’s hospital, all of these experiences taught me, challenged me, and have left an indelible impact on me. Cultural travel has so much to offer.
Here are just a few reasons you should consider Immersion:
- You learn more. There are so many layers to each new culture you meet that a guidebook just cannot tell you. Whether it’s cute sayings that you’ve never heard, or why food is cooked a certain way, or how babies are carried, the best way to learn about a new culture is to make friends, ask questions, be open to new experiences, and stray off the beaten path.
- You get to know people. The local people can be friendly to tourists, but not like when you truly connect. There is a different reaction people have when they see you as a person to get to know, rather than just a tourist passing through. They share with you.
- You see places you would not have known existed. There is a reason for tourist destinations. They are neat, beautiful places that make excellent postcards, scrapbooks and additions to your fridge full of photos. But, there is also something to be said for the lesser known destinations. It is amazing how many places, people and experiences you can find when you look for them.
Sure, you can experience “cultural immersion” even on the so-called “tourist track,” if you are willing to learn and look at things from a different angle. If living abroad teaches you anything, it is likely that your patience is not as honed as you thought. Differences and adjustments can be a struggle for sure, but they teach you. You observe and you experience. You ponder and you think. But, most importantly, you become a far more well-rounded and hopefully understanding person.
The bottom line is, within travel is opportunity…everywhere.