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Naked Tourists Prove Need For Cultural Sensitivity Among Travellers: Experts

06/09/2015 05:16 EDT | Updated 06/09/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - While travelling in Thailand, Heather Greenwood Davis was asked to cover her bare arms prior to visiting the Buddha. She happily obliged.

"I'm in their place, I need to cover up, and I did," said the Toronto-based travel writer behind the website Globetrotting Mama. "That is why people travel for the most part, we want to go and experience these new things and live lives a little different than what we have at home. You've got to take the steps to understand what the rules are."

Two Canadians made headlines over the weekend when they were accused of disregarding the rules and stripping on a sacred mountain in Malaysia. Saskatchewan siblings Lindsey and Danielle Petersen have been detained in the country and Malaysian officials said the alleged incident was so offensive that it caused a deadly earthquake.

Being mindful of local traditions while abroad is one of the basic rules of responsible travel, say experts like Greenwood Davis.

"If you're travelling and you've got a guide who is saying to you: 'Don't do this, this is not something that's allowed to be done,' take that as valuable advice," she said Tuesday.

Officials say several foreigners — including the Petersens — broke away from their guided group and took photos of themselves naked on the peak of Mount Kinabalu on the island of Borneo. Locals believe the popular hiking destination for tourists is a sacred resting place for ancient spirits.

"It comes down to respect," said Greenwood Davis, who travelled to 29 countries during a year-long adventure with her husband and two sons in 2011. "You're visiting someone just the same way as if you were visiting someone's home and you would behave accordingly. You wouldn't sort of barge in (like a) bull in a china shop and act any particular way you'd want."

Outpost senior writer-editor Simon Vaughan, who has visited more than 50 countries, referenced the alleged stripping incident in a blog post for the magazine titled "Travelling with Respect."

"We don't hesitate to spend a lot of time and a lot of money travelling to distant places to see these temples, or in this case, a mountain," he said in an interview. "But unfortunately, because we put all of that effort into it, we don't necessarily take the extra step of really appreciating why they are sacred and why they are spiritual."

Vaughan said it can be difficult for travellers to properly inform themselves of everything everywhere they visit. But he said it's critical for tourists to be observant when they arrive at their destination — and to do their homework ahead of time.

"If you just go and see a particularly nice building somewhere, you appreciate it perhaps from an architectural perspective. But only once you've done some research do you really understand what went into its construction, what the significance is, why it's facing in a particular direction.

"I think it's not even really important to do that research when you arrive at a particular spot in terms of the way you act there, but it's also important in terms of the experience you take away from it.

"And of course today with the Internet, it doesn't have to mean that you spend a day in the library before you leave home."

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