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A Cautionary Tale on the Importance of Cultural Sensitivity for Travelers

On June 12, two Canadian families, one Dutch family and a British family, exhaled.

Several weeks earlier their 20-something aged children had gone to Malaysia, climbed Mount Kinabalu and in, celebration of getting to the top, took nude selfies which they then posted on social media. What could have been merely a self-indulgent act became a criminal one when an earthquake hit the mountain, killing 16 people. A number of locals blamed the disaster on the climbers, who, they said, had shown disrespect to what they consider a sacred mountain. The climbers were arrested, but on the date above, the judge was lenient, sentencing them to jail time already served and a fine of 5,000 Malaysian ringgit (approximately $1,330). The next day, the four flew to their respective homes.

An odd story, to be sure, but one that illustrates, quite forcefully, the crucial importance of cultural sensitivity for travelers. “There’s a baseline that we all know intuitively and that we carry with us when we travel,” says Jeff Greenwald, the co-founder of the non-profit organization Ethical Traveler ( “Be polite to people, don’t get angry or aggressive, treat religious icons with respect and keep your clothes on…unless you’re specifically invited to take them off.”

Thomas Farley, known as “Mr. Manners” and the founder of the website agrees. “You have to remember that when you’re a traveler you’re a guest in someone else’s home. That means being even more polite and sensitive than you are in your own country,” he says.

The climbers can’t claim that they didn’t know they were acting in an offensive way. It came out in the trial that their local guide had begged them not to disrobe. But both Greenwald and Farley think that even if they hadn’t known, ignorance of local customs isn’t a defense. “You gotta read before you go! Guidebooks are a great resource on local etiquette and customs as they all cover that topic,” says Farley. “But make sure you get an updated one as customs do change.” Farley is also a fan of the book Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison for information on local customs.

Greenwald turns to the web for his intel. “It’s impossible to know the taboos in every country,” says Greenwald. “But a quick web search will reveal the most urgent cultural taboos. So, for example, in Thailand you never sit on or pose on a Buddha, or touch a child on the head. In Japan, you’d never walk into someone’s home with your shoes on. If you want to be respectful, do your research.”

Doing that research is important even in countries that you might assume have a culture similar to your own. Christian Wolters, who is the Deputy Manager for Intrepid Travel, a company that runs adventure tours to all corners of the globe (including climbing tours in Malaysia), points out that many of his Australia-bound customers have a misunderstanding of what’s appropriate behavior Down Under. “We get a lot of potential customers who really want to climb to the top of Uluru (also known as “Ayer’s Rock”). So we make sure that both our salespeople and our guides inform customers that “the Rock” is sacred to the Aboriginals and therefor, shouldn’t be climbed,” he says.

Of course, it wasn’t just the nudity that got the Malaysian climbers in trouble, it was that they posted photos on social media. “The idea of stripping and then posting and bragging about it—that’s the pinnacle of this type of abuse,” says Farley. Greenwald takes a more sanguine view. “Use the ‘10 minute rule’”, he suggests. “Write a status or post whatever photo you want to. But then wait 10-minutes before making it live. That will give you the time to think through the fact that you’re broadcasting your thoughts and actions to the world.”

And don’t assume that because you don’t agree with local customs or beliefs that it’s ok to flout them. “A lot of people will look at the story and think it’s about Malaysians being silly and superstitious enough to believe that a group of people getting naked is going to cause an earthquake. It’s not about that at all! It’s about showing respect when you travel,” says Farley.

“You don’t have to be an Einstein of travel to know that people in the developing world are going to be put off by a lot of the freedoms we take for granted, like public displays of affection or immodest dress,” says Greenwald. “It comes down to freedom vs. license. You need to leave that sense of entitlement behind when you hit the road. I think you’ll still find that you can be authentically yourself, even when you’re abiding by others’ norms.”