Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

On the right, on the left, identity politics is coming to the fore, and no country -- or industry -- remains untouched.

What are the consequences for travel? Is there a link, for example, between rising nativism and tourism backlash?

David Dingle, chairman of Carnival U.K., believes there is. The sense of alienation that local residents feel toward tourism in places like Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam and Dubrovnik, Croatia, "feels similar to this issue of 'I don't want people from other places ... who are coming here and disrupting our lifestyles,'" Dingle said at an overtourism roundtable held prior to the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in April in Buenos Aires.

At the root of the issue, he said, are perceived threats to identity. And those threats produce emotions so strongly felt that they overwhelm even bulletproof arguments about the economic benefits of facilitating visitation. 

That's a sobering observation for an industry that has increasingly relied on economic case studies to influence public policy in ways that increase travel and tourism.

If identity concerns find expression in isolationism on the right, the left has taken on the role of watchdog against cultural appropriation, guarding against what it sees as insensitivity toward or exploitation of minority cultural heritage by more privileged, powerful cultures.

Beyond the impact of identity politics on both residents and the travel industry is its impact on travelers themselves, who must navigate terrain that can be unexpectedly hostile at a very personal level.

Nationalists might make them feel outright unwelcome. And at a more subtle but nonetheless pervasive level, they may face condemnation for making politically incorrect choices when signing up for local tours, shopping for art or souvenirs or attempting to dress as the locals do.

What advice can be given to clients to help them avoid becoming collateral damage in the identity wars?

An interesting academic paper recently published by Columbia Business School examines how traveler behavior affects the welcome they receive. In particular, it explores the question of how far a traveler should go to accommodate the culture he or she is visiting.

If one makes an effort to learn language and customs, will that ease interactions or inflame resentment? Should one try to blend in by adopting local dress and mimicking the "authentic" behavior of local residents, or will that be seen as inauthentic, appropriation or a betrayal of one's own identity and heritage?

The stakes might feel higher these days, but these are not entirely new questions for travelers. The tourist who makes no accommodation has long been a figure of ridicule. There's the stereotype of the 20th-century Americans who believed that if they spoke English loudly and slowly enough, they would be understood. And their Japanese counterpart from the same era was characterized as a superficial traveler who hopped out of tour buses only long enough to snap a quick photo.

Today it's the Chinese traveler who is being stereotyped as unsophisticated and unworldly, but every country, as its middle class becomes wealthy enough to send travelers abroad, goes through a cringe-worthy period.

What's especially interesting about the Columbia study, however, is that it doesn't only look at travelers who make too few concessions to a host culture; it also explores those who make too many. Professor Michael Morris, with student Benjamin Dow and assistant professor Jaee Cho of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, recently published the research study "Do as the Romans Do" to parse how much cultural accommodation is enough and how much is too much.

The answer, it turns out, is very much determined by the current prevailing attitudes of the host culture.

When it comes to identity, the authors see two mindsets. The first is multiculturalism, which views society as a composite of separate traditions that should remain distinct, with each focusing more on preserving its traditions than on assimilating into a blended world.

Adherents of polyculturalism, on the other hand, believe societies become enriched by borrowing from each another's cultures, and they welcome the introduction of new cultural elements, believing it increases societal vitality.

The Columbia study concluded that multicultural-minded hosts didn't like high accommodators. They not only view them as trying too hard but also see them as betraying their own identities. And not surprisingly, polyculturalists admire people who make significant efforts to master local customs.

I think it's probably a mistake, as a traveler, to make assumptions about whether any individual resident reflects the multicultural or polycultural inclinations of his or her current government. The U.K. and the U.S., for example, are quite polarized on questions of identity, and unless a resident is wearing a MAGA hat or a shirt with a giant Union Jack, it would be unwise to assume anything about their viewpoint.

Indeed, the authors recommend a moderate approach. Even multiculturalists will appreciate gestures such as learning a few words of a local language, and polyculturalists won't be upset that you're not fluent.

I'm generally of the belief that moderation in everything is moderation to excess, but when it comes to identity and traveler accommodation to host cultures, I think the professors got it right. The last thing you want to bring along on vacation is a global identity crisis.

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