We have to at least ask.
Luxury hospitality companies can make hundreds or thousands of dollars off their culturally immersive experiences but how much of that is going back to the communities and cultures they are honoring—or appropriating based on who you talk to—is harder to measure.
For example, when Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa introduces Slow Beauty’ wellness retreats, including a workshop on the health benefits of Mayan-inspired rituals and a Shaman ceremony on the beach, does the luxury hospitality brand owe something to the culture or the people that these new and expensive wellness offerings originate from?
It is a paradox that presents itself again and again in the spas, dining rooms and meticulously decorated guest rooms at luxury properties worldwide – especially in today’s age of immersive travel.
With travelers’ insatiable and growing appetite for local and insider experiences, operators and hoteliers are eager to provide experiences that appear authentic and connect visitors with the local community.
“What I find hard to run through my critical algorithms, though, is the idea of a meal devoted to local traditions and ingredients that is being prepared and consumed mostly by people from somewhere else,” New York Times food critic Pete Wells wrote about his decision to not visit Noma Tulum.
“This ‘sense of place’ expectation animates a lot of the jousting behind the annual list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, among other things. And it has led to a strange new sight: dining rooms where expensive celebrations of the local environment are enjoyed largely by tourists.”
But it can be difficult to determine where the line between appropriation and culture lies.
“Appropriation suggests theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artefacts. In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction. Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures,” wrote author and NYT contributing opinion writer Kenan Malik in In Defense of Cultural Appropriation last year in the New York Times.
Many hoteliers sincerely strive to do justice to the regions and cultures where they’re located – although not all with the intended outcome.
“Bemused by the site’s mishmash of references to Native American, Eurasian, and Latin American cultures, I wondered how many ethnic heritages one company could co-opt before crossing the threshold into appropriation,” wrote one visitor to the boutique campground hotel El Cosmic in Marfa, Texas.
Immersion versus Appropriation
Cultural appropriation is the use or misuse of the culture of “others.” It is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, or ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.
“It’s a pitfall that can occur where local suppliers and experts are creating experiences that the customer wants. For example, tribal gatherings that aren’t necessarily true representations of the culture but put together for what looks good on camera,” Tom Marchant, founder of luxury tour operator Black Tomato, said.
On the other side of appropriation is ethical and conscious immersion, which gives consumers an opportunity to understand, interact and ultimately support another culture.
“An onlooker and ‘armchair anthropological’ approach is something that needs to remain in the past. Real immersion avoids this kind of appropriation because travelers are not only interacting with local members of the community, but seeing the world through their eyes, including struggles and triumphs,” Marchant said.
Cultural appropriation is a topic more widely discussed in fashion than hospitality.
With the help of social media, brands and designers are being called out for using cultural artefacts as inspiration for a collection with due recognition. It’s worth examining where hospitality might be unconsciously doing the same in the rush to please travelers’ with culturally immersive experiences.
Communication is Key
Education and communication are the guiding principles to striking a correct balance between immersion and onlooking.
Abercrombie and Kent is a luxury tour operator that has led immersive experiences in African destinations for decades while remaining sensitive to local culture. The team starts by sharing information about cultural sensitivities before departure and uses local guides to brief travelers and, even more, so share insights into local destination and culture.
“They share insights into the culture that can only come from someone who is, in fact, a local. Overseeing the entire journey and accompanying guests every day, he or she reveals the real spirit of a place,” a spokesperson said.
The team behind luxury safari outfitter Time+Tide will approach the elders or leaders of villages near their properties and ask them to decide how or if they’d like to interact with guests.
“Time + Tide does not wish to further poor tourism traditions of choreographing ‘cultural visits’ that stereotype rural African ways of living. Rather, we leave the content of such visits up to residents so that they feel empowered to explain and demonstrate only what they would like foreign visitors to understand with regard to their lives and histories,” Elizabeth Sadowski, the director of Time + Tide Foundation, said.
For example, in the Sibemi Village in Liuwa, Zambia, guest interaction is strongly focused on the community school as it is an immense source of pride for residents. In Daniel Village in Mfuwe, it is about the history of Daniel Village and how lifestyles have changed over the past 20-50 years.
Sadowski said the immersion activities are among the most popular of their offerings, appealing to what she describes as “well educated, well-travelled guests who take interest in supporting local production as much as possible.”
These questions become all the more pressing when considering that nearly 80 percent of the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania are living below the poverty line while luxury tour operators and hoteliers are selling their culture for thousands to Western tourists.
“To see Masai culture in Africa, it goes beyond a bead-making workshop with local women to learning about the culture through education. One of the best tools for education is utilizing representatives from the community,” Marchant said.
Perhaps we can conclude with the same notion as Weils: “Luxury goods tend to float free of the everyday world and create their own cultural context, one of wealth and exclusivity.”