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Does travel really broaden the mind?

People are travelling more often and further afield than at any time in history, but as the world shrinks, does travel, conversly, broaden the mind? As we increasingly come face to face with different cultures are we becoming more savvy travellers? Apparently not judging by the profusion of etiquette guides available in book and online shops, and by the recent cautionary advice offered by the Foreign Office directed to Brits abroad who could offend, local laws.

These developments could just be examples of political correctness gone mad of course. Nevertheless the trend would seem to underline that whilst we are travelling to ever more exotic and distant lands, our understanding of those countries’ cultures and the sensitivities of their people have not kept pace.
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Policemen,San Miguel De Allende,Mexico - photo Hector Christie

Although we all know only too well the “Brits Behaving Badly” stories so beloved of the tabloids, the Foreign Office reminds us that it isn’t just a case of outrages in Mediterranean countries from Magaluf to Faliraki.The F.O. has reminded travellers that different countries do have different mores, and that for example offence can be caused unwittingly. For example it points out that public displays of affection could create trouble in Egypt, wearing skirts above the knee is not acceptable in some Middle East countries, and that homosexuality remains taboo in many popular destinations such as Goa,Barbados andMorocco.Then there was the British couple recently jailed in Dubai because of having sex on a public beach - -.

Brits aren’t the sole culprits, however, and German televisions’ Travel Channel produced its’ own guide advising people how to behave abroad in the wake of a survey conducted in 2005.This showed that three out of five German holidaymakers cringed when confronted by loud beer swilling countrymen abroad, and the guide referred to findings that,” many German tourists are naively oblivious to the most commonplace rules of behaviour in other countries”. It cited examples of blowing your nose, or using a toothpick at a meal table practices acceptable in Germany according to their respected Knigge Guide to Etiquette.

The banking giant HSBC have broadcast an series of amusing faux pas in their Television adverts which stress the differences of cultures around the world, but the boot can sometimes be on the other foot, with local residents being unaware that their habits may offend visitors. Prior to the Beijing Olympics, educational programmes were directed not just at eliminating spitting in the street, but to advise Beijingers to avoid asking blunt questions about visitors’ ages, salaries, and love lives which are topical commonly discussed in their culture.

Silly questions posed by visitors to tourist attractions around the world rank high on any scale that reveals a lack of understanding. English Heritage have coped with some howlers, such as the enquiry why the English were so fond of building ruined castles, whilst in Australia it must have confounded the tourist authority who was asked if they could supply a schedule of concerts to be performed by the Viennese Boys Choir. At such times, the reaction of the Scottish distillery guide, to a particular query, can perhaps be forgiven. Asked if Scotland had killer bees, he didn’t seek to ascertain if the person was perhaps thinking of the Scottish midge, but replied tersely in the negative, adding,”but we’d be happy to import some, especially for you”.