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Social Cultural Impacts of Tourism Essay

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Updated: Apr 14th, 2019


The social cultural impact of tourism refers to the positive and negative effect or impact of tourism on the cultural heritage, traditions, customs, and social life style of host communities. This paper will look at the positive and negative socio-cultural impacts of tourism on host communities and tourists, as well as the different factors that influence these impacts.

It is, however, important to keep in mind that all society’s problems can not be blamed on tourism, nor can all positive social developments be attributed to tourism (Liu 2003, p. 25). There are other factors that contribute to society’s problems and development, such as globalization and the influence of the mass media.

Positive Social Cultural Impacts of Tourism

The positive socio-cultural impacts of tourism include employment, improvement of infrastructure, transfer of knowledge into a country, and improvement to the economy. These are discussed in the following subsections.


In most countries, the tourism sector provides employment opportunities to a huge percentage of the population. To facilitate tourism operations, people get employed to work in the hotel industry, the transport sector, and national parks as tour guides (Green 2005, p. 13). The economic benefits that are derived from tourism in terms of employment of a nation’s population ultimately impact people’s standard of living.

Provision of Shared Infrastructure

The development of tourist infrastructure, such as airports and leisure facilities, can also benefit local communities, as long as the infrastructure is not developed for the exclusive use of tourists (Allen et al. 1993). This tourist infrastructure affects the social and cultural lives of local communities because their way of living would have been different had the infrastructure not been established and shared.

For example, Maun, which is a rural area in Botswana, is a famous fast stop destination for tourists visiting the Okavango Delta and Moremi Game Reserve. Existing leisure facilities such as modern international airport, restaurants and shopping malls were originally intended for tourists, but are also shared by the local community (Long et al. 1990). Therefore, the social lives and contemporary culture of local residents are remarkably different from those in other major villages in Botswana.

Transfer of Knowledge into a Country

Tourism promotes the transfer of knowledge to the host country. When experienced people from a developed country visit a developing country, opportunities are created for knowledge to be transferred from one community to another. Ultimately, developing countries are able to benefit.

Economic Improvement

Most tourist destinations across the world are able to improve their economies as a result of tourism activities. Among others, tourism enables countries to earn foreign currency which enables them to effectively trade with foreign states. In Kenya, the tourism sector employs a large number of people who work in world class hotels and the transport sector, among others. Tourism also contributes greatly to national income.

Negative Social Cultural Impacts of Tourism

Some of the negative socio-cultural impacts of tourism on the host community include decline in morality, interruption of family and gender relationships, interference with value systems and religions, reduction of culture to a commodity, and staged authenticity. These are discussed as follows.

Decline in Morality in Society

Exposure to the different values of tourists and, in some cases, irresponsible tourist behavior, may give rise to various moral and societal problems, such as crime, prostitution, gambling, unhealthy eating and drinking, and drug abuse.

Interruption of Family and Gender Relationships

In many traditional societies, the father, who is the head of the family, has the responsibility to provide for his family. By providing employment, wages, and a disposable income to other members of the traditional family unit, which can be seen as a positive development, tourism can interrupt traditional family and gender relationships, and create discord in the family.

The end result may be communities that do not function properly because the traditional division of work has been overruled and undermined (McGehee & Andereck 2004).

An example of this disruption can be observed in the families of the employees of safari companies that operate in the Okavango Delta and are separated from their families for months on end. However, it must be noted that interruption of family and gender relationships, as is the case with the other impacts, can not be attributed to tourism alone, as there are other industries, such as the mining industry, that also tend to have the same effect.

Interference with Value Systems and Religion

Tourism may introduce different and sometimes opposing values to established value systems and religion. On the one hand, host communities in developing countries sometimes perceive tourists from developed countries as too liberal and lacking in morals, and find them insensitive to local norms and taboos. On the other hand, local populations often reject old ways and adopt the ways of visitors too quickly. This most often happens if the practices are from rich, developed countries and the local population is in a less wealthy developing country (Murphy 1981, p. 56). While adopting foreign practices may not always be bad, it may cause culture shock, lack of social cohesion, and loss of cultural identity if it happens too quickly. No human culture should ever be sacrificed at the expense of another.

Reducing Culture to a Commodity

This involves reducing culture to another product with a price tag. In the context of the cultural impact of tourism, this wears the worth, dignity, value, and sanctity of particular cultures. Cultural practices, although often preserved by tourist interest, may lose their real value and meaning.

An example includes the practice of performing sacred dances and rituals for the tourists for money. Similarly, watching the divination by a traditional healer, sangoma, or inyanga, can reduce it from being a spiritual exercise to a financial transaction or theatrical performance.

Staged Authenticity

This is experienced when the host community stages or enacts certain authentic elements of its culture for the benefits of tourists, even though those cultural elements may no longer be part of their normal modern daily living. This means that authentic elements of culture become rehearsed and non-authentic as they are performed out of context.

Examples of authentic cultural elements that may be staged out of context for tourists include traditional dances, certain rituals or practices, the wearing of traditional dresses purely for the benefit of tourists, and the re-enactment of long gone or ancient lifestyles.

In all the above, while these elements may be an authentic representation of how the hosts used to live, they may not be a true reflection of how they live today, and hence the representation is reduced to a mere staging of something.

As an example, think of an authentic traditional dance performance by singers in animal skins at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. The problem with this performance is that it may not be a true reflection of the contemporary and living culture of the place, and might even reinforce tourist’s perception that, in this particular case, Africans are still primitive.

Factors that Influence the Social Cultural Impact of Tourism

In general, the social cultural impact of tourism is not the same across the world, and a number of factors affect the impact of tourism on any community.

Ordinarily, most tourist-host interactions occur at the tourist destination region, when tourists purchase goods and services from local people, when tourists and local residents use the same facilities such as beaches, shops, restaurants, and other amenities and infrastructure, or when they purposefully meet to exchange ideas and information.

The type of interaction between tourists and hosts influence the relationship and the attitudes they have towards each other, and this in turn influences the social cultural impact of tourism (Wang & Pfister 2008).

The tourist-host relationship and thus the social cultural impact of tourism is affected by the differences between tourists and hosts, the type of contact between tourists and hosts, the importance of tourism in a community, and community tolerance threshold which refers to how willing a community is to bear the inflow of tourists and their influences. These are discussed as follows.

Differences between Tourists and Hosts

The differences between tourists and hosts that can affect the social cultural impact of tourism are their basic value and logic systems, religious beliefs, traditions, customs, lifestyles, behavioral patterns, dress codes, sense of time budgeting, and attitudes towards strangers.

Basic Value and Logic Systems

The values and the logic systems of a host community and tourists will determine what they value and how they value it. If the hosts and tourists have different values and logic systems, it could cause attraction or resentment whenever there is an interaction.

Religion, Traditions, and Customs

When tourists and hosts belonging to different religions come into contact with one another, there are likely to be shocks and new discoveries. For example, the public display of affection between males and female Christian tourists may be shocking to many Muslims in the Middle East.

Contact between tourists and hosts whose traditions differ might cause greater impact. For example, the scantily dressed tourist may, in the long run, impact on the dress code of many rural communities in Africa. The reaction might be to copy them or loathe them for not adhering to local norms and social codes. Variations in traditional practices can be found even among people of the same race and language.

The similarity of customs between the guest and the hosts lessen the possibility of misunderstanding each other. For example, tourists from Cape Town visiting Durban will find many customary similarities to their hosts and may not have any impact on their host community. Differences in customs, however, do not always mean that there will be a negative social cultural impact.


Lifestyle differences can be caused by income differences. The rich tend to lead similar lifestyles even though their cultures may not be identical, as the way they spend their money on property, travel, and entertainment, for example, is usually similar. Such lifestyle differences might have an impact if the hosts copy, envy, or morally judge the tourists, or vice versa (Pizam 1978, p. 98).

Dress Code

When the dress code of tourists is different from that of hosts, the hosts tend to be either attracted to or offended by the dress of the visitors. In most cases, the hosts tend to envy and copy the dress style of tourists, which may not always be acceptable.

Sense of Time Budgeting

People from developed countries generally value time and think that it is polite to be on time for appointments. On the other hand, people from developing countries generally have a more relaxed attitude towards time, and are not as strict in keeping appointments. Such differences can be a source of misunderstanding or even conflict between tourists and the host community.

Attitude towards Strangers

Some cultures and societies view strangers with suspicion while other cultures are more open towards outsiders. The more open the host communities are towards strangers, the greater the social cultural impact of tourism is likely to be on them.

Type of Contact between Tourists and Hosts

The type of activities tourists engage in, such as passive or active activities, can determine the type of contact and level of interaction with a community. The more active the activity, the greater the interaction with the host community, and the more likely tourism is to have an impact on them (Lankford 1994, p. 35).

For example, formal contact, as in the case where tourists receive services from their hosts, makes it necessary for tourists and the local community to interact with each other and is a platform where cultures, norms, and values are exchanged. Thus, it is an opportunity for both parties to copy the behavior and mannerisms of the other.

In a similar way, informal contact that takes place where tourists and hosts share the same facilities such as stadiums, streets, or beaches may have either a good or bad influence on tourists or hosts or both.

The Importance of Tourism in the Community

The way tourism is perceived by the local people in communities, especially their perceptions about its importance to their livelihood, will impact on tourist-host relationship. In cases where there is an excitement about tourists and the benefits that their presence will bring, the tourist-host relationship is usually good due to mutual admiration between tourists and their hosts (Hafeznia et al. 2007).

In contrast, when the novelty of meeting new cultures wears off and tourists begin to irritate the locals, probably due to their large numbers, their competing for the limited resources with locals, or the real or perceived ills that tourists bring, tourism might be seen as having less importance and a more antagonistic relationship will begin to develop (Huang & Stewart 1996).

Community Tolerance Threshold

As stated earlier community tolerance threshold refers to how willing a community is to bear the inflow of tourists and their influences. Where the members of a community are less irritable and able to accept tourists regardless of their mannerisms, then tourism will have an impact on them (Aref & Redzuan 2010). On the other hand, when members of the host community are irritable, it becomes very difficult for tourists to penetrate their society and the tourism will have little or no impact at all on the local community.


As explained in this paper, the social cultural impact of tourism is not the same across the world. Various factors that differ from location to location influence not only the type of impact, but also whether those impacts will be negative or positive.

The type of interaction between tourists and hosts influences their relationship and the attitudes they have towards one another, and this in turn influences the social cultural impact of tourism. Typically, the tourist-host relationship and thus the social cultural impact of tourism are affected by differences between tourists and the host communities. Other factors are the type of contacts created and how tourism is regarded by the local community.

The location of tourism, such as a rural or urban location or in a developed or developing country, determines whether the social cultural impact on the location will be positive or negative. To a great extent, the number of tourists visiting a location affects the level of impact on the host community. For example, a large number of tourists will have a greater influence on the host community, because there are many chances of a local person meeting a tourist.

The origin of tourists also affects the social cultural impact of tourism because there might be notable differences between them and the hosts due to their origin, which might intensify the impact. The stage of tourism development in a destination affects the host community’s knowledge of tourism and attitude towards tourists, and its reaction to tourism.

Reactions of host communities in the development stage can include hostility, lack of charity, and imitation. These in turn affect the nature of social cultural impacts that result from tourism. To some degree, the length of the tourist season influences the intensity of the social cultural impact. The longer the interaction, the greater the impact of tourism on the host community will be.

Reference List

Allen, LR, Hafer, HR, Long, PT & Perdue, RR, 1993, ‘Rural Residents’ Attitudes toward Recreation and Tourism Development’, Journal of Travel Research, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 27 – 33.

Aref, F & Redzuan, M 2010, ‘Community Leaders’ Perceptions towards Socio-cultural Impacts of Tourism on Local Communities’, Journal of Human Ecology, 29 (2): 87 – 91.

Green, R 2005, ‘Community Perceptions of Environmental and Social Change and Tourism Development on the Island of Koh Samui, Thailand’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25 (1): 37 – 56.

Hafeznia, R, Eftekhari, A & Ramazani, I 2007, ‘A Comparative Study on the Tourism Policies in Pre and Post Islamic Revolution of Iran, Case Study: Babolsar in the Coast of Caspian Sea’. Journal of Applied Sciences, 7 (24): 3836 – 3874.

Huang, Y & Stewart, P 1996, ‘Rural tourism development: Shifting basis of community solidarity’, Journal of Travel Research, 35 (4): 26 – 31.

Lankford, S 1994, ‘Attitudes and Perceptions toward Tourism and Rural Regional Development’, Journal of Travel Research, 32 (3): 35 – 43.

Liu, Z 2003, ‘Sustainable Tourism Development: A Critique’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 11 (6): 459 – 475.

Long, PT, Perdue, RR & Allen, L 1990, ‘Rural Resident Tourism Perceptions and Attitudes by Community Level of Tourism’, Journal of Travel Research, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 3 – 9.

McGehee, G & Andereck, L 2004, ‘Factors Predicting Rural Residents’ Support of Tourism’, Journal of Travel Research, 43: 131 – 140.

Murphy, PE 1981, ‘Community Attitudes to Tourism: A Comparative Analysis’, International Journal of Tourism Management, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp.189 – 195.

Pizam, A 1978, ‘Tourism Impacts: The Social Costs To The Destination Community as Perceived by Its Residents’, Journal of Travel Research, 16: 8 – 12.

Wang, Y & Pfister, E 2008, ‘Residents’ Attitudes toward Tourism and Perceived Personal Benefits in a Rural Community’, Journal of Travel Research, 47: 84 – 93.

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