Experiencing World Festivals the Right Way: Cultural Etiquette Tips

Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, India – Holi, Diwali, and Carnival expert shares tips for how to act and be respectful when attending popular world festivals

Festivals have been a part of human existence since early civilization, with hundreds of thousands likely happening around the world every year. From religious to cultural, music, and more, these festivals take place in every corner of the globe, each with its own unique celebrations and experiences. 

And for any one event, sometimes millions of visitors flock to join in and witness their exciting customs and practices, and share in the beliefs that form the fundamental foundations of these festivities. 

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to attend some of the world’s biggest and brightest festivals, it’s important to not lose sight of their significance in and amongst the excitement of these celebrations and show them the respect that they deserve. 

This is why Jeremy Clubb, the founder of Rainforest Cruises, has delved into exactly what visitors should be most mindful and respectful of when participating in festivals around the world. 

The company specializes in tours and cruises across South America, South, and Southeast Asia, with experience in building relationships with local communities and cultures and expertise in teaching travelers to be respectful and responsible whilst exploring the world.

Whether you’re planning to watch the famed parades at Rio Carnival or visit the sacred Holi Festival in India, these are the most important ways that you can be culturally sensitive whilst taking part in these world-renowned experiences. 

Don’t Stare

Whilst the sheer beauty of the traditions, ceremonies, and performances cultural festivals showcase can leave you mesmerized, it’s important to remind yourself that what may seem like a harmless exhibit of admiration, or being visibly stupified, may make other people feel uncomfortable. 

“Many festivals have ceremonies or events in which people are often dressed in official robes or flashy outfits, and that have events or customs which will undoubtedly pique your curiosity. But whilst these are beautiful to watch and admire from afar, as you wouldn’t gawp at someone in the street, you shouldn’t stare at anyone taking part in these events.”

Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival is just one example of a festival in which people partake by wearing bold outfits with the aim of dazzling an audience. But, in many cultures, it is easy to make someone feel uncomfortable, or even self-conscious, by staring. 

Even if you have no intention of causing anyone discomfort, being aware of the impacts that your interest may be having on others can ensure that you aren’t making anyone feel uneasy for acting in a way that is natural to them and these festivities. 

Dress Appropriately

With many festivals around the world having underlying religious beliefs, it is important to consider the ways that these beliefs may weave into these celebrations, and how you should therefore be respectful, such as by dressing appropriately. 

“Diwali is one of the most significant Hindu festivals celebrated in India and other parts of the world. It is a joyous occasion marked by lighting oil lamps, fireworks, exchanging gifts, and feasting. 

“So, you may think anything goes dress code-wise, but tourists should still dress modestly and respectfully, and avoid wearing any revealing or provocative clothing to maintain the religious sanctity of the festival.

“In fact, it is preferable to wear traditional attire if possible, so why not ask any Hindu friends you may have to lend you an outfit for the occasion? If you don’t have anything traditional to wear, it’s important to dress up in your most bright and colorful clothing and stay away from black clothing as the festival is a celebration of the victory of light over darkness.”

Many religions have strict stipulations when it comes to clothing worn at religious festivals and in temples, especially with regard to covering the shoulders and legs, particularly among women. And so, when attending festivals such as Diwali, all visitors should be mindful of this and dress appropriately in order to be respectful of these beliefs and customs. 

Read also: Tips for exploring Sri Lanka as a solo female

Keep An Open Mind And Be Judgement Free

Sometimes, whilst traveling to new destinations, it’s easy to be struck by ‘culture shock’—a feeling of anxiety or confusion when you find yourself experiencing the day-to-day customs of a culture different from that of your own. 

And as many worldwide festivals tend to showcase some of the most significant cultural or religious traditions and customs, this means that, for many, it may be a shock to experience one culture’s norm when this may be considered unusual or incomprehensible in your own home culture. 

“Take the Ma’nene Festival, for example. Celebrated in Indonesia by the Torajans, it involves digging up their dead relatives, cleaning, and grooming their corpses before celebrating with them as a way of showing respect and strengthening the bond between life and death. 

“Whilst this may be unfathomable to some, this is a distinct and significant part of the culture of this fascinating ethnic group and a way of showing love and respect for those that are important to them.” 

So, deeming these rituals as ‘bizarre’ or ‘horrific’ only displays an insensitivity and refusal to try and understand the significance of these events to those who celebrate them most, who have welcomed you to experience these celebrations alongside them.

Having an open mind when attending any festival or event, regardless of how different their customs and traditions may be, will help you to truly understand, embrace, and appreciate their true meaning and the differences that lie between your own and these individual cultures. 

Don’t Stereotype

For those who haven’t experienced particular cultures before, it’s easy to find yourself inadvertently adopting any ideology that you may have been subjected to that creates a generalized, or stereotyped, view of a particular place and its people. 

“It’s a natural part of being human to group people into categories to try and better understand what makes them who they are—it’s part of how we think and reason. But, when it comes to culture, this is when we can start to offend, and even dehumanize, groups, taking away their sense of self-identity and perpetuating any stereotypes further.” 

When learning of, or visiting, any culture and its events, doing your best to understand the culture in its entirety, including its people and customs, and finding individuality in this, is important in order to break down any barriers and cultural stereotypes that have been created.

“Asking questions is a great way to respectfully learn more about a culture and develop a sense of cultural competency to overcome these stereotypes and better your understanding of others’ way of life.”

Don’t Appropriate

“When you’re trying to appreciate a culture and its festivities, it can be easy to cross that fine line that lies between appreciation and appropriation. And, more often than not, many who take part in festivals may not even realize that they are participating in cultural appropriation.” 

Defined as the inappropriate adoption, or acknowledgment, of a culture’s practices or customs, cultural appropriation is a not-so-uncommon reality among visitors taking part in festivals around the world. 

Particularly for festivals with deep religious roots, such as the Catholic Semana Santa in Spain and many Latin American countries, many tourists spend too much of their time focusing on the most ‘photo-worthy’ aspects of these events, without taking the time to understand their history and significance. 

This not only takes away the meaning and context of the festival for those it means the most to but also may encourage others to overlook its purpose and significance in the future. 

“Perhaps the best example is the Holi Festival—one of the most significant Hindu festivals in the world. Sadly many people merely know it as the ‘Festival of Colors’ and consider it a celebration on a purely superficial level in which colored powders are thrown, completely overlooking the fact that this event is grounded in religion.”

So, when visiting any cultural or religious festival around the world, make an effort to learn more about its significance and origins in order to connect with it on multiple levels to avoid appropriation, and make your experience all the more inclusive in the process. 

Be Conscious Of Crowds

Hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of people gather for some of the world’s most celebrated and significant festivals. So, this means having to come face to face, or shoulder to shoulder, with a lot of these people, most likely in crowded spaces. 

As such, more than in day-to-day encounters, you’ll need to be cautious that you’re giving people the personal space that they need and be conscious and mindful when moving around in confined or crowded spaces.

“Even though you may want to get from place to place quickly to keep up with the commotion and events of a festival, it’s important to bear in mind that rushing through crowds, and pushing past people, can injure others or even yourself.” 

Always proceed with caution through areas filled with many people and realize that you may not be able to dash between places in order to see absolutely everything a festival has to offer. By lowering your expectations, and instead slowing down and taking a more mindful approach, you are much more likely to enhance your overall enjoyment. 

Always wait until a safe and opportune moment arises to move to a different spot, or think ahead by finding a good vantage point to experience the festival where you don’t have to move. 

Avoid Intrusive Photography

Taking photos of new and significant events to capture the moment in motion and reflect on them in the future has almost become an unconscious act that many people do without thinking in our current digital age.

But those lucky enough to attend any religious and cultural events need to ensure that if they are going to take photos that they do so sensitively and responsibly. Especially if you want to be in with the chance of being invited back in the future!

“There are several different considerations to make when thinking about what the most respectful way to take photos at a significant festival is. The first is that if you are to photograph one, or multiple, individuals in particular, you need to get their consent to have their photo taken. 

Equally, be aware there may be certain aspects of a ceremony or ritual where photography is prohibited, so always be sure to check in advance.

“If they say no, don’t just think you will be able to sneak a photo and get away with it. Not only will this show a complete disregard and disrespect for their culture, but, chances are, you’re more than likely to be spotted by someone and asked to not only delete your pictures but also leave the event entirely.” 

Finally, we know it is tempting to try and find the best angles to get all of the most ‘Instagrammable’ shots, but you can’t be dashing around at an event and risk getting in the way of those participating in and running it, which could ultimately ruin the festivities for everyone else. 

“When attending any festival, you must be present and in the moment. Experiencing the events through the medium of a screen whilst recording or photographing is never the same as casting your eyes on it in person. In most cases, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so don’t throw away that chance to devote your full focus and attention to it.”

Research Local Etiquette In Advance

And lastly, but certainly not least, ensuring that you’ve educated yourself on the etiquette needed at these events is just one of the many important ways that you can show your respect at festivals. 

“Knowing what is expected, or what the rules are, at these events before attending will avert any misunderstandings, incidents, or upsets with locals that could be easily avoided. 

“For example, at Mardi Gras, one of the many, unspoken rules, is to not take someone else’s catch of beads or tokens thrown from floats, and at Songkran in Thailand, you should never throw water at monks or any elderly individuals. 


“Or, at other cultural festivals, sometimes it’s customary to bring gifts as a token of appreciation for the locals showing hospitality and sharing a part of their culture with you. Whilst it may not be necessary, it shows how much you value being a part of their customs.”

Learning a little bit more about the culture you’ll be visiting, and reading up on the events and festivals themselves before you take part, can really go a long way in demonstrating your respect for and responsibility towards a destination. 

Rainforest Cruises offers a number of tours and cruises visiting destinations around the world that host their own unique cultural festivals which the company can help you attend. You can learn more about its offerings here > https://www.rainforestcruises.com/

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