The Value of Cultural Awareness

by Carol Southall
Aug 2009
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People undertake overseas travel to experience and broaden their understanding of different cultures. However, while wanting to experience different cultures, visitors also want or expect host countries to understand and respect their own culture. Many tourism businesses provide their staff with Welcome Host or similar training to ensure they offer a warm welcome to visitors.

However, far fewer offer training specifically on the cultural mores and attitudes of overseas visitors. Yet it is the improved awareness and understanding of different visitors’ cultures that can provide far greater business benefits. This article illustrates how having a better understanding of different cultures, and being able to provide products and services in appropriately differing ways, can provide significant benefits to tourism businesses and destinations.

In a rapidly expanding and highly competitive global marketplace, and against the backdrop of the current challenging economic climate, the pursuit of quality has become an organisational imperative for tourism businesses. Different perceptions of quality, however, make its attainment more difficult, not least because of the very (human) nature of the individuals within the marketplace – both the staff within tourism businesses and visitors.

Within the service sector and more specifically the tourism industry, there is the additional problem of its temporal, spatial and fragmented nature. Major constraints to attaining high quality standards within the tourism industry include cultural pre-conditioning and the preconceptions of tourists themselves [1].

It is argued that there is a correlation between the level of cultural awareness of the tourism business and the subsequent perception of product/service quality on the part of the tourist. Increased customer satisfaction is likely to ensue as a result of enhanced staff cultural awareness and subsequent development of culturally appropriate products and services. Ultimately in today’s competitive market it is vital to understand the economic benefits that cultural awareness can bring to tourism businesses.

'When there was relatively limited contact, and contacts were confined to a small number of individuals, cultural awareness was the preserve of a few. In the current global marketplace some level of cultural awareness is a prerequisite for success' [2].

Both the tourist’s and the businesses’/destinations’ knowledge and understanding of another culture may hinder or enhance the service exchange. It is important for tourism businesses and destinations to take this into account in the provision of products and services.

Much of the research on this topic focuses on how cross-cultural understanding influences business relationships, and many training providers offer courses that outline the various elements of the cultural exchange and appropriate ways of doing business with overseas organisations.

Whilst this is highly relevant, it is useful to specifically analyse the impact of cultural values on business practices in the tourism industry. Clearly if business success relies on harnessing the diverse skills and experiences of its employees whilst respecting their cultural values [3], then surely it should also depend on meeting the diverse cultural needs of its customers.

This article explores cultural awareness and how it affects the perceived quality of the service encounter.

Cultural awareness is a fundamental aspect of tourism participation, however it is important to define culture in the context of this article.

Culture relates to the norms, values and beliefs [4] that influence and shape individuals, businesses and destinations. It is a strong determinant of behaviour [5].

Culture influences every aspect of our lives and often people are unaware of why they do and see things in a particular way. Only when we step outside our cultural boundaries can we see how our actions are determined by the culture in which we live.

One of the biggest problems in the customer service exchange within the tourism industry is the common assumption that everyone has the same needs, expectations and behavioural patterns, when in fact the actions and reactions of people are a result of their cultural conditioning and therefore may differ.

‘Tourism service encounters take place in the context of a tourism culture which is formed by four components: the national/regional settings of the tourist and the host region, the tourists’ various subcultures and the organisational culture of tourism enterprises in the tourism receiving region’ [6].

It is therefore important for tourism businesses to identify the specific cultural components relevant to their organisation, their market and their product/service offering. And to ensure that adaptations are made to enhance the customer experience and ultimately assure customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Undoubtedly the tourism industry and culture are inextricably linked in that it is often the search for a cultural exchange that is an inherent part of the motivation for the tourist to travel. As already illustrated, to meet expectations there is a need for cultural awareness, both on the part of the individuals travelling and, equally importantly, tourism businesses.

The first step to meeting customer expectations is to ascertain and understand them [7]. Understanding the needs and expectations of the consumer and designing products and services to meet these [8] is a relatively straightforward concept, but it is also vital to consider the factors of cultural background and conditioning.

Customer loyalty is often affected by the perception of the level of service provision. It is this perception that will ultimately affect their repeat purchase decisions [9]. Service quality perception and satisfaction is affected by a person’s cultural background [10].

In order to enhance service provision and ultimately attract and retain loyal customers, tourism businesses should be aware of important cultural characteristics, including values, attitudes, language, etiquette, customs and manners [11].

Mastery of the person’s language is not required, but trying to learn just a few simple words and acknowledging customs can make a big difference to their level of enjoyment and subsequent satisfaction. Learning about customers and their values, beliefs and motivations helps to understand their responses and ultimately to better interpret their requirements.

Another aspect of culture is body language and whilst subtle, it is easily possible to offend through inappropriate (albeit inadvertent) gestures that demonstrate a lack of respect and subsequently undermine the business relationship.

CILT [12], The National Centre for Languages stresses the requirement for cultural skills in business, specifically the tourism industry, indicating that cultural and language skills are beneficial for, amongst others, hotel reception, tourist attraction and restaurant staff, in welcoming guests, dealing with enquiries, taking bookings and guiding visitors.

There are a number of compelling reasons for those working in tourism to pay attention to cultural awareness.

In 2008 there were 31.9 million overseas visitors to the UK spending approximately £16.4 billion [13]. This, according to VisitBritain, was the first decline in visitor numbers since 2001. Additionally the top five inbound markets for the UK in 2008 were France, Ireland, USA, Germany and Canada. Although three of the top five inbound markets are English-speaking, there are significant cultural differences. The assumption that because a nation is English-speaking it is culturally similar should be avoided.

The UK Tourism Strategy for 2012 [14] clearly indicates the need for improving the skills of those working in the tourism industry, particularly those meeting visitors face-to-face. Doing this, it argues, will make Britain more attractive to visitors and encourage them to come back for more. The 2012 Olympic Games in London will provide Britain with an opportunity to showcase its attractions, capture new markets and address the changing needs of visitors. The Games is expected to:

  • improve international perceptions of Britain
  • deliver a first-class welcome to all visitors
  • improve the skills of the workforce
  • drive up quality in accommodation.

Interestingly within the strategy there is a clear indication of the need to showcase British culture and highlight London’s cultural diversity, but it is clear that if Britain is to be successful in its ongoing maximisation of the economic benefits derived from the Games, there must also be a drive to incorporate cultural awareness training within all sectors of the industry.

Only by enhancing our understanding of the diverse cultures of our inbound markets will we be able to improve international perceptions of Britain and deliver a first-class welcome to all visitors. Cultural awareness and foreign language training are identified by the strategy as contributing to the improvement of customer skills across a range of sectors.

Britain has some way to go to improve its welcome, as evidenced by the following sources.

  • ‘Research has shown time and time again that an area for improvement is our welcome of foreign visitors to Britain.’ [15]
  • ‘Feelings of welcome, customer service…continue to be a bit of a sticking point.’ [16]
  • According to the ‘Anholt-GMI Nations Brand Index (September 2006), the UK was in 16th place as being a country where people would make you feel welcome. Canada was in first place.’ [17]

The inclusion of attitudinal questions, added by VisitBritain, to measure perceptions of Britain as a holiday destination enabled the Anholt-GMI Nation Brand Index (NBI) [18] to ascertain that customer service was not seen by respondents as a key strength for Britain.

This trend needs to be reversed and it is argued that only by identifying and meeting the needs of our diverse customer base, will the industry benefit fully from 2012 and beyond.

Cultural awareness matters to all stakeholders in the tourism industry [19], both the tourists themselves and the service providers. In many cases this is a subconscious requirement and it generally only becomes apparent when things go wrong.

For tourists, understanding the culture of the destinations visited is likely to enhance their experience and increase their enjoyment, whereas a lack of understanding has the opposite effect.

Culture conditions people to abide by certain norms and expectations, and if the hosts fail to recognise these it makes for a less positive experience. Employees should also be culturally aware in order to provide effective customer care that meets the needs, and exceeds the expectations of customers.

From a business perspective, the industry decision makers need to have an understanding of diverse cultures as they are responsible for making decisions or formulating policy affecting culturally diverse tourists. Such decisions will ultimately affect income generation and competitiveness that will impact upon long-term survival.

One of the difficulties faced by the tourism industry is that, because of the multi-faceted nature of the industry and the wealth of stakeholders involved in the provision of the overall product, tourists tend to judge the total holiday experience. It is therefore important that everyone from transport and accommodation providers to restaurants and attractions make cultural awareness a priority.

A widely applied theoretical concept relating to cultural values is that proposed by Professor Geert Hofstede [20] who, between 1967 and 1973, conducted a comprehensive study of the influence of culture on workplace values. Whilst specifically relevant to the business environment, the principles of this theory may help tourism businesses to recognise the main cultural differences that exist between nations.

Hofstede’s research outlined a number of cultural traits that define nations, including power distance (PDI), masculinity/femininity (MAS), individualism/collectivism (IDV) and uncertainty avoidance (UA) [21].

  • Power distance refers to the distribution of power in terms of acceptance of inequality. In societies with a low power distance there is little acceptance of inequality and, particularly in the workplace, subordinates expect to be consulted. In societies with a high power distance, inequality is more widely accepted and power, which is held by a minority, is accepted by the dependent majority of people.
  • Masculinity/femininity refers to the degree to which gender roles are differentiated within countries. In a more masculine culture managers are expected to be decisive and assertive and conflict is resolved by fighting, whereas in a more feminine culture conflict is resolved by compromise [22].
  • Individualism/collectivism is concerned with how people identify themselves, either as individuals or as members of a group.
  • Uncertainty avoidance refers to the need for rules and regulations. Low or weak uncertainty avoidance involves motivation by achievement and encouragement of innovative ideas and behaviour. High or strong uncertainty avoidance indicates a need for rules and some resistance to innovative ideas and behaviour. Motivation by security is likely to be demonstrated in societies demonstrating strong uncertainty avoidance.

Consideration of the aforementioned cultural dimensions can assist tourism businesses to identify the cultural traits likely to be exhibited by their key overseas markets and develop or adapt products and services accordingly.

As an example, research [23] indicates that ‘…findings suggest that firms who serve visitors from countries where assertive behaviour is encouraged should expect lower average satisfaction measures when compared to visitors from less masculine societies.

However it is important to take into account broader cultural differences when drawing any conclusions from customer satisfaction surveys: whilst negative evaluation responses may be higher from cultures identified as ‘masculine’, it is responses from less ‘masculine’ cultures that should be explored more fully. This is because the cultural behaviour of people from more feminine countries restricts them from communicating service issues and problems willingly.

Customers in a ‘collectivist’ culture are more likely to express dissatisfaction to others, ie friends and peers, rather than to the organisation. Conversely, customers from an individualistic culture are more likely to voice their complaints to the organisation and consequently receive a solution to their dissatisfaction, having expressed it to the organisation in the first place [24].

‘Cultures that value formal rules and standards need a well-defined set of policies and procedures when dealing with organisations. They will be more comfortable (less uncertain) by knowing the expectations of the organisations with whom they deal… Organisations need to be prepared to encounter a variety of differing value structures and not set expectations for behaviours, relationships or business practices by their home country’s standards. The better we know our customers and their corresponding culture, the more correctly we will adapt our business strategy to their differing needs.’ [25]

The UK is characterised as a very individualist, low power distance and masculine country with low uncertainty avoidance [26]. This is in contrast with France, one of Britain’s top inbound markets, which is characterised as individualist, high power distance, medium masculinity and high uncertainty avoidance. Perhaps surprisingly, tourists from similar cultural backgrounds tend to be more critical of service quality than those from dissimilar cultural backgrounds [27].

In a highly competitive market an augmented product or service offering enables a tourism business to stay ahead of its competitors. Recognition of cultural diversity is one way in which tourism businesses can achieve this.

British tourists travelling abroad tend to have certain expectations of the accommodation product and often this is reflected in their perceptions of quality (quality ratings differ widely across Europe and perceptions of the quality offered by a 4-star hotel in Italy, for example, may be higher than that actually offered). This issue cannot be easily overcome, but the warmth of an Italian welcome and an offering of cooked food items at breakfast, in addition to the continental choice, may supersede any issues the British visitor may have with the quality of accommodation.

Another example of culturally appropriate products and services is that of tea and coffee-making facilities in overnight accommodation. The British tourist stereotypically enjoys the consumption of tea whilst abroad. Indeed tea is considered part of our national culture. Many continental accommodation providers do not offer tea and coffee-making facilities although in recent years, some, most notably those belonging to the Accor Group, eg Novotel, Campanile, have introduced a tea/coffee tray in their rooms to meet customer needs and expectations.

Such examples of core service augmentation enhance service provision and can provide significant benefits to tourism businesses and destinations in terms of visitor satisfaction, word of mouth advertising, repeat business and increased profit.

From an aesthetic perspective, which includes art and folklore, it is important for an organisation to recognise the importance of symbolism within certain cultures. Problems may be caused when symbolic values are incorrectly interpreted, for example: ’… Russian folklore has established the bat as a symbol of bad luck. As a result the famous movie Batman has had no success in Russia and the bat, owl and mouse should not be used in advertising [28].’

Whilst the film example may not be relevant to the tourism industry, the message however is relevant. Imagine if the design of a hotel room featured artwork containing such images. This would be culturally inappropriate, especially if the key market was Russian tourists. Furthermore, advertising must also be considered from a cultural perspective, as symbols commonly used in one culture and incorporated into product marketing, may be considered inappropriate in another.

The concept and perception of time varies across cultures. In western cultures we view time as a finite resource, one that is constantly depleting. Eastern cultures have the opposite perspective, that time is an infinite resource and is therefore unlimited.

This attitude towards time is likely to cause frustration in a Western culture when appointments and schedules are not strictly adhered to. Providers should consider check-in/out times and meal times at hotels or schedules imposed on UK coach tours where non-adherence to times can cause problems and frustration to the staff involved and potential dissatisfaction for the customer.

Weiermair [29] outlines a number of specific issues and implications facing tourism businesses and destinations regarding the extent to which cultural norms should be considered.

  • Should destinations offering local tourism activities include activities widely considered to be global cultural norms, such as theme parks or Disney style developments?
  • Should local food become internationalised to suit other cultures?
  • Should tourism employees interact with culturally diverse customers in a professional manner or in a manner based on local tradition?
  • Should cultural goods and heritage be managed, modernised and marketed to appeal to an international audience or should they be preserved in their original manner and presented through museum type products and services?

Whilst it is difficult to answer such questions and, in any case, answers would depend on both the business and the destination in question, it is clear that these are important considerations for tourism organisations. What is clear is that the first step to gaining significant benefits from the cross-cultural service encounter is that of cultural awareness training.

Cultural brokers can make a valuable contribution, too. The idea of the cultural broker, whose role is to mediate between tourist and host, is explored by Wall and Mathieson [30]. Included in the category of cultural broker are tour guides, organisers and retailers of tourism products and services.

The interaction between tourists and hosts is, to some extent, controlled by the broker and they are also in a position to influence and enhance the cultural exchange by providing information to both tourists and hosts that will facilitate the exchange and lead to increased customer satisfaction.

The cultural broker is therefore an essential component in the tourism process and their importance should not be underestimated. A broker well-versed in the cultural idiosyncrasies of an organisation’s key market can be the lynchpin of a successful exchange.

An underlying theme throughout cultural awareness literature relates to the ability to empathise and suspend judgment [31]. Learn how others would like to be treated, how they think and feel, and collect as much information as possible about cultural norms and values before evaluating a situation.

Learning simple cultural dos and don’ts can avoid misunderstandings, help to generate respect and understanding and ultimately lead to repeat business through customer satisfaction [32]. These attitudes and behaviours can be learnt through cultural awareness training.

The type of intercultural training is a further consideration: whether culture-specific or culture-general [33]. Culture-general training will offer an overview of different cultures whereas culture-specific training will, as the title suggests, offer training in a limited number of cultures. Clearly the choice is dependent on the level of cross-cultural contact involved but whatever the type selected, it will ultimately lead to an increased understanding and enhanced service quality.

People1st, the UK Sector Skills Council for hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism has recently unveiled new short customer service qualifications in recognition of the fact that, as the 2012 Olympics approaches, the UK needs to improve on its service provision if it is to encourage repeat visitation.

The qualifications have resulted from the identification of customer service skills as the main skills lacking within the industry. As recently as October 2008 customer service levels in the UK were deemed as being ‘…patchy and rarely exceptional.’ [34]

Recognition of the requirements of different visitors is considered a vital aspect of future customer service training and clearly the cultural diversity of overseas visitors to the UK needs to be recognised if future training is to be successful.

The Welcome to Excellence [35] programmes pioneered by UK Regional Tourist Boards offer a number of courses designed to improve levels of customer service within the UK tourism and hospitality industry.

‘Welcome International’ is the one-day course offered as part of the suite of programmes. It focuses on welcoming visitors from key international markets, from understanding the international tourism industry through to language skills, effective communication and the identification of cultural expectations.

Tourism British Columbia [36] and WorldHost Training Services offer similar training programmes in which they identify specific target markets, including the culturally diverse, with the aim of enhancing knowledge and awareness of their key market segments.

With preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver well underway, WorldHost Training Services is working with the Vancouver Organising Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) to deliver ‘Team 2010’ workshop to key stakeholders. To aim is to improve customer service skills and develop strategies for dealing with customers from culturally diverse backgrounds.

As mentioned earlier, the Anholt-GMI Nations Brand Index (September 2006), reveals Canada to be in first place in terms of its welcome (compared to Britain’s 16th), suggesting that Britain could learn something from their approach.

Differentiation through service quality has become increasingly important in today’s highly competitive tourism industry. Cultural awareness is an important success factor in this differentiation. Only by considering national differences and adapting products and services accordingly, can tourism businesses maintain their ability to compete in today’s market.

A key consideration for tourism businesses is how adapting to cultural norms may reduce authenticity, local character and destination attractiveness. Blending tradition with modernity, local culture with global culture and offering local products/services with international appeal are key challenges for tourism business managers. When dealing with international visitors with diverse cultural backgrounds, the priority is to ensure customer satisfaction whilst at the same time retaining our own unique identity.

One way for individual tourism businesses to find out how they can satisfy differing service expectations based upon cultural differences is through customer research. This should look at expectations as well as the customs and practices of different cultural groups. Only by doing this are tourism businesses likely to be able to provide products and services that are best suited to each group. It is worth remembering how the cultural dimensions identified by Hofstede can affect customer feedback, so feedback methods must be appropriate for each culture.

An understanding of organisational culture, employee culture, national culture and the culture of incoming visitors is essential if the needs of both tourism consumers and employees are to be met. Cultural awareness training is, therefore, paramount as Britain gears up to showcase its attractions during the 2012 Olympic Games. Unfortunately in the current economic climate, businesses often forgo training in order to make savings and yet it is this training that may ultimately contribute to their survival.

VisitBritain has developed a series of profiles of various overseas markets at, which may also provide a useful resource.

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Carol Southall studied tourism and languages in London in the late 1980s. She was a Tour Guide and Contracts Manager for an international coach tour operator before taking a year out to travel around the world. In the mid-1990s Carol began a teaching career, initially in further, and later in higher education, alongside which she continued to plan and escort tours to destinations including Singapore, Australia, USA, Iceland and South Africa.

Carol holds a Masters Degree in Tourism Management and a recently attained a PCV licence. Research interests primarily focus on tourism quality management.