Local Travel: Why, Why Not, and What The Hell?

Posted by on Oct 22, 2012 in Travel | 18 Comments

“Well, I’m a big believer in massive amounts of discomfort”.

Sixty people stare up at me quietly, assuming they’re watching the start of a mental breakdown. There are five of us sat on stage, and we’re supposed to be talking about the importance of travelling like a local, but somehow we’ve wandered into its sister topic, “authenticity”. I’m outlining my philosophy of having an authentic English experience rooted in stoic misery and suffering. I talk about staying up all night in Greece, going from coffee to beer to coffee again in an attempt to un-night like the locals do, and then I explain that because I wasn’t Greek, I felt like crap the next morning. I describe what it was like to sleep rough in Orkney, and get lost on the North York Moors.

I wasn’t sure what all of this had to do with authenticity until later, when I realized I was authentically portraying myself as an absolute disaster-zone. Fair enough, I suppose.

Authenticity“. “Local“.

What do these words mean?

The good people at Gogobot invited me to their London Travel Salon to suggest my own answers alongside Debbie Wosskow, Paul Clammer, Matt Carroll and Alex Leviton. All we seemed to end up with, around such a formidably complicated topic, was more questions. Here are some of them – and after a few weeks of head-scratching, I think I finally have a few answers of my own.

Why is everyone so obsessed with “local travel”?

A good person to ask is travel writer Vicky Baker. A few years back she ran a column in The Guardian chronicling her successful attempt to make her way around Central & South America guided by locals she met over social media. Four years later she’s bemused about how fashionable the word “local” is in travel journalism & blogging…

The reason this blog has gone quiet lately could perhaps….be linked to the overuse of the word “local” across the industry. I’ve seen guidebooks trading on the word “local” that are no way dissimilar to any other guidebook. Magazine articles offer “local’s tips” just for the sake of it, with no real added value for anyone. Tour companies promise you can “be a local” by hanging out with poor people for a couple of days.

In a response to new BBC article on the rise of “slum tourism” (another horrible phrase and a wellworn debate), writer Oliver Balch tweeted: “Slum Inc: my take – let tourists visit, but make them stay 1 week, queue for water, do a day’s shift, toilet together.”

So is “local travel” passé? As a buzzphrase, maybe. But the idea of money going to small operators, the idea of more self-awareness and consideration – that is surely not tired.

Vicky Baker, “How ‘Local’ became Travel’s Biggest Buzzword

It’s easy to become cynical. So hey, let’s do that for a second.

Locals Being Authentic (York, England).

“Local”? What rubbish.

The reason “local” is so popular is that it’s impossible to define.

Nobody agrees on what constitutes a “local”. How long do you have to live in the area before this title is bestowed on you? How long before something turns into a “local tradition”? How long do you have to be in business before you’re part of the community? Nobody is trying to provide answers for one very good reason – they would spark riots. Anyone with a fleck of provincial pride is going to take enormous offence when a stranger (a non-local, probably) starts throwing around universal laws of locality. Blown up to a national scale, this could easily incite wars. (“Excuse me, Mr Northern Cypriot, according to the Fifth Law Of Locality the Greeks are the real locals in Cyprus, so that whole Turkish thing? Yeah. Sorry. Look, I didn’t make the rules, ok?”)

So, it’s undefinable – or at least trying to define it would be so socially catastrophic that  nobody will ever touch it with an authentically hand-crafted bargepole. But that’s ok – because its very wooliness is what makes it so useful to the tourist industry. If you want to slap a layer of credibility over something you’re offered to tourists, stick the word “local” in there (and “authentic” – that’s another winner). It’s meaningless because it can mean anything, and it’s useful because people fall for it every time. And when they conclude that something is deserving of the label “local”, that label unquestioningly means it’s a qualitative step up from “non-local”. That’s its marketing power.

With a somewhat pompous, pseudo-Imperialist sleight of hand, it has become an internationally recognized synonym for “better”.

“You want authentic moussaka? Please, sit.” (Chania, Crete)

“Local”? It’s real & we all want it.

Up on stage I’ve finished explaining why suffering is a great way to live, and now Debbie Wosskow of Love Home Swap is championing local travel to the crowd. Her international accommodation-swapping business operates in 100+ countries on the principal that for a holiday to be truly memorable, you have to find a way to feel like you live there – and the  best way to do that is to temporarily swap homes with someone who does. It’s a very attractive prospect. It clearly works.

Who hasn’t felt that urge? Those fleeting moments when we imagine we’re mistaken for a true local – that’s a delicious piece of travel escapism. It’s also arguably a healthy one, as it makes us pay attention to the non-touristy rhythms of life around us. It encourages us to connect with the people in the places we’re passing through, and it makes us want to fit in, not stand out – all admirable qualities for a traveller to nurture. We chase such moments every time we hit the road. We want to become characters in those stories.

However, there’s the problem – right there in the word “admirable”. Why? Because it turns “local” into a judgement.

And this is where it all gets sticky. The opposite of “authentic” is “fake”. The opposite of “local” is….what? Yes, “outsider” springs to mind, but in many cases the real antonym is “fake” again. And that’s a nasty, judgy word to sling at strangers – not just a specific review, ie. this restaurant served bad food, but a sweeping condemnation…this restaurant served fake food. That’s a damning generalization. (So much for making an effort to understand the subtleties of local life).

But there’s another issue here. As much as we chase those local experiences, we forget what ours are like. The longer you spend in a place, the more you tune it out, and the harder you have to work to appreciate it again. This is why it’s always a revelation when someone comes to visit and you take them on a tour of your home town or city, and why all such days out involve the resident turning to the visitor and saying “you know, I really should do this more often“.

Being a local is often a really great way to ignore your surroundings. And if that’s true, why the hell are travellers asking locals for advice? Surely those people have the most blinkered and jaded opinions in town? Most people are rude about the places they grew up as a kid  - the right to do so is a seemingly universal social constant. “What, here? It’s bloody awful. The town council is corrupt, nothing ever gets done, the principal exports are population, it’s full of old people clinging onto their driving licenses, there are no decent shops – ye gods, the only good thing about it is the road out. Yeah, I know we get loads of tourists but they don’t know what it’s really like.”

And in my experience, it’s very easy for a local to be so firmly entrenched with an opinion of their home that it’s a total surprise when reality fails to back it up. “But…they can’t have renovated that eyesore of a pub. Really? In this town?”

The Brew Rooms, Cheltenham. You should go. Like, *now*.

What does “local” really mean?

I think it means “different”.

Different to what? Well, that’s what you’re there to find out. That’s why you’re travelling. That’s what you’re in search of. Right? It’s a new experience. So go experience it and see what you think and see how you feel, and try to tune out anyone telling you how to think and feel about it in advance.

Go make your own mind up.

It’s what exploring the world is all about.

Images: sparetomato and Mike Sowden

My thanks to Paul, Debbie, Matt, Julia, Alex, the rest of the Gogobot team and everyone in the audience for a really great evening.

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  • http://www.candicedoestheworld.com Candice

    I fucking hate the “local” craze. Some chick on Matador chewed out a post published about Calgary saying that it was weird how the writer wasn’t local. The problem with being “local” is yeah you get to see some things you might miss, but other times the locals have lived there so long, they don’t even know what’s worth seeing anymore. They’re jaded. Just freaking do whatever you want. Yeeeesh.

    • Mikeachim

      It’s also pretty bad when people assume that “non-local” equates to “incapable of doing enough research to be relied upon for advice”. Nothing wrong with being chewed out about the specifics, but when it’s a sweeping judgement, it’s…well, a sweeping judgement.

      There’s also going to be a difference in the way you write about a place having lived there a while – not better or worse, just majorly different. When decades of memories are pulling your so-called-objective opinions in all directions, you’re going to write something that encompasses those decades – something with a lot of historical depth, and arguably, much more personal?

      I tried writing about York over the last couple of years – but until I moved away, I had been there for 10 years, and every time I started writing, those years resurfaced and I wandered off topic, again and again. Sometimes you can almost be too close to a place to write about it cleanly.

  • http://www.wired2theworld.com Kristina

    Yeah, “local”. It annoys me too because it has very little meaning regarding travel even though we all “think” we know what it means. It’s a loaded word. Not only is it an issue in the travel blogging world, but it’s also a problem in the food blogging world (I have both). In fact, I think the “locavore” movement is quite possibly even *more* annoying.
    We all want to travel and have that perfect “local interaction” moment. Then we want to go back to our hotel/hostel and get on facebook or twitter and boast about it, right? That doesn’t mean the experience is any less good or personally important, but sometimes I think we need to savor those moments and not crow about them.

    • Mikeachim

      That’s it – it’s an assumed truth, not an interrogated one. And those things usually come under the category of “prejudice”.

      Regarding going on social media and bragging about it, hey, that’s what social media is *for*, isn’t it? ;)

  • http://escapeartistes.com Theodora

    WHA’?! Ya mean the Punch and Judy in Covent Garden isn’t where the locals go? I totally met a real life English person there once.

    • Mikeachim

      No, the real English people are too busy dancing across rooftops with cartoon penguins, sweeping brushes over their shoulders – the ones that live in London, I mean. The rest live in Downton Abbey.

  • http://frugalcitygirl.wordpress.com Kerry

    I totally agree that the term “local” has become this pejorative hammer to wave around – it’s not really about “what’s local”, it’s about what’s NOT local – ie, like you say, “fake”. “I know a great local restaurant there” really means “most of the other restaurants in that neighbourhood serve gussied-up lies”. Which, really?!

  • Rich P

    It’s amazing how much of Seoul I have introduced to locals. You are 100% right that being local is the best way to tune out a place. In the sense that the more “local” you become the less you care about a place I would imagine that as a tourist you would want to avoid localism at all times!

  • http://miurakaigan.blogspot.com Silvia

    You’re right in that local does not necessary mean knowledgeable. I’ve seen tourists in Vienna that definitely know more about the city than I do, simply because it’s in their guide book and they actually read it. I know a decent Chinese around my corner, but is it the best in town? I doubt it, it’s just convenient to where I live.

    It’s good to have someone visit from time to time and show them the sights, because Vienna is actually a great city with some remarkable sights, great museums and some decent restaurants. But really, when you’re on vacation you don’t go into town to take a look at the sights, you hoof it out of here and go as far as your budget takes you to see THE WORLD. Never mind that you haven’t even explored what’s right at your doorstep. Well I know, I didn’t.

    I’ve been planning to do just that for years. Maybe one day I’ll come around to actually doing it.

  • http://www.travelcrunch.co.uk John Williams

    I thought ‘travel like a local’ mean’t getting up at 6h30 to 7h00 each day and then catching a crowded commuter train, bus or negotiating a traffic jam, into the business quarter. You stay there pretending to be busy but in fact you are updating your social media accounts. At around 17h00 you return to your accommodation have some food and watch TV.
    Don’t tell me tat this is yet another travel term that I’ve failed to grasp? ;)

  • http://john.onolan.org John O’Nolan

    TLDR: I don’t like the word “local” – I’d prefer it everyone said “different”.

  • http://www.fivewrongturns.com Doug Mack

    Right on, Mike (and everyone in the comments). Especially the observations about how to be a local is often to be jaded. I give tours of the Minneapolis riverfront, and we get just a ton of locals who (a) don’t know any of the truly amazing history and were totally unaware of the coolest sites, or (b) kind of knew about all that stuff, but never bothered to actually check it out **until they had guests in town and decided to tag along for the ‘touristy’ outings.**

    Part of the “local” appeal is that it’s also, ostensibly, a signal of belonging, of being in your element. But don’t we also travel precisely to get out of our element? There should be no shame in asking someone for directions or in chatting up a stranger in a bar, asking for clarification on some unfamiliar local custom. Not that you want to get out a megaphone and announce you’re a tourist, but I think it’s totally fine to acknowledge and even embrace your outsider status, and let the locals help you rather than pretending you’re one of them. Besides, being mistaken for a local feels really great momentarily (“I’ve passed the test! I’m not even sure what the test was, but I totally passed!”), BUT the locals will quickly realize their mistake, and then you’re back to your outsider status, possibly feeling all the more awkward because you’ve been exposed as an imposter.

  • http://www.asthebirdfliesblog.com Frankie (Bird)

    Beautifully told analysis of an overused word. I am much more comfortable using the word “local” as a noun – but not preceded by “like a..”. I can identify locals – I watch locals at work and at play, I can apply generalisations and differentiate (often inaccurately) between them and us – but how can I possibly empathise with what their life is like after just a few days? Especially when I’m staying down the road in a 4 star resort. Ahem.

    I think what I’m trying to say is I use this word with caution and by the sounds of these comments so do many others…

    We also forget that not everyone aspires to travel “like a local” (*shudder*). I quite like travelling like a traveller and sometimes I even get my kicks travelling like a tourist (*gasp*).

    I’ll get my coat…

  • http://districthideaway.wordpress.com/2012/10/28/cat-stalking-a-squirrel-in-ne-dc/ Alex Smith

    But it’s always nice to get a little bit of local perspective. Although, if you want to explore the place on your own, it would even be better. Some locals might know a few off the beaten road places that you’d be missing.

  • http://www.baconismagic.ca Ayngelina

    Traveling like a local annoys me as much as authenticity and tourist vs. traveler debate. It is simply another way for some people to feel that they travel in a better way than others. We all need to just get over ourselves. There is nothing wrong with going to see tourist attractions, there is a reason why there are there.

    • http://www.travelingwithmj.com Mary Jo Manzanares

      Finally. A voice of measured reason on the – dare I say it, arrogance – of using authentic and local. I’ve stopped reading anything that uses those words, but you’ve now put words to what I was feeling.

      Viva le difference!

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