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

MikeachimTravel19 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.