A couple of months ago, Travelllll.com published an article asking if you would be inspired to travel like and with a local, even if it were for a fee. The responses somewhat predictably ran the gamut from “I prefer to walk around myself” and “you can [already] find people willing to give you a tour and show you the city on Couchsurfing… for free” to “this would be an awesome way to meet someone who can show you around.”
To me, however, the question itself misses the whole point of local travel. And, much more critically, the responses to it betray just how deeply self-centred travellers (and people who write about travel) often are, a mindset in grave need of a change.
You see, local travel isn’t only about how meaningful an ‘insider’ experience you can have. It’s not just about what you can take away with you – how unique your under-the-hood vacation was or how little (or much) you paid for it. Instead, it’s about balancing that discovery experience against the needs and interests of the host community by being sensitive to the local environment, the local heritage and culture, and the local economy. That’s what local travel is – give-and-take travel.
If you just rolled your eyes, then you must also enjoy feasting on endangered species and driving the kind of pointlessly expensive low-gas-mileage car that is accelerating global warming. It’s all part of the same short-sighted mindset.
Local Travel is a Return to Travel’s Roots
Starting about 175 years ago, the publication of travel guides helped turn travel into an industry. Before that – before early entrepreneurs launched into the world with the intention of penning primers designed to help smooth the way for others – there was rarely any timely and accurate travel detail available about faraway places. Thus all travel was necessarily local travel. The Magellans, Battutas, Polos and Ericsons plunged into the unknown and relied on local welcome and directions to find their way.
That being said, these trailblazers also struggled against mighty mindset headwinds. Although many cultures’ long-standing traditions of generosity and hospitality helped many travellers stay safe and kept their forward momentum going, both visitors and hosts were usually weighed down by deeply seated ignorance-fed suspicions and superstitions.
The echoes of their bias and fear still resound today, of course, but we’ve learned a lot from their mistakes. Generally speaking, few of the explorers of yore were as open-minded as the vast majority of travellers now are. However, for decades, and all in the supposed interest of security and comfort, we’ve been sliding further and further from the old-style person-to-person visitor-host direct interactions that used to be so fundamental to overcoming ignorance and apprehension. Many visitors to a country never really get to know a place because social and economic realities are hidden from them, and they aren’t incentivized to engage with locals passionate about how life really is. Instead, they’re encouraged to think that high-definition glossies and time-lapse videos are enough.
Until recently, that is. As the ubiquity of guidebooks and group tours made contemporary travel safer, it also became increasingly soulless. And, as a backlash, a new attention to ‘traditional’ travel – aka local travel, with a greater emphasis on making human connections – has risen from the ashes.
A Mindset, Not a Label
I sense a growing fatigue with labels in travel. I share it. But this isn’t about identifying a new slogan through which to market a rebranded vision of ecotourism or responsible travel. Although I see plenty of value in it, this isn’t a tisk-tisk rebuke about how to do things better or with respect for legally guided ethics. No, it’s a reminder that there are human qualities in us all that we somehow think are OK to set aside when we’re away from home.
When we’re at home, we’re taught to be upstanding members of our communities, gauging and respecting the social and cultural norms. So why shouldn’t we be just as civic-minded when we’re visitors to another community? We may not be as fluent in reading a foreign culture, but that’s why local instruction is so critical.
When we’re at home, we use our time to seek out special local experiences – quality alternative food, unique gatherings, recurring and/or transitory happenings – suited to our tastes. Why should we be any less inquisitive when we travel? Why is anyone ever content with bland tourist pap, plastic souvenirs and a seat in a cultural spectacle purged of real culture? We might not know where to hunt for something else, but that’s how meeting a local can help.
When we’re at home, we steer friends away from the worst of the invading hordes, counsel against the most egregious traps and do our best to share little slices of real life. Why when we travel would we not be just as vigilant for ourselves? Or identify a local who could point us the right direction?
I have a friend who recently spent a week in Saigon. Through an acquaintance he met someone local who, over the course of several days, introduced him to meals of snake, rat and dog. Did my friend visit the Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum or Cu Chi Tunnels? I don’t know. I didn’t ask. He didn’t mention them. Because his local dining experiences – unusual fodder, consumed way off the beaten path and in the company of locals – were the highlights of his trip. His short experience in Vietnam is arguably richer than many longer ones I’ve read about, even if no one quite shares his gustatory inclinations. That’s what local travel is about.
Are You Part of the Local Wave?
When was the last time you did a Web search for local travel Albania? The results I get are an eclectic mix of information, opinion and service articles. Now contrast that with a search for the top 10 things to do in Albania. It’s filled with typical lists by TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, VirtualTourist, tripwolf and Wikitravel. The contents of the articles are all remarkably similar.
But how many times can you read about the city of Gjirokastra? How much more about it could one 250-word snippet reveal than any other? Are any of them going to help you develop a more meaningful understanding of life in Gjirokastra?
In Gjirokastra and all over the world, revenue from tourism is not fairly distributed. By some UN World Tourism Organisation estimates, “economic leakage” sees as much as US$80-90 of every US$100 spent on travel in the developing world banked by deep pockets with little connection to those countries. So if you want to be of service both to your readers and to the destinations you’ve visited or in which you’ve lived, think like a local. Dig a layer deeper and offer something different. Just as all the big kids are clamouring for dominance in all things local, so too should travel writers be responding to growing consumer demand for something other than yet another top-10 list. These days, if you’re not local, you’re nowhere.
So what does local travel mean to you?
Featured Image: Flickr/Stephan Ridgeway