It’s about time we got down to the nitty-gritty of local travel. The almighty Internet would have you believe it’s the brainchild of millennials, hipsters, yuccies – call them what you will, but in reality it’s been simmering below the surface of an unsustainable mass tourism industry for decades.
Things heated up when crowdsourcing and the sharing economy strode defiantly onto the scene, offering curious minds new possibilities to seek out experiences beyond those listed in the adjective-littered guidebooks.
Don’t get me wrong; guidebooks can be useful, but we all know what happens to a place once it flirts with the pages of Lonely Planet. How many times must we visit lacklustre sights (I’m looking at you, Miss Mermaid), eat at disappointing restaurants, and sleep between stiff, chlorine-infused sheets to begin questioning the authenticity of our escapades?
Sure, authentic experiences are irrelevant for some – those who simply want a break, a change of scenery, another checkbox ticked – while others will argue that tourists will always be tourists for the precise fact that they’re not locals. This is where our pal the Internet seems to be missing the point, largely (and quite absurdly) on behalf of frivolous mis-marketing.
Local travel isn’t about abandoning your identity and slipping into character to avoid the shame of being branded an outsider, nor is it about turning your nose up at popular tourist attractions because they’re not places where locals typically congregate. And it certainly isn’t about blending in just so you don’t feel like a tourist.
What I’m getting at, fellow wanderers, travellers, adventurers, and explorers, is that there are some very valid reasons to stray off the tired tourist path.
1. It’s an anthropological delight
Wherever you travel in the world, part of the experience is learning, through observation and participation, about the people who live there. Their traditions, their culture, their history, their quirks, their cuisine.
Staying in a sterile hotel, sticking to familiar foods, and only visiting the main attractions isn’t going to give you much insight. What a shame not to discover the richness of life that exists just beyond the tourist bubble.
It can be challenging, confronting, infuriating, and sometimes even scary, but I guarantee it will leave you with so many colourful memories that you’ll never feel the need to use the expression, “yeah, I’ve done [insert city/country name]”. Why? Because you’ll always have more interesting stories to share.
2. It’s much easier to meet people
Meeting people while travelling can be tough, but if you’re open to new experiences, it’s actually pretty easy. No, dear readers, I’m not talking about finding your fellow countrymen in British pubs and backpacker hangouts, nor am I telling you to strike up conversations with complete strangers on the streets (a sure-fire way to scare the Swedes).
These days there are lots of exciting websites and apps that serve to link curious travellers with locals all across the globe. If you’re visiting a bigger city, Meetup and Couchsurfing events are plentiful and typically full of folk looking to make new friends.
Unbeknownst to many, Couchsurfing also offers the possibility to peruse people’s profiles and request to meet without having to commit to sleeping on their couch. Take the time to write a genuine private message and you might end up with a new best mate by the end of your trip.
Then there’s the option of signing up for fun local tours and experiences. Whatever you’re into – eating, cooking, street art, beer, biking, architecture, or urban exploration – do a bit of digging and it’s likely you’ll find a friendly local who’d love nothing more than to share an experience with you. Beats joining a pack of 50 foreigners and trailing a jaded expat tour guide any day, I reckon.
3. You’re bound to make some memorable discoveries
Stick to what’s recommended in the guidebooks and you’ll probably be disappointed at some point. In many cases the hyperbolic descriptions won’t match up, especially when it comes to accommodations and eateries, which all too often jack up their prices and compromise on quality once they’ve scored a flattering four-line review.
Whether or not this has been a problem for you in the past, straying off the tourist trail is infinitely rewarding and full of possibilities that stretch far beyond the scope of the guidebooks.
Ask around, download our app, do some detective work, watch where the locals go and you’re bound to make many memorable discoveries. Some of them may turn out to be big mistakes (eating surströmming in Sweden, for instance), but hey, you’ll have some entertaining stories to tell.
4. It’s about R.E.S.P.E.C.T
Locals have a tendency to dislike tourists in their cities for many credible reasons (there’s little doubt that the narcissist’s weapon of choice, the selfie stick, scores the top spot).
Show off your fleshy bits in a conservative country, bargain relentlessly when it’s entirely inappropriate, deface national monuments with love locks, make a fuss about the food, get wasted where you shouldn’t – and the contempt only grows.
It’s always worth checking out the dos and absolutely do nots of your destination. Do it for the sake of decency.
5. Challenge negative national stereotypes
As an Aussie living in Scandinavia, people are often befuddled by my behaviour. The fact that I’m not interested in getting drunk at the drop of a hat (never fear, I do enjoy the occasional tipple), obnoxiously loud, or painfully patriotic means that I’m usually taken for a Swede.
Let me be clear: a significant proportion of the Australian population is well behaved when abroad, the issue is that negative national stereotypes stick.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of emulating the behaviour of their compatriots, tourists challenged these stereotypes by slipping into the local groove. It doesn’t take much to be polite, patient, respectful, and insightful – the locals will appreciate it and maybe even develop a soft spot for people from your country.
6. It’s cheaper
Hotels have a habit of being expensive, soulless monstrosities that don’t even allow you the possibility of preparing your own morning caffeine. Often offering significantly cheaper real-life lodgings equipped with a kettle if not a well-appointed kitchen, it’s no wonder the world is embracing more local options such as Airbnb and FlipKey with such fervour.
If you’re travelling in a group or to a city where eating out will suck your savings and then some (read: anywhere in Scandinavia), this one’s a no-brainer. And anyway, picking up provisions in a foreign country is an experience in itself.
While we’re on the topic of food, though they may appear appealing thanks to their locations, restaurants and bars in the vicinity of popular sights, streets, and squares are, more often than not, overpriced and underwhelming.
Your feet may well be aching and the bait-staff charming, but hey, it doesn’t take much to meander down a side street and discover local places serving tastier fare for half the price. Not convinced? Ask a passer-by for a recommendation or consult our trusty app.
If meandering ain’t an option, taking public transport in a new city isn’t nearly as daunting as you may have been led to believe; it just requires a bit of research and a can-do attitude.
While being quite literally compressed into an already overflowing Sri Lankan bus and zipping along a seaside highway at lightning speed isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, public transport in much of the world is a breeze and almost always infinitely cheaper than renting a car or taking a cab.
7. Put money in the pockets of people who deserve it
Wherever you stay, wherever you shop, wherever you eat – you almost always have a choice to support faceless multinational chains, fuel the tourist trap phenomenon, or put money in the pockets of locals. Sure, everyone is trying to make a living, but don’t you agree that the latter makes so much more sense?
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All illustrations by Tallinn Traveller Tours’ chief badass, Ann Vaida.