Living in a place among people born and bred there, remains the best way to travel. For a long time, this was a view shared by a privileged few. Whenever a holiday tripper brags about having been there, done that, we travel snobs secretly smirk with the knowledge that they barely scratched the surface of the destinations they visited. The good news is we can get over ourselves now, because the experiential tourism trend has made local living its new key component, which sees the world as a giant neighbourhood to be explored. Each encounter between traveller and local is a new friendship-in-waiting, with direct engagement around lifestyle experiences sealing the bond.
Been there, haven’t done much
At university I learnt about ethnography in Social Anthropology class (imagine my surprise to be using that term again) and I became jealous as hell of anthropologists visiting remote villages to observe the lifestyles and customs of isolated tribes. No interference, no T-shirts handed out or Western ways of any sort imposed. Later on I chose to live in other countries as my ultimate way to travel – observing first hand and participating in local living, fully immersed and belonging. Forgive me then my smug reaction when tourists tick places off a list as if the experience of travel could be bought at a grocery store. I’d listen pondering all the things they’d missed out on.
The simplicity of a daily routine, how it differs from or mirrors one’s own lifestyle..
The reason there’s a man going through Seoul neighbourhoods at night, making an unintelligible announcement to sleeping residents (to this day); how Santiago residents disappear from the city over Chilean Fiestas Patrias and the poultry-inspired origin of their national dance; the importance of distinguishing between northern and southern Dublin accents; the solemn ceremony at the start of the cinema or theatre in Thailand.
So many wonderfully quirky, worth-knowing nuggets of culture you don’t get to experience as you cram a hundred touristy photo opportunities on your 10 day trip of highlights. Sure you could read up on all those things, but that’s not as good as experiencing it.
So I’m excited that this movement is gaining momentum, with travellers wanting more and rightly so. They instinctively feel the pull to learn how the rest of the world lives, to dig deeper beneath traditional tourism and immerse themselves into experiences that are essentially educational, personally transformational and therefore, much more memorable. And they need to connect with the people and culture of their chosen destination on a more intimate level to achieve that. It’s about appreciating the way locals live, getting to know them better in the process, and for a while, feeling a sense of belonging with them.
I think there’s truth in the notion that to travel is to ‘find’ yourself – when you put yourself in someone else’s circumstances, understand their daily challenges and joys, how they function and express themselves, what they aspire to and the values that shape who they are, you inevitably compare your personal experiences with theirs.
It’s a way to learn about yourself, partly through the eyes of others. That kind of sharing builds connections on a deep level with lasting resonance (in my experience, as long as you’re open to it) and I suspect this is what travellers are increasingly drawn to.
Beyond that, it’s pure, simple human curiosity. In this information age, consumers crave more knowledge still but with a different perspective from the generic online information. They want to discover the humanity beyond the digital, a lovely paradox in our business. Our content must sell the idea of an experience and convey it digitally, so that more consumers can access it; the onus is then upon us to deliver the promised human connection. Once they’ve had the experience, they feel the need to share their memories with the world, digitally, social proof that the experience rocked their world and it’s worthy of closer attention.
Conducted last year with over 5,000 respondents between the ages of 18 & 35, the survey reveals that social experiences reign supreme (74%), with cultural, food & intellectual experiences taking second, third & fourth place respectively.
The conscientised traveller
Perhaps we’ve grown up in our understanding that we know little really about each other and that we learn most effectively by engaging with each other directly. We acknowledge the need for respecting differences and for cultural sensitivity. We’re jaded by the traditions of mass tourism, wary of tourist traps and concerned about the effects of overtourism – not just on our host destination, but also on the type of experience it’s likely to offer us.
Local living tourism resonates with travellers who genuinely care about what they bring into a destination and what they leave behind, be it pollution, intrusion or bad reputation.
They’re motivated to contribute positively to local economies; they’re equally motivated to take away greater insight, understanding, and friendships from their travel experiences.
Authenticity as a commodity
What defines an authentic travel experience is key to local living tourism. Travellers aren’t interested in contrived representations of local culture staged for their entertainment. They want those raw, untainted experiences previously only accessed and enjoyed by super wealthy celebrities. With their power and influence to command unusual experiences, they were able to buy their authentic experiences with locals who weren’t even trained guides working in tourism. They were simply ordinary citizens with particular expertise, who were willing and eager to share what they knew and their culture with interested visitors.
To make these experience accessible to all travellers, travel brands have begun incorporating this growing demand for authenticity into their products – involving local communities and businesses that offer immersive experiences broadly ranging from locally-owned accommodation to language lessons, food-based activities to religious rituals or events, and more. As long as locals are involved and the activities are true to cultural origin, then authenticity is preserved, and you’ve got a happy traveller.
The world is a neighbourhood
Travel companies have to reinvent and bend over backwards somewhat to counter the temptation many travellers fall prey to, to go it alone. Shared economy and crowd sourcing partnered with Internet connectivity and a multitude of apps, make the traveller feel empowered to plan their travels independently. Fortunately, we have a lot more to offer to counter this threat: convenience, time and destination knowledge. With local living, our contacts on the ground are a huge advantage in securing those desirable authentic experiences.
The trend has crossed over from affluent travellers to include the big players of the modern mainstream travel sectors.
Multi-generational families, solo travellers, millennials and Babyboomers alike, all show an interest in connecting with their foreign neighbours.
There’s great power in being able to identify the local living experiences that best suit each traveller persona. Tap your web analytics and analyse those search metrics to understand better what each is after. They will need their own custom-designed experience of their host community as an extension of their own interests back home.
They could be seasoned, educated travellers seeking urban, well-heeled neighbourhood experiences where you could match them up with intellectual locals with niche expertise of particular interest or community leaders involved in development and inner-city upliftment projects. Others may prefer to hang out with regular locals from rural areas to learn what their lives are like. Locals that grew up or have lived for some time in a place not only know the history of the destination and its people best, but are also in tune with new trends. No neighbourhood is a 1 dimensional museum with static displays – where people live, communities grow and develop, trends buzz.
Customise for local living
An essential part of living the local experience in a short time, is having the freedom of a loose, flexible and customised itinerary. This traveller wants room to breathe, explore and experience, with a variety of local interaction options to choose from and decide when to engage. This is where the travel professional will shine, provided they know the traveller’s interest well.
You might, for example, entice them with voluntourism activities that serve local communities – activities that multi-generational families would enjoy bonding over as much as solo travellers would enjoy making new friends at.
Some 59% of households with children said they would consider a day dedicated to community service, compared to just 28% of those without children.
However you involve locals and incorporate the lifestyle into your offerings, pre-packaged standard one-size-fits-all products are out; customised variety offerings are in.
Antidote to mass tourism
Local living flies in the face of traditional mainstream tourism with its queues and crowds blocking the views of famous sites with selfie sticks and annoying sheep-like behaviour. It doesn’t deny the traveller access to iconic sites, but brings focus squarely to the kind of experiences locals are more likely to engage in on a daily basis.
This includes going to more obscure markets, lesser known restaurants or local eateries, using local transportation like tuk tuks in South East Asia, using collectivos in Latin America, canoes in Africa, or cycling in other destinations; staying in smaller, independent boutique hotels that reflect local culture and style better than large multinational resorts; dressing like locals, shopping where they shop; learning to cook like them, eating with them and learning their table culture; discussing with them issues that are pertinent to them.
This kind of engagement equates direct investment in the local economies and asserts a more sustainable brand of tourism.
Participate, not just spectate
The great thing about this sort of travel experience is that it applies to everywhere. Countries like Cuba, Mongolia, Italy, Vietnam and the like might now be the popular choices for local living tourism because they happen to have better developed options currently available. But where there are people, there is culture. And there are activities around music, language, art, gastronomy, leisure and the environment to engage in and learn from.
Travellers want to experience milking that yak, taking care of orphaned baby orangutans, learn which spices are used how in certain cuisines and why. They want to get their hands dirty on projects not described in guide books, so they can go home and boast about their unique experiences.
Call them social capital seekers – Instagrammars who will fuel travel envy and #FOMO by documenting their super authentic, under-the-surface-scratching, next level experiences in pictures. Think of them as cultural purists – seekers of deeper meaning with their reverence for connections made and bonds forged across cultural, national borders with siblings from other parents. When we laugh over a meal together or shed a tear over a touching personal history, it reminds us of our shared humanity. It’s all we need to feel that sense of belonging that cements local living as an essential ingredient in sustainable tourism.