04 Feb How to have authentic, meaningful travel experiences in touristy areas
Lisbon tour guide explains the impact of mass tourism (video)
Why is mass tourism a problem?
We’ve seen some of the negative consequences of mass tourism first hand, having lived in Jamaica for two years. Since then, we’ve visited places that have experienced exponential increases in tourism, like Barcelona, Amsterdam, Florence, and Lisbon, and read some eye-opening articles about the changes locals have seen in their communities.
The following are a few examples of what can happen. Have you seen any of these at play in places you’ve visited?
Impact on the local area can include:
– Loss of traditional way of life and culture as tourist-centric enterprises take over
– Locals may be priced out of their own neighborhoods – both for housing and cost of goods – in areas where the cost of living has typically been lower than that of its visitors
– Larger organizations (including foreign corporations) move in, so profits no longer stay within the local economy
– Degradation of the natural environment occurs as new construction and over-use of resources is more profitable (short term gains are prioritized over long-term well-being of the area)
– Large groups and inconsiderate travelers coming to party bring extra noise and damage to property
– Crowding increases in public areas and traffic congestion worsens
– Locals lose their privacy as visitors “consume” and photograph without interacting on a personal level, akin to visiting a zoo
Impact on travelers can include:
– Wait times for local attractions worsen and general experience among large crowds is unpleasant
– It becomes more challenging to experience the authentic local culture instead of the same cookie-cutter experience that thousands of other tourists are also being herded through
– Locals may start to view visitors as dollar signs rather than fellow humans; vendors get more pushy or try to over-charge unsuspecting tourists
How can responsible travelers experience touristy areas in authentic, meaningful ways?
We believe travel is important and can be transformational, both for the traveler and the communities they encounter. But some types of travel can do more harm than good.
So what can we do?
We came up with a few key guidelines for meaningful travel in areas with mass tourism. To make this more comprehensive, we also reached out to our fellow travel bloggers to get some additional tips we hadn’t thought of. We’ll include some of their quotes through this article, too.
Prioritize local advice
“Do your reading and listen to locals! Don’t just stay and spend local once you get there – read local perspectives before going. If a place is very touristy, most people are probably getting all their trip planning information and context on the place from other tourists. Make an effort to read up on the country, both its history/current events but also travel tips, from local sources. Who knows the dos and donts better than them? They’re the only people who can really tell you how to travel in their country responsibly, from local etiquette and customs to places that might seem ethical on the surface but simply pose as such to attract tourists. Seek out travel guides written by locals or in which locals are interviewed. Ask people in Facebook travel groups who are from there. Go to the country/city’s subreddit and simply ask: Do you have any tips for how I can travel responsibly in your country?”
– Elizabeth Aldrich from Temporary Provisions
This is tip is definitely worth noting. We’ve always found that when we have a local connection in a new destination, our experience there is much more rich and meaningful. We’ll dive a bit further into connecting with locals in the following tips as well.
Shopping for produce at a neighborhood market with my aunt in Paris
As a traveler, you have a choice in how you spend your travel dollars. What restaurants will you frequent and who will you purchase gifts and souvenirs from? When you shop at locally owned, independent businesses, more money is kept in the community. This is because local businesses tend to purchase goods and services from other local businesses.
In Jamaica (and almost every other country we visit), we see Burger King and KFC chains. Yes, they employ local workers. But where do they print their branded cups and paper bags? It’s not in Jamaica. Who do they pay to do their graphic design? Not a Jamaican. Where is the owner who gets most of Burger King’s profits, and where is he or she making personal purchases like groceries, clothing, entertainment, etc? Probably not in Jamaica. In other words, a large portion of the money is being funneled out of the country.
If you’re not sure whether a store is locally-owned, remember that size matters. Research on spending by local authorities shows that for every $1 spent with a small or medium-sized business 63% stays in the local economy, compared to only 40% with a larger business.
Our homestay hosts showing us how to barbecue in Hoi An, Vietnam
You have a choice with where you stay. Accommodations can play a huge factor in your overall experience as well as how much or little you support the local economy.
Choose individual, local hosts over big companies and hotel chains. In Lisbon, developers have bought out much of the historic town center for accommodation businesses, which has raised housing prices for locals and pushed them to the outskirts of the city. If you prefer a hotel, find one that’s locally owned. We tend to prefer renting through Airbnb, but even then you need to check the host description to be sure it’s a person and not a property management agency.
Choosing an apartment rental also helps you to experience the destination more like a local, slowing down your pace, shopping at the markets, seeing how your neighbors go about their day. This is one of our favorite things about travel.
Another way to enhance your experience through accommodations is by staying with local hosts through Couchsurfing, Work Away, or even house-sitting.
“When you do Workaway, lodging is provided and sometimes meals. In exchange, lodgers work for a few hours a day at a variety of tasks they choose, from gardening to home repairs to housekeeping or childcare. It’s a great way to get to know how locals live and work.”
– Cris Farinas
“Use Couchsurfing instead of booking a hotel! You’ll not only get to know a local person or family and stay in their home, but it’s free so you’ll be saving money as well! By staying with a local through Couchsurfing you’ll also have access to all that awesome local knowledge and can get great tips about little-known sites and cool local experiences to have while you’re there.”
– Crawford Creations
More unconventional ideas like house-sitting and work away opportunities are explained in more detail in our free e-mail series: Sign up here for transformational travel tips.
The free walking tour in Hue, Vietnam is hosted by students who want to practice English
Whether or not you stay with a local host, there are other ways to make sure you connect with locals for a more meaningful trip. You can attend meet ups (check the Couchsurfing forum, city Facebook groups, city events listings, or MeetUp.com). Meet ups often take place around personal interests – music, books, language learning, travel, etc. – so they can be a great way to make meaningful connections with new friends.
You can also hire a local guide to take you on a tour or to teach you something new through a class or activity.
“Book a local cooking class. Not only it is a fun way to experience the flavours of a new destination, you’ll pick up some new skills along the way.”
– Nadine from Le Long Weekend
“Attend a language exchange meet up, where you can meet locals looking to chat to improve their English skills and to also help you learn a bit of the local language (hey, you’re in their country after all!). It’s a great way to make authentic connections and new friends outside the tourist bubble.”
Visit in off-peak seasons and times of day
Florence is crowded, even in “shoulder season,” so to see it without crowds means getting started at sunrise.
Most destinations have high and low tourist seasons. Traveling during shoulder season or the off-peak seasons will help you avoids crowds and long lines, and it can also cost less. Hotels and airlines in popular destinations will often drop prices and offer special deals during the low season to try and drum up more business.
Here are a couple other tips from travel bloggers regarding off-peak travel for a more enjoyable, meaningful trip:
“Travel in the off season, locals are more welcoming and not so busy so you get a better more personal experience.”
“Check popular hours for museums and other sights, and plan to visit during off hours. For example: book the early 7 am tour to the Vatican, visit the Louvre on one of the evenings it’s open late, or the Uffizi Gallery in Florence late in the day.
Also, spend the night in destinations known for being a popular day trip (i.e Cinque Terre, Sintra in Portugal, or Phi Phi Islands for Maya Bay) so you can experience the destination in the mornings and evenings without the hordes of tourists in from group travel.”
Forget FOMO, travel slow!
You can get just as much out of a simple walk through the city, soaking up every-day life, than filling your day with all the tourist activities.
Fear Of Missing Out can get us into trouble when it comes to travel itineraries. When you can get over the need to see everything the tour book tells you and just experience the place, you’ll have a more enjoyable experience and will probably find yourself in fewer tourist traps, too. Rather than try to pack your days full and hop from city to city every day, slow down and dig deeper in one place.
Instead of ticking items off of something else’s bucket list, be selective and choose experiences that you personally connect with – whether it be art workshops, conversation groups, biking, or just watching the ocean waves.
Here’s another strategy in this vein:
“Find alternative ways to see the big sights – that way, you still get to feel like you’re checking things off your list, but you’re not drowning in crowds. Every city has these “secrets.” For instance, don’t wait in line forever or battle with masses of humanity to see the Eiffel Tower – instead, there are a number of rooftop restaurants and bars nearby which will allow you to get the same lovely experience without any of the hassle!”
Recommended responsible, local tour operators:
As we mentioned earlier, if you don’t have time to coordinate a casual meet up with a local, you can always hire one to show you around. There are plenty of individual operators in every tourist destination but if you need help, we have some recommended orgs that are in multiple locations around the world.
“Take a small group food tour. Choose a tour that is run by a local with a limited group size, this is a great way to get to know an area better, and find some less known places you otherwise might miss by yourself. You will learn a lot about how food plays a role in the local culture, the background of the restaurant and the owners which gives an understanding of the history of the area from a locals point of view and of course you will be supporting businesses.”
– Kaylie Baker
For short tours and day trips with a local, check out Urban Adventures. They specialize in sustainable, experience-rich travel, partnering exclusively with local experts in each destination. Their goal is to give you to give you the Best. Day. Ever. wherever in the world you are.
Urban Adventures has some great food and culture tours; artisan craft experiences; as well as biking, hiking, and other exploratory adventures.
The Visit.org platform exclusively features tours with social impact, run by local non-profits around the world. When you book through them, you can know your visit will generate additional support and income for great local organizations, strengthening their work and bolstering their ability to accomplish their goals.
From typical city walking tours to rural elephant encounters to craft workshops led by refugees, you’ll find a variety of opportunities – all for a great cause on Visit.org.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for organizations we love and recommend. If you book through our links, we may receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you. We always appreciate your support in this way!
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