Do you want to travel to Rome just to see the Colosseum, or would you rather experience homemade Italian food with a local family in the city?
Would you travel to Thailand so that you can tick a Full Moon Party off your bucket list, when you could be learning about how locals grow rice in a local Thai village.
Local travel experiences are about getting beyond the usual tourist sights that everyone wants to check off for a particular destination, immersing yourself in local culture and supporting local communities.
What do you mean by local travel?
By local travel, I mean travel experiences which engage with local life. Local travel is about experiencing local places, activities and food, and meeting local people, to enrich your understanding of local culture.
As Kate from Travel with Kate says, when you travel local, you “dig a little deeper, past the tourist facade of your destination. There is a real difference between traveling to experience the destination you have in your mind and truly making connections that help you soak in the real local way of life.”
Local travel is one of those phrases that causes some people to turn their nose up, and others to squeal with excitement. Different people have different interpretations of what local travel means and how authentic so-called “local” travel experiences can really be.
One of the biggest criticisms of local travel is that as a tourist you can never truly “live like a local” because, well, you’re not. Tourists aren’t affected by the same local issues, don’t have the same everyday worries, nor the same upbringing and culture as natives.
But local travel isn’t about living life as a local would, it’s simply about appreciating local culture and making personal connections as part of your travel experiences. Supporting local communities as a traveller is at the heart of what local travel really is all about.
How does travel support local communities?
The major issue that we face with travel at the moment is mass tourism. There are a number of problems with mass tourism, namely the negative impact it has on the environment and local culture.
Increased tourism to an area rarely benefits the local community. Instead, package holiday companies, large chain resort hotels and foreign-owned food chains tend to pop up. The money from this kind of tourism lines the pockets of foreign investors and doesn’t make it to the locals who need it most.
This kind of tourism is unsustainable. Instead, we need to focus on traveling more responsibly and get on board with local travel. By making responsible travel decisions that benefit local people, we can support local communities through our travels.
5 ways you can be a Local Traveller
While all this local travel stuff sounds good, it’s true that finding out about local travel experiences and activities isn’t always that easy. Local travel doesn’t need to be complicated though. By making some simple changes to your travel style, you can learn about and enjoy local travel.
1. Sleep Local
Avoid staying in chain hotels or foreign-owned resorts when abroad. Look for eco-friendly and local accommodation when you travel. There are a number of different local accommodation options, but in particular travellers should look for locally owned B&Bs and guesthouses.
When we were in Leon in Nicaragua, we turned up and checked into a backpacker’s hostel. We quickly became tired of just chatting with other American and British travellers, and instead wanted a more local experience. We walked literally 10 metres round the corner and found a family who rented out their spare room for half the price. They let us stay there and cook our own food.
The sharing economy has also meant we have more opportunities to find local accommodation. Airbnb is an excellent way to find local accommodation, be that sharing an apartment with a local couple or renting a private apartment in a local neighbourhood. Couchsurfing is also a good way to meet and find a place to stay with locals – and is usually more social than Airbnb.
In other areas, you may also be able to find homestays in local communities, especially if you are volunteering, and look for WorkAway opportunities. House sitting is also an option for travellers who have more time and are willing to take on the responsibility of looking after someone else’s home whilst they are travelling.
2. Eat Local
While eating in chain restaurants like McDonald’s or having breakfast at the Hilton may seem like a ‘safe’ option for many tourists, your money goes straight out of the local economy.
Eating in locally run cafes and restaurants and buying locally grown produce supports local communities. If you find family-run establishments or buy direct from the source at a local farmer’s market for example, you can be sure that your money is going straight to the local people.
Also look out for social enterprises running cafes and restaurants that support local charities and lower income members of the community. If you can’t find any locally run places, look for restaurants and shops that employ local people and have initiatives to support the community.
Remember that eating local food is also a cultural experience. By eating traditional foods (being part of the demand), you are showing locals that you want to try their food and that you care about their culture. This may even have a positive influence on local people’s perceptions of tourists.
Thanks to the sharing economy, many local people in larger cities are also hosting guests for dinner in their homes. EatWith, Munch Together and Tabl are just some of the websites that help travellers connect and eat with locals.
3. Buy Local
When buying souvenirs on your travels, look for local and handmade souvenirs. Particularly keep an eye out for souvenirs made by local artisans, as buying from artisans also helps to preserve local traditions and craftsmanship.
In Vietnam, you can often buy handicrafts from local hilltribe women, such as handmade clothing (though be careful as the indigo dye in these can run in the wash), bags and jewellery. In Guatemala, many of the local women still weave and sell traditional Guatemalteca style clothing and scarves.
You may also be able to support organizations selling locally made goods where the profits go to local charities.
4. Travel Local
When traveling between places, go by local transport. This is how the locals get around in their home country, so why should tourists travel any differently? Public transport is better for the environment than renting private cars.
In certain countries, locals may also run taxi equivalents such as tuk-tuks in Asia and some Latin American countries, and collectivos, taxis shared by multiple passengers, which are particularly popular throughout Central America.
For very local, short-distance travel about town, you may be able to rent scooters or bicycles from locals.
5. Experience Local
There are many local and community-based tourism activities that travellers can get involved with in different countries across the world. Many of our favourite activities while travelling have been ones that are run by local people.
De La Gente is a Guatemalan organization in Antigua. They help low income locals earn an income through cultural experiences such as home cooking classes, peanut butter making, coffee farm tours and crafts. In Thailand, Local Alike is a similar organization that runs projects involving entire communities.
You can often find local cooking classes, walking tours and other similar activities in larger cities. We loved learning to cook Spanish tapas with a local couple in Barcelona, attending a non-profit language school in Antigua and enjoyed Free Walking Tours organized by a non-profit in Bulgaria.
Travellers who have more time may also be interested in volunteering with local charities. Research charities before you go and make contact with them when you’re in the country. This is often considered to be a better idea than paying to join a voluntourism trip as these may not always be beneficial for locals.
There are countless ways that you can support local communities while traveling. With just a little research and making more responsible, mindful travel decisions, you can enjoy traveling local and have a more positive impact.
This article was written by Charlie.
Charlie is a long-term slow traveller who writes a sustainable travel blog. She loves traveling all the time, eating vegetarian food, cooking with locally sourced ingredients, and meeting local people through community tourism activities.