Going local in a tourist hotspot
comment 9 Written by on April 5, 2010 – 9:14 pm


I just read an interesting post on the At Home in Tuscany blog.

In it the author addressed a decision by Grantourismo couple (and local travel supporters) Lara Dunston and Terry Carter to stay in Puglia. I’m not qualified enough on Italy to comment on this but the author wrote:

Of all the hidden gems for foreigners, they had chosen the least hidden and the type of accommodation that I am quite sure is the least popular among the locals.

Lara was quick to respond and made some good points. I’ll let you catch up on that exchange on the post itself.

The general idea did get me thinking though. Going off the beaten track is great, but it can also be interesting to go to the big tourist spots and try to see them from a new perspective. In some cases, the more ‘established’ a place is, the easier it is to get off track. Many people visiting these spots often follow an established chain of ‘things to do’ and aren’t always the most imaginative of travellers. You can often find all sorts of things off the main drag in a touristy town.

On a four-month stint in South America two years ago, I found myself going to a mix of places, from Maturin, which is as far from a Venezuelan ‘must see’ as you can get, to the Brazilian backpacker magnet Jericoacoara. Why did I go to the latter? I admit was just too curious not to see a place that has been described as having ‘one of the world’s best beaches’, but at least by going out of my way to speak to locals I did get a slightly different perspective of the place. (You can read my report on it at guardian.co.uk.)

Going back to At Home in Tuscany’s blog, the author added that most Italians wouldn’t stay in a trullo. She wrote:

The locals (meaning Italians) that I know (but there will be many others that I don’t know and who can disproof my words) would probably go to a hotel on the beach, foreigners will probably like the trullo more.

Again, I can’t comment on Italy, but here in Argentina local trends do tend to make some different holiday choices. This applies to destinations too. Many Argentinians love Mar del Plata and Uruguay’s Punta del Este, while Europeans find them too built up, with too many high rises and too many people shoulder-to-shoulder on the beach.

However, I should add this is the general consensus among a certain *type* of European traveller, the type who would choose Argentina as a holiday destination in the first place. Many Brits, for example, have their own beloved version of Mar del Plata and Punta on the Spanish costas.

All of this seems to be coming back to the post I wrote some time ago on why the best travel advice often comes from expats, because they understand both locals’ and travellers’ tastes.

As for Punta del Este, I was there just last week. I wouldn’t dream of spending a week there, but it was definitely worth swinging by so I could really appreciate the smaller spots nearby, like Cabo Polonio (pictured). I’m also loving La Pedrera, as I’ve now been twice off-season and had the beach to myself on both occasions.

What about you? Ever found some hidden gems close to hotspot? Or do you always give the overly popular places a wide berth?

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9 Responses to “Going local in a tourist hotspot”

  1. Thank you for commenting on my post. I am sure you can find hidden gems in popular spots too. I often write about hidden gems in Pisa, which is certainly not an off-the-beaten-path destination in its own right, so I totally agree that there is always something new to discover. Moreover, ultimately, the way our subjectivity filters our experience makes every place a new place: 1000 people can look at a 1000 places with 2000 different eyes, so novelty can always be found.

    However, there are other things to consider too, and of more general nature – and that was really the point of my replies, rather than my original question, which intended to be much less “engaged” than this!

    One is that in very popular spots, the local tends to be eventually geared towards the global, so to speak. It’s the “expat’s effect”! Just like expats are aware of the “double perspective”, so become the locals, and they eventually start trying to meet the foreigners’ expectations, sometimes by exasperating the local to a point that it becomes “over local” meaning “fake and artificial”… and expats would often not know, neither would tourists.

    An example: after Frances Meyes convinced the world that lavender is a common plant in Tuscany (which it was not), people have started asking for lavender fields, and here you go: lavender is now one of the most popular plants in holidays villas and many farms have started growing it and offering visits to their fields. It’s the power of supply and demand.

    Second thing: the demand is fostered by the media. Influential writing, or broadcasting, or twittering builds expectations. The market in popular spots will adjust to that, with a progressive loss of authenticity, starting from the center and progressively reaching the margins. We can call this natural evolution if we like, but it is nevertheless what happens most of the time. Probably an unavoidable “side effect” of tourism.

    The phenomena is “self-sustaining” (not sure this is the word I am looking for… in Italian it would be “si autoalimenta”, literally it feeds itself), because tourism marketing and promotion need to feed back into the tourist’s expectations. Like a famous marketing agency used to say, good tourism promoters wrap up the traveler’s dreams and sell them back to them. Those of us in the tourism business all do that, I guess.

    The third thing – probably the one that makes me the most restless and verges on ethical considerations – is what we do when we keep feeding into the expectations for personal interest of various nature. This is also strictly related to the need to preserve the value of words.

    If we pass the message that everything can be authentic and that the truly local experience is possible everywhere, I am afraid that we keep pushing the same expectations, eventually turning them into stereotypes, to the detriment both of more true to life travel experiences and of other local communities relegated to the margins of the hotspots.

    I know that this is a difficult topic because it raises many questions that have no easy answer, such as that of whether we don’t in fact end up expanding the hotspot borders by bringing less known realities in the spotlight, or whether that is even the point, or how to keep tourism sustainable if we wish to expand the borthers of the inner circle.

    Even if this is not my primary occupation (I work at the University of Pisa), I live the double experience of having a vacation rental in Pisa, just a few steps from the Leaning Tower, and one in my home village south of Siena, an area, which, despite being much more beautiful and well preserved than most, is very much off-the-beaten-path. I always wonder, do I want this to be any different? On the one hand I don’t, but on the other I do.

    I see people talking about Chianti, or the Val d’Orcia, and nobody talking about this area (or others). Well, it is just as picturesque, and in places possibly more. And certainly still more “authentic”, meaning not geared towards mass tourism.

    We do have to ask ourselves what the consequences are if we make people believe that San Gimignano can provide an authentic and truly local Tuscan experience just because we rent an apartment in a tower. I believe that in the long term (and in Tuscany “the term has already been long enough…”), areas like mine, and the communities that live here, in their village apartments with no garden and swimming pool, are obviously penalized. And yet that’s how most Italian live.

    So we have to agree on what authentic and local travel experience (which is for most, but not all travelers, I perfectly understand that) we wish to promote, since words do matter, and so do local communities.

    My comment is too long, sorry Vicky! And thank you very much again!

  2. Hi Vicky

    What I always find interesting is how one person’s “hidden gem” or “off-the-beaten-track” destination is another’s popular holiday spot, and I blogged about these issues back in May-June 2008, so rather than repeat myself here, you might wish to take a look at the two links below.

    One traveller’s latest discover is another’s old favorite (May 2008) http://cooltravelguide.blogspot.com/2008/05/one-travellers-latest-discovery-is.html
    Is Calabria the new Puglia? (June 2008) http://cooltravelguide.blogspot.com/2008/06/is-calabria-new-puglia.html

    I think that if at all possible individuals should simply ignore the media hype, local advice and traveller’s tips, and simply give places a shot and judge them on their own terms. You took a look at Mar de Plata (which incidentally I loved when I went for the film festival years ago – but I wouldn’t go for the beach), decided it wasn’t for you, and you probably won’t go back.

    I’d return to Calabria in a heart beat, even though I know that parts of it are very touristy and popular with Italians, parts of it are being overtaken by British expats, and parts of it wild and untamed and completely unprepared for either. I know which bits I love and which bits I’ll return to, but I’ve been all over the region so I’ve at least seen it for myself to be able to overlook the media hype/local advice/traveller tips and decide for myself.

    There’s another interesting point that was overlooked in the discussion the first time around… while travellers want to increasingly get out of the tourist zones and learn more about how locals live, which is why more and more people are opting for holiday rentals. And while they want to increasingly get beneath the skin of a destination and want a more ‘authentic’ and enriching travel experience (which is why we embarked on our Grantourismo project http://grantourismotravels.com/ ), not everyone is a long term traveller who wants to couchsurf or do homestays…

    Most people who travel – whether they wish to identify themselves as tourists or travellers, and regardless of how much they want to learn or do things while they’re ‘away’ – are still ‘on holidays’. They also want to relax in an attractive environment with their spouse, partner, family or friends, and have a fun time. They don’t want to stay in an ordinary house in a dull suburb that might even remind them a little of ‘home’. And who can blame them?

  3. I mostly agree with Lara. Except that people will not ignore the media hype as you well know, and that in between “ordinary house in a dull suburb that might even remind them a little of ‘home’” and “couchsurfing” and “homestays” there is a world of other types of accommodation options, and you know that too.

  4. Lots of commentary going on here, and no surprise. It reminds me of the traveller versus tourist debate in a way.

    To me, every individual is unique and so is every destination. I don’t really think anywhere in the world is truly “off the beaten path” anymore. I mean come on, there are adventure tourism companies running loads of folks in and out of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and how many people have been to Antarctica now? There world is a small place – so small that space tourism is now the big thing.

    If someone hasn’t been to a place, then hey, let them go and see it for themselves, touristy or not. That’s why I’m going to Niagara falls in the summer – I’ll be in the area, and while everyone says it’s awful, don’t I get the chance to decide for myself?

    And as for places I’ve already been – indeed I’ve went to places and done the touristy things (part of my job, I suppose) but have also went back for a closer look at different experiences. For me, that’s what travelling is all about. Soaking up all those experiences.

  5. I have been to Niagara Falls several times myself! LOL

    I don’t think it’s a matter of going off-the-beaten-path or not – I’m not very adventurous, nor do I live in a place where going off-the-beaten-path is very easy.

    The reason why I believe that a serious reflection on these issues is necessary is that for me it’s more a matter of balance between the outer and the inner look on things.

    I guess we are looking at the question from two different perspectives, the traveler’s and the resident’s. I suppose that if you look at a destination from the perspective of the people who live and work there, the terms of the question change slightly. Not sure I can explain what I mean clearly.

    Roughly speaking, I think that when you happen to live in a place which visited by many people, on the one hand you are glad that tourism is such a great resource (both economic and cultural), and on the other hand, you hope that visitors will see it at least partly for what it actually is, that they will go beyond the most famous stuff they find in guidebooks, other tourist materials and media (very few people will do without any of that I think), and that the expectations of the market won’t change the area so much.

    For this reason, I am convinced that all those of us who write and work in the tourism sector have a responsibility to avoid total relativism, because the travel experience is indeed relational, and it is rarely a purely individual one. It necessarily changes (in the broadest sense of the term) the environment in which it happens.

    Or I should rather say that, personally, I feel this responsibility, even though I am not near as influential or visible as you, Lara and Vicky can be, being appreciated journalists and blog writers.

    Others may disagree, and there is nothing wrong with that. I just wanted to make clear the reasoning behind my comments.

  6. This is a really interesting discussion, and I can totally relate to Gloria’s point of view. I can see the same phenomenon in certain resorts in Turkey and in parts of Istanbul too. They end up peddling a ‘more Turkish than Turkey’ version of the culture. In central Barcelona many new tapas and pinchos restaurants have opened over the last few years, even though tapas is not that big in Catalan culture. But visitors to Barcelona want to eat tapas, so that’s what they get.

    On one hand people want an authentic experience, as Lara says, on the other hand they want something that doesn’t dissonate with their cultural expectations. We see this a lot on PocketCultures – our objective is to look beyond stereotypical views of different countries, with articles written by locals or long-term expats. But it’s a struggle sometimes; when we publish an article that converges more with the conventional view of a place, it always gets more attention than the posts which try to get people to see places in new ways (as in, new ways for the global perspective, old ways for the locals).

    I’m totally of the view that (as long as no harm is done) there is no right or wrong way to travel. I also agree that there is always a new way of looking at even the most well-beaten tracks.

    But I do have mixed feelings about the effect increasing numbers of visitors can have on a place. As visitor levels increase inevitably there will be some visitors with ‘global’ rather than ‘local’ expectations, and slowly the offer will change to accommodate their expectations. Is that what we want? Or is there a tipping point for the local movement, where people start to be more open to new perspectives? Does it matter? Reading back over this, it sounds suspiciously like an anti-globalisation argument. I don’t really mean it like that, but I do think that local perspectives and needs matter too.

    Thanks a lot Vicky. I’m quite new to your blog but I’m finding your perspectives really valuable.

  7. Very interesting discussion indeed!,

    I know many points do not have a unique answer, and mostly it depends on personal point of view, nevertheless I appreciate the effort locals do to keep their village, area and inherited experience as much authentic as possible, without major changes to meet travelers demand, and at the same time they work to let travelers know their off the beaten path gems!

    Hard work to do and the discussion helps paying attention on this during our daily business activity

    Thanks for blogging this.

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