A few months ago, I stood behind a group of 15 or more tourists waiting for the cable car to the top of one of Rio de Janeiro’s most popular attractions, Sugar Loaf mountain. The group was mostly from the US and UK, with the average age probably around 19. An American girl was leading them, dressed in a bright neon T-shirt with a large slogan on the front: “Don’t be a tourist! Be a local!” When she turned around, there was a checklist of experiences on her back.
I rolled my eyes. The checklist, the large group, the switched-off tourists being led around blindly, the bandwagon slogan. It was everything you’d expect “local travel” to avoid.
But what is “local travel”? As I have written before, it is almost impossible to define. It can also be undeniably pretentious. “Oh, you went to see Sugar Loaf? Well, I, amigo, was watching TV at my homestay. That is what real locals do. That is a far more authentic way to spend your Gap Yah.”
(Incidentally, the use of the word “authentic” in travel is another personal bugbear.)
The reason this blog has gone quiet lately could perhaps because be linked to the overuse of the word “local” across the industry. I’ve seen guidebooks trading on the word “local” that are no way dissimilar to any other guidebook. Magazine articles offer “local’s tips” just for the sake of it, with no real added value for anyone. Tour companies promise you can “be a local” by hanging out with poor people for a couple of days.
In a response to new BBC article on the rise of “slum tourism” (another horrible phrase and a wellworn debate), writer Oliver Balch tweeted: “Slum Inc: my take – let tourists visit, but make them stay 1 week, queue for water, do a day’s shift, toilet together.”
So is “local travel” passé? As a buzzphrase, maybe. But the idea of money going to small operators, the idea of more self-awareness and consideration – that is surely not tired.
Also, many things in travel prove to be different when you dig a little deeper.
That travel company in Rio I rolled my eyes at? They are not the bad guys in this story. I have since found their webpage and when you look beyond the slogan, they are actually a well-established small operator that seems to do a fair bit of fundraising for favelas. They are also clever with their marketing: let’s face it, “local” sells right now.
It’s also worth noting that although “local travel” may suddenly be very popular, it is nothing new. If you check out the Observer magazine this Sunday, I’ll be revisiting a local travel project from the 1980s, and that certainly restored my faith.
Photo: Sugar Loaf mountain © Vicky Baker