“So what is local travel and is it over yet?” a hotel general manager asked me the other day during a chat about tourism and travel trends. After struggling to suppress a groan of frustration, for reasons that I will explain, I told him what local travel meant to me. After all, local travel is our preferred style of travel and we live and breathe it almost every travelling day.
For us, local travel is simply about connecting more with locals when we travel; getting tips from local experts instead of relying on guidebooks or Trip Advisor; staying in apartments and holiday rentals so we can settle in for a while in an attempt to learn to live like locals and gain an insight into how locals live their lives; exploring everyday neighbourhoods, kicking back at the places locals go, and doing things that locals do, rather than lingering in tourist zones and focussing on tourist attractions; and buying local produce and products and using local businesses whenever we can. That’s all.
Local travel isn’t for everyone, I qualified, and even those who enjoy ‘going local’ don’t necessarily want to travel that way all the time. Sometimes a first visit to a place warrants a focus on the sights, especially if the city is home to stupendous museums, outstanding architecture, and must-see monuments. For some, a second or third visit is a better time to start to get under the skin of a place. For others, it’s a matter of age, taste, preferences, and mood. Younger travellers may want to travel to meet other travellers and just have fun. Others want to get away from it all, unwind, and not seen anyone – locals or tourists.
I gave the German GM an example close to home. The first time we went to Berlin on holidays, some 12 years ago – back when I was working in academia before we returned to full-time writing – we checked into a boutique hotel for a few days, did all the top museums and sights, and worked our way through the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants. When we returned for two weeks a few years ago, we based ourselves in a Berlin apartment rental and focused our energies on exploring our neighbourhood, Prenzlauer Berg, and spending time on our street. We got tips from locals – from an old friend to a new colleague (and passionate proponent of slow travel). We shopped for vintage in our ’hood, went to the Sunday flea market, dined at local eateries, and did a bar hop with locals.
My response may have rolled off the tongue but I’m sure the GM detected the irritation in my voice and noted the frown on my brow, especially when, while nodding in understanding, he explained how his marketing advisor had been trying to persuade him to embark on a ‘living like locals’ campaign. I politely told him that most locals do not live in luxury hotels. He laughed. He got it.
Yet so many hotel managers and marketing experts haven’t, jumping on the local travel bandwagon without recognising how nonsensical it is to promote their swanky hotel as a ‘home away from home’ and offer guests the chance to ‘live like locals’ – in a sumptuous, marble-floored ‘home’, dripping with chandeliers, decorated entirely in beige, with a floor to ceiling fountain in the lobby, an infinity pool on the rooftop, and half a dozen restaurants. Sure, all the locals shower in fishbowl bathrooms and feast on elaborate buffet breakfasts every day. Right.
The InterContinental hotel group was one of the first to get in on the local travel act, producing a series of beautifully shot advertisements a few years ago that had viewers (potential guests) being given a personal tour of destinations and a taste of local life through their ‘insider guides’ – the hotels’ concierges. They added these to their site, along with ‘local recommendations’, and I believe they may have turned those into apps too.
Now don’t get me wrong, we love staying in InterContinental hotels when we’re working – they’re fantastic business hotels, with some of the best executive floors around. But while I acknowledge the professionalism of their concierges, and many five-star hotel concierges in fact, a concierge is the last person I’m going to go to for local tips. I could write a book on the bad advice I’ve been given from the concierges of some of the world’s best hotels.
I guarantee you that nine times out of ten hotel concierges will send guests off to the top tourist attractions, to do the city’s most popular tours and activities, and to dine at ‘safe’ restaurants they have on a management-approved list before they’ll send them off-the-beaten track, to do something unusual, or to eat at a street food stall. Rarely will they recommend the sort of places locals go or locals eat – unless those locals are playing at being tourists or are on a (groan) ‘staycation’.
If we have to go to a concierge for advice – for example, we’ve arrived at the end of lunch-time or late at night and need a decent restaurant or eat street that is still serving food – I generally find myself briefing them in immense detail as to the kind of place we’re looking for: “We want to go to the sort of spots you eat when you have time off,” I recently told a concierge at a resort in Vietnam after she provided us with a list of the hotel’s preferred restaurants that mirrored the top 10 on Trip Advisor.
Fifteen minutes after she very reluctantly jotted down the name and address of her favourite eatery and the dishes to order, and gave directions to the taxi driver, we were seated at a simple, sprawling locals-only joint on the ground floor of a home. Scrawled in chalk in Vietnamese on the blackboard menu were the few dishes the concierge had written down – the only dishes the kitchen clearly made. One table of regulars looked at us with bemusement, another ignored us, and the shy waitress who only spoke Vietnamese took our order after we pointed to a couple of the dishes the concierge had written down.
An old lady in the smoky kitchen, with black soot-covered brick walls, was waving a fan over some of the tastiest grilled pork that we would ever eat which she was barbequing over hot coals. It was so good that after we finished the first two dishes, we ordered the third. Located on a quiet dog legged lane off a busy road on the outskirts of town, it was the kind of place you couldn’t just chance upon – nor the kind a hotel concierge would ever recommend. It was absolutely wonderful. It also turned out to be the best meal we’d have in that city.
Later that day, after venturing into the centre of town to get a better feel for the place, we stumbled upon what appeared to be the city’s own mini Khao San Road, complete with backpacker bars and shops selling hippy clothes and tacky souvenirs – and the restaurant the hotel concierge had first recommended. Jam-packed with tourists, with no locals in sight other than the staff, and a never-ending menu serving Vietnamese, Italian, and ‘international food’, it was the sort of place Terence and I would avoid like the plague. We gave each other a look that said, “thank god, we didn’t take her advice!”
Having said that, that advice and that restaurant probably would have been perfectly fine for many of the hotel’s guests, because that is exactly what some tourists want – somewhere with staff who speak English, that they perceive as serving ‘safe’ food, which offers up a wide variety of dishes to suit everyone in their group, from the people already bored with Vietnamese food and looking for a change to those needing something bland because they’re recovering from a bout of food poisoning (probably from the breakfast buffet).
As I said, not everyone wants to ‘go local’ and that’s perfectly fine. But the big brand hotels with concierges recommending tourist restaurants shouldn’t be marketing their staff as insider experts with ‘local’ secrets to share.
It makes more sense for an intimate boutique hotel or small B&B in an everyday neighbourhood to promote their local knowledge, the fact that they have their finger on the pulse of the local scene, and to encourage guests to explore their local area and shop at local businesses. But it’s just plain silly for the big hotels to do so, especially those located in a tourist zone or commercial city centre, away from local neighbourhoods.
The general manager still pressed me, “but is this local travel thing over yet?” It all depends on whether you see local travel as just another travel trend or buzzword or whether you think of it as a type of travel. We’d argue that it’s the latter – like backpacking or adventure travel or luxury travel – and that it’s here to stay. Whether a person chooses to go local or travel luxe is simply a decision they make depending on their preferences, tastes, moods, financial circumstances, and even their travel partners. We mix things up ourselves.
Secretly, I wanted to tell him a fib. “Yes, it’s over. Tell your marketing folks and concierge it’s time to move onto something else. Haven’t you heard? Sightseeing is back in.”