Are the regular tourist destinations really that boring that travelers are desperately searching for “authentic local experiences”? When you travel are you looking to live the local life and experience local culture, or are you content to relax and enjoy being a tourist while taking in the sights and sounds your destination has to offer?
Not every traveler finds their experiences overseas to be rewarding and if you read enough travel blogs, you will come across posts and comments from people who were actually quite disappointed with the destinations they visited.
Most of the disappointment stems from arriving in a town, city or even country that turns out to be far more touristy than anything they had imagined. As a result, they find themselves struggling to engage in authentic local interactions and local experiences, which are the type of experiences they had hoped for.
With the emergence of Peer to Peer (P2P) marketplaces, sites like Couchsurfing, Airbnb, Lyft, and Tripping are transforming the way in which people travel…. although not everybody will want to have a tourist sleeping on their couch and taking up room at the dinner table.
There is, however, a growing trend for holidays that allow travelers to immerse themselves in the destination’s culture and engage in authentic local interactions and local experiences.
Providing a local experiences marketplace that is English-language friendly and offers low-cost travel options seems to be the hot topic for a multitude of budding entrepreneurs these days.
Nowadays travelers are armed with more information than ever before. There are literally thousands of websites that publish detailed guides about a destination or travel product and social media has a tremendous influence, due in part to the speed and accessibility of information.
Locals are the kind of people you’d be happy to fall into casual conversation with where ever you go
Some people crave the need for self-expression and personal development which can be linked with the desire to make new connections (often with people living far away). Have we changed from being collectors of tourist highlights to being collectors of experiences of other cultures?
What is Local?
Imagine for a moment you have booked a local guided walking tour of San Francisco, only to be greeted by an Australian accent. Your expectation of local may have preceded the situation and you might feel somewhat disappointed right? Well, this is an issue I contend with regularly during my tours.
The fact that I have lived in this city for two years, explored every nook and cranny and can introduce them to a variety of unique experiences through my personal story doesn’t seem to factor in that instant. To combat this skepticism I have learned to address my country of origin in a humorous way during the introductions.
In my opinion just living somewhere doesn’t necessarily qualify you for the job and it requires much more than simply knowing how to read a map and pointing out the landmarks. Ask yourself this, how well do you know the city you live in? The advantage I believe I have as an expat is this – I have both explored this city as a tourist and as a resident so I can relate to the people on my tours.
The type of local I want to meet is someone with a passion for their city, a particular expertise but most importantly a story to tell. Locals are the kind of people you’d be happy to fall into casual conversation with where ever you go. They need not have lived in the city their entire life and, increasingly, more than all the museums and points of historical interest – they’re part of the reason why you traveled there in the first place.
What is your definition of a true local?
How do we define an “Authentic Experience”?
Google’s definition: au·then·tic
– Of undisputed origin; genuine.
– Made or done in the traditional or original way.
By this definition, it could be said that many of our interactions while traveling have some form of authenticity. The question of authenticity is indeed a grey area and means many things to different people.
Our view of what is “authentic” seems to have changed as culture has increasingly shifted out of the museum and onto the street. Now we judge authenticity, not by the highlights from a guidebook, but by the type of experiences we have, the relationships we create and the knowledge we share.
Two distinct target markets
I want to make it clear that there are two distinct target markets that are relevant to this article.
Local for residents
This is the truly local market that is specifically tailored to residents asking the question “what should I do this weekend?”. This is an extremely crowded market, there might be 200 other apps doing something similar to this… maybe 1000.
The idea of some sort of activities and events marketplace to find cool things to do in your spare time has been around for a while now. Here in San Francisco, the most recent golden child in this space is Sosh who claims that 1 in 10 San Franciscans has the app.
What makes this concept work, to some degree, is this:
- People are inherently lazy but willing to try new things if the impulse is strong enough.
- Location, the user lives close to the desired activity, therefore increasing the amount of relevant contact with the app and improving the likelihood of a purchase.
Local for visitors
While it can be said that there is some crossover between residents and visitors the fact of the matter is that visitors are a much harder sell.
You need to take into account that the majority of people don’t plan their entire trip including what they will be seeing or doing in each city. Most of those ‘in destination’ experiences are booked on arrival.
The reason that city bus tours do so well with visitors is that of the factors we just mentioned:
- Impulse – Tourists arrive in the city and walk out of their hotel door to see the sights. They walk past a tour desk or see a crowded bus and book it.
- Convenience – They are already at the destination.
- Social-proof – They notice the buses are full of people and want to feel included.
Of course, a big bus tour feels more like herding cattle than an authentic local experience to me.
Even though the evidence seems to show that people are looking for more than just seeing the sites, they simply don’t want to go searching the web or an app trying to find these experiences.
The recently publicized pivot by Vayable clearly indicates that this is the case. They have started to move away from the activities marketplace to promote ‘local experts’ who can assist you in planning your daily activities.
This concept is a much stronger proposition although, like AirBnB, they are facing a backlash over liability and safety concerns.
The Experiential Traveler
First there was the relaxing getaway to an exotic beach to soak in the sun, then the cultural tourism era arrived. Now it seems people want to learn how to “DJ” in Ibiza, cook a spicy noodle soup in Bangkok or perhaps a spiritual retreat in southern India.
So why are tourists increasingly seeking unique experiences? There are a number of factors that are important in this overall shift but today I will outline my top three:
1. The desire for more fulfilling experiences
The growing search for experiences is linked to the increasing need for people to define their identity. People are now, more than ever, engaging in cultural activities, gastronomy, language learning, etc.
Holidays have therefore become more than just periods of rest and relaxation – they are now opportunities for learning and self-development as well.
Many people have increasingly pressured lives, which means that they have little time to develop creative activities, so creativity is being squeezed into their vacations.
2. The growing supply of experiences
More service suppliers and content aggregators are moving into the experience market, which means that companies will need to find new ways of distinguishing themselves.
The number of “experience marketplaces” has blown up in the last couple of years. Take a look at the sites I have featured below – which ones do you recognize? I can assure you that this is a drop in the water compared to the number of actual sites that are out there but the question should be “which of these will survive?”.
3. We are becoming more impatient
In this digital age, time has become an increasingly important commodity. Nobody wants to feel like they are wasting their precious time, waiting in line at the Louvre to catch a quick glimpse of the Mona Lisa for example.
More and more we are moving towards a world of instant gratification. You only need to look at the frustration someone experiences when a page takes longer than 10 seconds to load while surfing the web or doesn’t get a reply to their text message within the minute.
This apparent need for local experiences by travelers has increased discontent among some residents, who see their cities being turned into open museums or theme parks. Cities like Barcelona are changing their models of tourism away from conventional cultural tourism and more towards the idea of tourists as ‘temporary residents’ who become part of the local community for a period of time. This also reflects the reality of changing mobility patterns, temporary workers rubbing shoulders with short-break visitors in the city.
When we travel, the only person who decides where we go and what we do each day is us. We determine the destinations we visit, we choose the places we eat and the activities we participate in and we even choose the streets we walk down. Therefore, we also determine whether or not we end up as a tourist in a zoo or if we fill our days with the kind of local experiences we hope for.Wandering EarlTravel Blogger
In 2012, Select Hilton Worldwide Hotels launched their “Authentically Local” Vacation Experience in the Caribbean and Latin America. They promoted the fact they would provide local culture consultants who could suggest and provide experiences such as snorkeling and hiking.
From what I can see, it mustn’t have taken off in the way they expected since the links are not widely promoted on their main site.
It is often the case that we get a little bored of looking at another building and visiting another museum; tourist attractions can only keep us interested for a while and you end up spending hours in bars and cafes just sitting around doing what you would otherwise do at home.
Essentially the responsibility falls back on the traveler. There are authentic local experiences everywhere around you wherever you go. It is up to you to seek them out.
Thank you for reading this far….. now it’s down to you. Since I am constantly striving to improve my tours I would love to hear your thoughts on whether or not a day tour can offer an “authentic local experience”?
Please share your feedback and thoughts in the comments section below.