The “live like a local” travel ethos has failed—the question is what will replace it

The “live like a local” travel ethos has failed—the question is what will replace it
Image: Reuters/Rafael Marchante
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Remember travel before the internet? Before blogs and Instagram geotags told you where to eat and drink; before Uber took you to places you didn’t know how to get to; and Airbnb meant you could afford a week-long stay in a locals’ apartment for the same price as two nights in a hotel?

For many modern travelers, traveling without a smart phone is a distant memory. Indeed, the era of internet-enabled travel has been defined by the lofty goal of “living like a local”—seeking out experiences that a hotel concierge or guidebook is unlikely to suggest. However, there’s just one problem with our fervor for Airspace apartments and Instagrammable cafes: Our love of living like a local has consequences for actuals locals’ lives.

This relatively new lack of separation between touristic and local life has had knock-on effects that a cheerful Airbnb ad or a blog post from a travel influencer don’t cover. They range from micro complaints, like once humble cafes being gentrified to serve Brooklyn-style fare, to macro assertions (fair or not) that home-sharing in certain neighborhoods impacts housing prices.

Even from a traveler’s point of view, it’s not quite as fun to book an Airbnb in a charming building and then find that the residents don’t want you there. As over-tourism, housing crises, and income inequality continue to define urban life in many popular destinations, it appears that tension between “traveler locals” and actual locals has only just begun.

If you’re looking for a destination that perfectly encapsulates all these issues, then Lisbon, Portugal is it. The city has experienced somewhat of an economic renaissance in the post-recession years, with liberalization of the housing market and an influx of foreign investment—with a wave of tourists following suit. Arrivals to the city now number 4.5 million annually, a figure which is a eight times the city’s population. As the New York Times recently reported, “some residents complain of a dual economy, split between those who deal with tourists and the rest” as well as the “Disneyfication” of Lisbon.

Rebecca Stone is a senior research analyst at travel intelligence website Skift, and a participant of Remote Year, a company that allows remote workers to travel and work in a different city each month for one year. She recently wrote a piece about her time in Lisbon, reckoning with how to be a traveler in a city where the sentiment towards tourists is hotly debated to say the least.

“Maybe it shouldn’t be about ‘sustainable tourism,'” she writes. “Maybe what it should really be about is ‘sustainable culture.’ How do we sustain cultures without letting tourists overrun them?”

The problem, of course, is that in many of the places most affected by sharp increases of phone-wielding tourists hoping to “live local”—Reykjavik, Bali, Barcelona—it is precisely the vibrancy of the local culture that attracts those tourists in the first place. As Anne Helen Peterson recently documented in her BuzzFeed piece about Nashville’s booming “bach party” industry, many folks go to Nashville precisely because it’s not a typical tourist destination like Las Vegas. However, thanks to meme-ification of physical spaces, these cities are forced to develop tourist economies at warp-speed, often at the expense of longtime residents.

Take a city like Nashville, which is beloved for its rich history and now iconic, home-grown music and culinary scenes. When Peterson asked groups of tourists why they had chosen Nashville as the destination for their bachelorette party, “the possibility that what makes Nashville so appealing is the culture developed and maintained over decades by people now being priced out to make room for [groups of tourists] to brunch and get drunk, and that that culture might be gradually, steadily eroded by their presence, didn’t seem to occur—at least in terms they could articulate—to any of them.”

Across the world, cities are clearly beginning to fight back against what this style of travel has wrought. And while Stone noted that collaboration between local officials and companies like Airbnb is a positive step, the scale of the problem is only likely to increase. According to the UNWTO, international arrivals are expected to increase yearly and reach 1.8 billion by 2030. So, whose responsibility is it to make sure that the most vibrant of places aren’t the most likely to get trampled by tourists? And if living like a local isn’t the answer, then what is?

“It’s going to take tourists deciding to put themselves out there and be thoughtful,” Stone told Quartz. “But it’s also going to to take the large corporations—Airbnb, Marriott, Expedia—getting involved with how we communicate and behave as travelers and how we support it. And then obviously it will take governments to help with some of the issues like housing and some of the impacts they can have on the economy.”

For responsible tourists who truly want to participate in Stone’s ethos of sustaining cultures when they travel, a little more hard work is necessary, too. The early days of the sharing economy—where you could book a flat in a residential neighborhood and a pay for a local walking tour and feel you’d opted out of mass tourism—are over. (Airbnb’s ambition to be one of the largest, full service travel companies in the world might have had something to do with that).

Stone describes her approach as centered more on seeking genuine engagement rather than commoditized “experiences”—an approach that she uses to shape her research and her travel.

“As a slogan, I’ve found ‘live like a local’ frustrating. Was the intention ever to live like a local? You were there for five days—I don’t know if that can ever be achieved,” Stone said. “On a personal level, though, I’ve found locals to be very kind to me, especially if you take the time to say ‘tell me more’ I want to better understand, tell me about your history family wherever you are.”