A tourist takes a picture with local women at the Dharavi slums in India, said to be Asia’s second-largest. Source: Shutterstock
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HOW many times have you seen travel platforms or tourism companies slot in and promote activities that allow a tourist to “live like a local”?
This includes experiences such as rubber tapping in a dense plantation in Malaysia, a walking street food tour in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, or planting rice in a sprawling paddy field in rural Thailand.
And there are many who would jump at the opportunity, without really wondering: “Do the locals in these countries really spend all their days tapping rubber and planting paddy?” or “Isn’t a walking street food tour something I could do on my own?”
But who is to blame for this booming trend?
“Live like a local” is a travel industry jargon that taps into the market of travellers who are obsessed with finding “off the beaten track” (or “off the beaten path”) things to do and places to eat.
These are tourists seeking nothing less than the most “authentic” experiences or, like true hipsters, would go out of their way to avoid tourist traps, large crowds and any site that, in their opinion, gets way too much media airtime.
These travellers would go the extra mile to “discover” lesser-known attractions in hopes of earning #travelbrag points.
Sure, travelling without feeling like an outsider is a great concept. But is it really embracing living like a local?
So you found the partially-hidden Unesco World Heritage-listed monument in Saudi Arabia, an ultra-conservative country previously closed to tourists.
But how much do you really know about its history?
Are you only there because it appears to be the perfect backdrop for the social media platform of your choice and it is something that you can proudly claim, “First!”?
Live in a bubble
Getting under the skin of a destination and doing some things as locals would is great but that is not the real “live like a local” experience.
To truly “live like a local”, how about you undertake their day-to-day tasks?
Such not being pampered by hotels that offer round-the-clock, undivided attention and service.
Instead, book a home-sharing accommodation and offer to separate the trash before taking it out as you would have to do in countries like South Korea.
If you really want to get down to living like the community at the destination of your choice, take public transportation like they would and budget your daily expenditure the way they would.
Read the local newspaper, buy groceries from a local market, cook your meals instead of eating out, pay a weekly rent and for utilities, do your laundry, fill out taxes, the list goes on.
Link to overtourism
As The Outline writer Jessa Crispin wrote, even living and working in a place for several months at a time doesn’t guarantee you an “authentic experience” of the culture there.
Neither does it guarantee you against doing actual residents (or animals) harm.
What will keep tourists from bulldozing over the “hidden” places only a small percentage of the world has seen and bastardising the cultures they so desperately want to experience?
Tourists forget that although “life” as a local and access to communities can be easily purchased at the tap of a button or a few mouse clicks, they are inevitably contributing to inauthenticity and exploitation.
The same kind they have been trying to avoid all along.
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And as with everything else, as long as there is a demand, companies and brands will continue to market their ideas, switching experiences up only as and when needed.
Such as when activities become overdone and overtourism begins to wear down destinations.
Have we forgotten how to embrace travelling and act like tourists?
Having enough disposable income to travel is a wonderful thing and being a tourist can be just as transformative as “living” like a local.
And the travel industry would be a better place if we had better practices and understood the responsibilities of being one.
This article first appeared on our sister website Travel Wire Asia.