Run a quick Google search and the articles pop up in no time. Whether it’s Australia, Mexico, or India, the travel industry is adamant in telling us how to “travel like a local.” And also:
How to “act like a local.”
How to “live like a local.”
How to “talk like a local.”
How to “sound like a local in no time!”
As I write this post, an email lands in my inbox about a new hotel in the Caribbean, called “Locale.”
It’s the travel trend and buzz-phrase we can’t seem to stop seeing or hearing: experiencing what “locals” do. We want to see, to capture, to learn and jump deep into a culture that isn’t ours. It’s what “authentic” travel is about, after all.
What I’ve come to realize these past few months, however, is that this prompt to live or travel “like a local” is completely misguided, because it doesn’t paint the real big picture on the ground.
As travelers, should we be trying to live like the person who’s native to a place? Is there only one kind of local in a place, too? Isn’t travel about learning, appreciating and experiencing a glimpse of the culture in its various forms, and not about imitating what isn’t ours?
1. When local is “too local” — because you’re just a visitor
I have to admit that I’d never stopped to closely analyze this phrase or the traveler thirst for living “like a local” until last September.
I was in Belize City, checking out locally run “guesthouses” and rooms as part of my research for the next edition of Moon Belize. Kenneth, my longtime trusted taxi driver, had parked on a narrow residential street tucked a couple of blocks away from the city center. After turning off the engine, he pointed towards the guesthouse I’d asked him about. On the way down, we’d debated the sudden proliferation of “local hotels,” thanks to the Internet. He was skeptical about this over-the-top need for visitors to live in locals’ neighborhoods, and about the safety and cultural value that some of these accommodations offered.
View this post on Instagram
How local is too local, when it comes to accommodations and overnighting in a place? I’ve been thinking about this question for the past few months actually, in light of more guesthouses and makeshift hostels appearing in local neighborhoods (thanks to the power of the internet and booking engines)—in several Caribbean destinations. Travelers want the experience and the stories, while the residents and their communities benefit from the added income. But just because you have the freedom and privilege of staying anywhere in the world, in any local neighborhood, does it mean that you should do so every single time? Is it always safe and smart? I always consider this when reviewing places to stay, and when traveling myself. Curious to hear your thoughts?
As soon as I stepped out of the car, I knew I stuck out like a sore thumb, even though I was a Black woman in Black neighborhood, dressed down in jeans and a tee-shirt. There was this uneasy quiet, and the feeling that eyes were peering at me through windows.
I rang a small bell and called out “hello!” A Belizean lady showed up and agreed to give me a tour of her rooms. She thought I was looking to stay — often times, particularly with new budget or mid range properties, I don’t mention my work right away. According to Kenneth, the lady was a retired teacher. She’d transformed her home into individual rooms, with communal living and kitchen areas. The basics of bed, bath and Wi-Fi were there. From the inside, it seemed safe enough. From the outside? Another feeling entirely.
Like many countries and destinations in the Caribbean, AirBnB has provided residents — not just locals, but anyone residing in the destination — with a means to make extra income in their neighborhoods and benefit from tourism. It’s also given travelers like you and I a chance to visit otherwise expensive places, saving our explorer bucks for food and tours while pumping our travel funds into the local economy. And of course, it gives us guests a glimpse of “local life.”
But how far are travelers going to experience “the local life?” And is it realistic?
2. Grasping the full reality of “local life” in a short time is a myth
I posed the question on Instagram as soon as I got back to my cozy room (I was staying at a Belizean friend’s house): how local is too local when it comes to lodging?
The responses were varied. One person said they’d never thought about deliberately supporting local businesses (gasp) because they parents seemed to stick with the big brands (family-inherited travel habits — what a thing!). Another reader shared that she thinks often about how best to support the local economy; her family’s funds might go to a traditional hotel in terms of lodging, but they’ll balance it out by eating at local restaurants and shopping local.
This thought of “how local is too local” expanded in my mind. Can you really claim to know what it’s like to live like a local in a week’s stay or a year — from the sidelines?
I’ve been living in the Caribbean long-term for at least six months a year since 2008. Prior to that, I lived in West Africa for 15 years, England for four years, and the US for another 18 (I just dated myself, ha). I’m an advocate of “slow travel” — digging deeper into a place and understanding it beyond the surface makes me a better and more responsible writer.
Since 2015, I’ve been living in the Dominican Republic year-round. I travel for work easily thanks to two international airports in or near my city (Santo Domingo’s daily flights to the US, South America and Caribbean, or Punta Cana’s convenient connections to Europe). But I return here in the DR, to my home and to my better half.
There’s something about digging your heels into a country — you know, really living there beyond the wintery months and having day to day exchanges with locals, businesses and signing up for services — that prevents the wool from being pulled over your eyes. You’re still in your comfort zone by the way (and not living like most locals, let’s be honest). Past that winter-bird phase, you see the struggles and issues people face on a deeper, closer level. Sure, the poverty and socio-economic struggles in developing countries are no secret, not even for the Caribbean. But these “real” life scenarios become even more evident when you are here, on the ground, and you see the tourism industry on one side — a privilege of the few — and the local reality on the other.
3. Knowing your destination beyond the sights and activities
For the Caribbean, how much do visitors know or read (from local sources) about the destination’s politics, economy and quality of life before taking a trip?
Tourism is indeed the primary means of livelihood for the islands, and it is an economic force for development. When tourism attracts the right kind of companies and leaders who invest in the country and the community they’ve chosen, then it’s pure gold. But let’s face it, that’s not the rosy picture for several Caribbean nations including Jamaica, the Dominican Republic or St. Lucia, where tourism funds don’t trickle to the people and poverty levels barely improve.
You see, unless you live on these islands for several years (save for places like Barbados and the Bahamas that have a middle class and are wealthier nations), engage in how people live and follow the politics and social issues, you barely get to feel and experience life “like a local.”
Let’s take the example of the Dominican Republic, my beloved full-time home for four years and counting. The DR is one of the top fastest growing economies in Latin America and the Caribbean, and it has been for the past 25 years. It also receives the highest number of tourist arrivals in the Caribbean (nearly 6 million now).
And yet. Poverty levels have barely dropped. There’s almost no middle class and it’s shrinking every year. Salaries also continue to be abysmally low. That server at the all-inclusive resort or hotel? He or she earns a salary of approximately 10,000 Dominican pesos a month — that’s US$200 a month, working super long hours to boot. Salaries for bellman and receptionist range between US$200 and $400 month respectively (a friend of ours who works in Punta Cana just confirmed these numbers yesterday). Let’s stop and think about this for a minute. What a visitor spends for one night’s stay at a resort is what a worker there earns for an entire month’s labor. And no, life isn’t that cheap here.
Most employees also have a family of several kids they have to feed, clothe and school (these wages are similar for Jamaica resort workers). The level of corruption in government here is also alarming and plays a fundamental role in keeping the population impoverished, as revealed in its ugliest and most public form with the Odebrecht scandal. The issues are many and complex.
On the flip side, the rich part of the Dominican population — or “the one percent” — live super well in the DR. They enjoy the best restaurants, malls and hotels in the same way tourists do, and they live surrounded in modern amenities. Because you see, like many parts of the world, there isn’t just one type of “local.”
4. “Locals” are not a homogeneous group
Sure, you can go to the colmado in the Dominican Republic, order “una fria” in your best Dominican Spanish that you learned on YouTube and dance on the sidewalk to bachata or merengue blasting. You’ll get a glimpse of that resilient Dominican spirit and a small taste of what the average local loves to do (edit: what they love to do with the little they can afford to do). That’s experiencing a place, but it’s not living or “traveling like a local.”
Because here’s the thing: you won’t be going back to your place in the barrio afterwards, where there’s likely another electricity outage (not everyone can afford inverters), or where there’s definitely no air-conditioning and hot water. And you certainly wouldn’t sit at a restaurant in the Colonial City afterwards for RD$550 pesos a plate (USD$11) every week. Unless you’re that “one percent local” (read = rich and often White Dominican or expat) who can afford a generator, water heater, own a car, and can go out every week. Heck, not even 10% of the Dominican population can afford this.
Unless you’re able to withstand the local living conditions of the majority year-round, as an immigrant, and have limited access to resources and have no way out (no blue passport), then there’s no way you can claim to do anything “like a local” in developing countries.
Exploring like a local? Also a misguided concept, unless we’re talking about the wealthier locals. In places like Jamaica, the DR or Saint Lucia few can afford to travel around their countries (and many have told me so across the board) or stay a week at a hotel with all-you-can-eat buffets on a daily basis.
5. There can be cultural immersion without appropriation
The travel industry and brands like AirBnB have capitalized on this thirst of “living like a local” and “seeing like a local.” So have travel publications. It’s a double edged sword.
I’ve been asked to write my fair share of destination articles from an expert viewpoint — as someone who lives in the place or visits frequently and has a solid sense of it (tourist side and non-tourist side). I’m comfortable to do so when it comes to sharing historical and cultural knowledge I’ve learned and experienced over time through residents. The advice I give is also how I explore.
But there should be a caveat when it comes to using titles that include “like a local” to promote and market a destination — because it’s misleading, unless we’re talking about living and experiencing in the same conditions as the majority of the population.
Most of us are privileged guests who get to come and go as they please, enjoying the hospitality of our hosts and getting a glimpse of foreign customs. Travel is about immersing, learning and understanding – but it’s not about appropriating or mimicking.
6. Travel is a cultural exchange — not a show
Some of my recent, culturally enriching experiences were thanks to my AirBnB hosts in Barbados, Curaçao, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. I cherished the chance learn from my hosts first-hand. I also often answered questions about Ethiopia, about growing up in Africa, and about the United States. Travel is an exchange, not a one-way street, and it’s certainly not a show. I can never pretend to be or live like a local even after living in Belize, Jamaica or the DR.
What you and I can do, then, is continue to observe and learn how nationals live by experiencing their country’s cultural and natural heritage and supporting the local economy. Taste the food, take part in community-led tours, seek out historians or activists and learn about the politics and social issues that locals face. Sign up for home stays or hole up in B&Bs and hotels that support cultural exchange. The important thing, in my opinion, is to connect with the place and its people as organically as possible. It’s not about staying in a barrio to claim you “lived like a local” as if you were touring a museum.
Ironically, a couple of articles have recently published rebelling against this advice of living or traveling “like a local” in January of this year (some focusing on expats who change the dynamics and economics of the place; another about the myth of exploring like a local).
Personally, I’m ready to stop seeing and using this phrase going forward (thankfully only two of my past articles have included it in the title — which still makes me cringe). “Living like a local” or “traveling like a local” is a broken concept for many parts of the world, including much of the Caribbean. Because we cannot be so culturally insensitive as to paint an entire population with one brush. We cannot be so bold as to pretend to be a local in places where people struggle daily for resources and human rights, when we are just privileged travelers who come and go as we please.
Maybe it’s time we all paused and swallowed a good dose of humble pie before talking about traveling or living “like a local.” Let’s immerse in these destinations through our local hosts. Let’s support local businesses, while experiencing the culture when welcomed to do so. But let’s remember that we remain tourists and guests — and that’s perfectly OK.
What do you think about all the “travel like a local” and “live like a local” advice? Do you agree it’s misguided? All civil comments welcome!