Local business Sign

It's time for destinations to embrace the very people that make a place special. | Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

May 12, 2020

For years, people have been encouraged to “go local” when they travel. Guidebook guru Rick Steves designed his entire Europe Through the Back Door brand around the concept of eating where residents eat, shopping where residents shop, and being where residents are.

In recent years, apps, tour companies, and destinations have echoed this message, much to the disappointment of locals themselves. As travelers rushed in, eager for the “local” experience, residents retreated from their favorite bars, cafes, and parks as prices skyrocketed and they were forced to share their favorite coffee nooks with influencers who only cared about taking selfies with their cappuccinos.

Leading up to the coronavirus outbreak, local residents in many popular European cities, in particular, had maxed out their tolerance for travelers.

They will travel like locals because they are locals.

And then the pandemic hit.

As devastating as this crisis has been for the tourism industry, its silver lining is obvious: Urban centers overrun by tourists have been given the chance to breathe. People in Amsterdam and Barcelona can actually walk along their own streets without jockeying for space.

Over the last couple months, countless articles, webinars, and virtual presentations have attempted to conceptualize the “new normal” for tourism. One of the anticipated trends is that people will “travel like a local” for a while. But instead of just being a buzzword, this time, people are actually more likely to stay and explore their own backyards.

They will travel like locals because they are locals.

Riding the Community Wave

Almost overnight, the world’s perspective went from widely global to highly local. With few places to turn for help, people turned to their own communities.

As the coronavirus pandemic unleashed a surge of local pride and support, an unprecedented wave of collaboration and cooperation swept across individual neighborhoods. People found common ground as they lifted each other up, starting with their own local business owners and cultural institutions.

This is a trend that can and should be continued as destinations begin to recover from the tourism crash.

So many destinations have long sacrificed their own residents in lieu of inbound travelers, but it’s likely travel will focus heavily on domestic tourism for at least the next several months. Even then, the number of inbound travelers will likely be only a fraction of what they were pre-pandemic. Now is the time for destinations to reconsider their marketing efforts and turn their attention to the very people who give destinations that “local vibe” that other people want to experience.

Beyond just “keeping their industry alive,” though, destinations have a chance to recognize and appreciate the value locals can offer.

As noted in a recent article by Skift, “a number of (destination) organizations have completely dropped out of all paid marketing visitor-targeted efforts, reinvesting all available resources to build awareness locally in order to help keep their industry alive.” Beyond just “keeping their industry alive,” though, destinations have a chance to recognize and appreciate the value locals can offer when they’re encouraged to enjoy and support the very attractions that previously catered to outsiders.

A few particularly thoughtful examples of destinations putting locals — and domestic tourism — first include:

  • Denver’s Love This City campaign encourages active participation by its residents. This includes a quiz where locals can win gift cards, experiences, and staycations from local businesses.
  • Public spaces and roads in Paris, Vilnius, and Milan that were closed during the pandemic are likely to remain closed, creating healthier, more enjoyable spaces for locals and visitors.
  • Portland, Oregon, has a community-specific page with information and access to local retailers and restaurants offering a variety of services. While currently COVID-19 focused, this has an opportunity to fill an ongoing domestic niche.

Looking Toward the Future

Undoubtedly, tomorrow’s travel will look markedly different from yesterday’s. But eventually borders will open and people will begin to travel freely again.

And when they do, destinations need to remember how their local community pulled through in a crisis. Despite the desire to attract foreign travelers quickly and pump money back into the economy through inbound tourism, destination representatives must continue to prioritize locals above travelers.

That “local vibe” that attracts people? Let it actually be defined by the locals who create it. Here’s how:

  • Involve residents in every stage of the tourism development process. Instead of developing parallel worlds within a destination — one for locals and one for tourists — ask residents what they want. What were their pain points prior to the pandemic? How do they want visitors to enjoy and support their neighborhoods?

    When local community members are invested in a destination, they serve as environmental and cultural ambassadors. The 2020 European capitals of smart tourism, Gothenburg, Sweden, and Málaga, Spain, both put a heavy emphasis on community involvement. Other destinations can learn from their examples.
  • Establish visitor guidelines and expectations, clearly communicate them, and re-enforce them with consequences for violators. Historically, tourism pledges have addressed the first two of these things, but enforcement has been lax.
  • Done right, domestic tourism can be economically viable, and it also leaves a lighter environmental footprint. Show appreciation for residents with discounts at area attractions, offer incentives like free parking in traditionally touristy areas, and host special locals-only hours or experiences.
  • Invest in community-specific infrastructure like public parks and libraries as well as attractions that draw inbound visitors.
  • The “local vibe” arises from historical and cultural context; celebrate and share it, even if it is complicated and maybe even controversial.

  • Include locals in the destination’s story. The “local vibe” arises from historical and cultural context; celebrate and share it, even if it is complicated and maybe even controversial.

    Endorse a wide variety of storytellers to both domestic and inbound travelers. Good examples include Invisible Cities, Secret Street Tours, and Salaam Baalak Trust’s City Walk Programme, all of which employ homeless or formerly homeless people as tour guides; Courageous Kitchen, which offers food tours and cooking classes that support local people in need; and Breaking Borders, street tours in Bogotá, Colombia, led by former gang members. All economic incentives should benefit local community members and initiatives.
  • Design a destination built on community. That feel-good vibe that the pandemic has sparked will go out if its not stoked. Destination representatives should support local businesses and the people who own them even — and especially — when international brands consider entering the market, promising even more tourism income for a city. Destinations have been moving away from the mass tourism model; now is the time to double down on the effort to encourage quality over quantity.
  • Look out for local interests in the face of peer-to-peer platforms like Airbnb. Encourage locals to speak out on tourism-related injustices, and ask them to be a part of building a blueprint that doesn’t price them out of their own neighborhoods.
  • Offering assistance to local tourism businesses so they are positioned for success attracts the kind of inbound travelers that will responsibly support a destination.

  • Help local tourism businesses align with B Corps and similar certifications. Travelers are increasingly interested in responsible travel experiences. Offering assistance to local tourism businesses so they are positioned for success attracts the kind of inbound travelers that will responsibly support a destination.
  • Encourage inbound travelers to stay for longer durations of time. Longer, slower stays aren’t about ticking off attractions from a list but instead nudge travelers to explore overlooked neighborhoods and attractions, and they spread economic resources across more businesses.
  • Instead of hosting far-flung influencers and travel writers for flyby visits, destination representatives should foster relationships with local content creators who champion the awesomeness of their own backyard. Reach out now, and help them become a trusted voice in sharing all that your destination has to offer.

    Likewise, content creators should turn an eye toward the neighborhoods in which they live. Get to know local tourism representatives, changemakers, and business owners on a deeper level. As residents in the city, you’re already one step ahead of telling a more interesting story flavored by your own personal experiences.

The grossly over-quoted Winston Churchill saying “never waste a good crisis” has been thrown around far too often during the pandemic. But the sentiment when it comes to the tourism industry is clear: There is a golden opportunity to hold onto what has emerged from this situation.

It’s always been worthwhile to promote the “travel like a local” mindset. Now it’s time to step up and actually support travel for locals, by locals.


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