Two men walking past graffiti that reads, "Home sweet home"

Who defines what "local" means? | Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

May 18, 2021

Everywhere you turn in the tourism industry these days, all eyes are on “locals” — locally focused travel experiences, supporting local businesses, listening to local stakeholders, shifting to local narratives and storytellers, and, yes, even focusing on local (domestic) travelers.

For a long time, the tourism industry centered travelers above all else — their needs, desires, and expected narratives. This traveler-centered myth, which is perpetuated throughout the buyer’s and traveler’s journey, has been at the heart of many destructive environmental and social issues. These include overcrowding, creation of carbon emissions, degradation of cultural and historical sites, gentrification due to an increase in short-term rentals, and exploitation of Indigenous people and commoditization of their cultures.

Finally, after years of relying on a mass tourism model, this emphasis on “going local” feels like a positive shift in perspective.

But, as with anything, this shift in focus requires careful consideration. There is nuance tied up in the “local” conversation, and that nuance matters.

Understanding Identity

Take a moment to consider your own personal situation and environment. Where do you consider yourself to be a “local?” When it comes to having a say in how tourism is managed in your “local community,” where, exactly, is that place?

In my case, I am an American citizen, but I haven’t lived on U.S. soil in several years. I have been a permanent resident in another city and country, living in the exact same apartment, for five years. I was born in one U.S. city, grew up and graduated from high school in another U.S. city, and graduated from college several thousand miles from both of those cities. Yet, I was a homeowner in an entirely different city and state, paying property taxes and a mortgage, for nearly a decade before moving abroad.

When people ask me where I’m from, I never know how to answer. Where is home? Where am I a stakeholder? Which of these many destinations should check in with me before making tourism-related decisions? In which of these destinations would people be supporting me as a “local?”

I am certainly not alone in lacking ties to and identifying with any one place as a human living on this planet. I care about how tourism impacts each and every one of these places I have called home at one point or another. But, turning the tables, in what scenarios should tourists care about me as a “local?”

Defining “Local”

Examining this question matters, and it’s something every tourism professional should be grappling with right now.

Are “locals” those people who have ancestral ties and claims to the land? Are they people who pay taxes or are they people who physically live in the neighborhood … or do they have to meet both of these qualifications?

Are local businesses those that are unique to this specific destination? What if there are multiple branches or locations of the businesses beyond this specific destination? Is it “local” if those branches are within the same city, same county, same state, or same country? How many branches do there have to be before it’s “too big” to be considered local? And, is it still a local business if the majority of people working on-site are born-and-raised local residents?

Perhaps more importantly, how do the local people define themselves? It turns out there’s not a simple answer to that question either. 

Just as no single person represents an entire population of people who share a particular characteristic, the temptation to label an entire host community as a single entity strips people and places of their widely diverse histories, needs, desires, and expectations. This recent article about what it means to be “local” in Hawaii, for example, notes the complicated and ugly history of colonization and oppression woven into a larger narrative of shared experience, identity, and ancestral ties — all of which matters when it comes to defining locality.

In the tourism context, it’s appealing to call something a “local” experience and be done with it. A quick Google search reveals pages upon pages of Hawaii-related travel content inviting people to “go native,” “do as the locals do,” and have “authentic Hawaiian experiences.” While this content might appeal to travelers, it does nothing to highlight the complexity of the situation, especially when there’s a conflict between travelers’ expectations of what a “local experience” looks like and the reality of daily life.

There’s a tricky catch-22 of tourism marketing that must balance attracting potential travelers while also upholding the integrity of an honest and transparent narrative. But in an attempt to pivot from the mass tourism model, those working in the tourism industry need to be mindful not to homogenize people and communities, especially for the sake of marketing.

Being willing to learn about and understand the nuances of locality in the destinations tour professionals work is an important first step in promoting offerings that meaningfully and intentionally support the people who live there.

Beware of “Local-Washing”

There’s a reason why taking this time is imperative: Beyond the complexities of the “local” label is the importance of understanding what it means to conduct business in a way that actually benefits local communities, which is specific to each individual community.

Shortly after reading the above-noted article about the nuance of this terminology in Hawaii, I noted the following tweet from a colleague: “An accelerated emphasis on all things local in travel and tourism is a good thing. But we'll also need to sniff out all the inevitable ‘local-washing’ and insist that a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens is applied to how we measure and report on tourism's benefits.”

This comment should raise a cautionary flag for every single person working in the tourism industry. When travel companies tout “local experiences,” it’s important that they understand who, exactly, benefits from their services and products. 

At the height of mass tourism, up to 75% of tourism income in some destinations was victim to leakage as profits seeped back into the pockets of transnational hospitality conglomerates. Recognizing the need to “stay local,” some hospitality brands may undergo clever linguistic gymnastics to convince guests that they’re “supporting” and “benefiting” local communities and the people who live there.

But the question is: Who, specifically, financially benefits from tourism in this specific destination?

Even if profits stay within a destination, are only a few folks benefiting — and are they the same people who make all the decisions regarding how tourism operates in the destination? Is it someone with ancestral ties to the land? Someone who pays local taxes? Someone who grew up in the neighborhood, or someone who recently moved in? 

And, is tourism income being dispersed, trickling down to those who have been historically marginalized and even commoditized by tourism in the past — or is the industry continuing to harm those it claims to help?

Continuing the Commitment

It is noteworthy that the tourism industry as a whole recognizes the dangers of leakage. It is promising that people increasingly recognize the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equity within the travel space.

But this isn’t the end of the conversation. In fact, it is only the beginning.

Those working in tourism have a responsibility to use their privilege and positions of power to do more than placate travelers’ desires. Yes, people want to support local communities when they travel — and that’s a good thing! — but the onus is on tourism professionals across the industry to ensure they’re offering more than lip service when they seek to meet these desires.

The key here is specificity: Tourism is complicated because it is intimately connected with people and places … and people and places are complicated. Instead of shying away from this nuance, it is imperative industry professionals lean into it.

Tour companies, service providers, and destination representatives must work closely with on-the-ground partners and each other to clearly understand the economic and environmental impact tourism has on a destination. All stakeholders must be transparent and detailed in their reporting, specifically stating who benefits from tourism and how. 

And, beyond that, it’s important to understand not only what that benefit is but who defines that value.

As the industry discusses the importance of local impact, everyone must enter these conversations with curiosity while also boldly asking hard questions and holding each other accountable. Don’t be afraid to drill down to the micro level to clarify understanding: How exactly do service providers support “local” people? What exactly is the situation on the ground? Who exactly is benefiting, and in what way?

This is a new era of tourism. It’s an era that can actually support individuals throughout all layers of society and disrupt the traditional tourism narrative — but only if we’re willing to challenge our commitment to people and the planet while recognizing there’s always room for improvement.



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  1. Thank you so much for your insights!! Wonderfully crafted & written.
    Would be honored to feature you in our magazine…www.agritourism.life/magazine
    Take a test drive & let me know…your voice is needed!

  2. The more people really do their work for supporting the locals out of their heart the better. The more people who first think of their own money the worse.

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