Among travelers, there is a curious paradox: everybody wants to travel, but nobody, it seems, wants to be a tourist.
t’s an affliction as old as modern tourism. The 1908 E.M. Forster novel A Room With a View deftly skewers contemporary views of tourism. The English protagonist, Lucy Honeychurch, visits Italy and briefly finds herself entangled with a colony of English expatriates in Florence. When asked if she’s traveling as a student of art or perhaps human nature, she’s defiant.
“I am here as a tourist,” she proclaims, after which the English “locals” sing their laments about tourists and tourism. They don’t really see the country, she’s told. They are herded around, confusing one museum or hotel with another, seeing Italy but missing the point of it.
The reader later discovers that it’s not Lucy who’s missing the point. The English colony in Florence, which is revealed to be no more Italian than a Yorkshire pudding, its denizens happy to cosplay as locals while comfortably maintaining their own worldviews, which they shamelessly impose on the Italians they encounter. By embracing the fact that she is a tourist, Lucy is the only one who has rendered herself faithfully.
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A century later, not much has changed in travel. Travel media is still rife with tropes like “hidden gem,” “off the beaten path” (a phrase that is itself very well-beaten), or “like a local.” While some of the travel tropes are just trite, it’s that last one that’s grown troublesome as popular tourist destinations worldwide begin to grapple with the prospect of overtourism as “revenge travelers” return with the vigor of a cattle drive.
“Traveling like a local” is frequently thrown out in close proximity to exaltations about “authenticity”–seeing the real destination instead of a contrived facsimile, sanitized for tourist consumption. But travelers risk being wholly inauthentic by seeking to emulate locals (which they’re not). Even if they stay in a vacation home that could have been rented to a local as a primary residence and take up parking spaces at the local supermarket, they’re not locals—they’re just temporarily congesting the same spaces that are part of someone else’s everyday reality.
In a few places, overtourism and the quest for authentic experiences have driven visitors into local spaces as it has in Hawai’i. Christine Hitt notes that Oahu’s Aloha Stadium Swap Meet—a perennial entry in the tourism guidebooks for Hawai’i—is one such venue that has transitioned almost entirely to tourist patrons over the years.
Hitt, who is part-Native Hawaiian and grew up in Kapolei on the island’s leeward side, says the Swap Meet was once a local haunt: “We’d fill our cars up with clothes, furniture, and other knick-knacks and drive out there before sunrise to set up. This was a place where locals could actually sell their stuff, similar to a garage sale, but with a far larger audience.”
Once visitors learned of the swap meet (which always had some vendors selling Hawai’i souvenirs), they flocked, seeking cheaper prices than the tourist district of Waikiki. Today, Hitt says, “It’s largely a tourist venue, and I feel as if it’s a lost resource for the community.”
Even more intrusive is how grocery stores—even those far from tourism districts—dedicate sizable sections to souvenirs. Hawai’i supermarkets already offer less variety than their mainland counterparts owing to the high cost of shipping, and on top of that, floor space is dedicated to things local residents don’t need—unless the casual observer believes that chocolate-covered macadamia nuts in gift boxes are an every-day staple in Hawai’i households.
Hawai’i isn’t the only destination where travelers seeking authentic experiences strive to “travel like locals.” Plenty of travelers obsess over not sticking out as tourists in Paris or Amsterdam (poor odds at both, given their popularity with visitors) or find themselves hunting for “local bars” in entertainment hubs like Nashville or Austin.
But tourism is by far the dominant industry in Hawai’i, competing for scarce land and resources. The destination management organizations for each of the state’s counties have drawn up management plans that would contain tourism development and encourage regenerative tourism activities—that is, contributory to local communities rather than extractive.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Mālama Hawai’i program encourages visitors to keep with local tradition and steward the state’s natural and cultural resources. T. Ilihia Glonson, a public affairs officer at the Hawaii Tourism Authority, explains, “This includes planting native trees, restoring Hawaiian fishponds, or clearing invasive plants. We also encourage visitors to hike only on marked trails, view protected marine life from afar, engage in cultural experiences, and support local shops, restaurants, and farmers’ markets throughout the state.”
Those are all helpful, of course, if visitors aren’t engaging in other extractive activities, like buying boogie boards and snorkel equipment at stores with lenient return policies, then returning them at the end of their vacation, contributing to Hawai’i landfills.
So, what can travelers do to ensure they’re not displacing local residents during their travels? Here are a few tips:
Don’t Seek Out “Secret” or “Local” Spots
They’re called “secret” for a reason. Don’t assume guidebooks or social media posts give license to enter a space either—if the locals say “don’t go” or won’t give a direct answer, don’t press on. Tourists aren’t entitled to entire destinations writ large to populate their Instagram feeds—they’re entitled to good experiences at venues and attractions that are prepared for and actively welcoming them.
Don’t Stay in Unlicensed Rentals
Vacation rentals in most Hawai’i counties are limited to specific areas and must be licensed by the state to ensure they’re paying the correct taxes. Local taxpayers rightfully regulate land use, via their elected representatives—respect their decisions on how to maintain the character of their neighborhoods.
Don’t Travel at Peak Times
Many tourists complain about traffic as though they’re not part of the traffic. But there are worse things than being bored in traffic on your way to the beach, clogging the roads that local residents use to get to work. Help everybody out and linger through breakfast before setting out if traffic is a known problem at your destination – the same goes for going-home traffic at the end of the day. The same goes for public transit in large cities.
Don’t Tell Local Stories
Sure, you’re super excited to talk about the cultural hike you went on or recount your guide’s jokes to the nice couple at the next table. We get it; it feels good to be “in the know” somewhere cool. However, when you do that, you’re talking over the original (often Indigenous) voices of those stories. Let fellow travelers chart their own discoveries. It’s perfectly fine to say whether you enjoyed it or thought it was a good value, but leave the storytelling to the experts.
Take Cues From Locals
No, you’re not a “temporary” or “short-term” local—you’re a guest.
Maui attorney Keola Whittaker, who is of Native Hawaiian ancestry, encourages visitors to take a moment to observe the energy of the spaces they enter when traveling: “How are people relating to each other? The volume of people’s voices, their body language. Don’t try to change the energy of that space because you are a guest—instead, appreciate how it may be different from your own spaces or expectations. Don’t change Maui—let Maui change you.”