Off the beaten path on a crowded planet

crowded planet

It is a crowded planet indeed.

Today I met a guy named Cash. Not sure if that’s his real name, but it’s what everybody called him. Cash is my friend Sibel’s landlord and flatmate in Barcelona, and a colourful character. We got talking when I was over visiting my friend.

Now Cash is a veteran globetrotter, so naturally the conversation geared towards travel and ways of experiencing a new place. I told him that I like to travel off the beaten path. “Off the beaten path,” he replied, “there exists no such thing. Every place that has something worth seeing has developed a tourism industry along with it. There is just no way around it. Independent travel has become the path!” The man does have a point.

A no-longer-lonely planet

A long time ago, ‘The Lonely Planet’ used to be a guide for alternative travellers, who didn’t want to consume the standard expensive tourist packages that most travellers bought. It listed cheap-but-decent hostels, restaurants, and experiences, that would give you a more authentic feel of what a place was about, with good value for money. Those times are long gone. Now just the appearance of a hostel in the LP justifies it raising its prices by 30% or more, and the LP has become the default travel guide to see most places in the world.

This gave rise to a new alternative way of travelling, which relied more on word of mouth, staying with friends of friends, hitchhiking and ride sharing, and meeting locals on the road. With the advent of the world wide web, this form of travel became easier to organize, and quickly spawned websites and online communities to facilitate this. TripAdvisor and CouchSurfing are two great examples, and both have become indispensable resources to me.

TripAdvisor relies on travellers to write reviews of restaurants, hotels, and tours. While subject to individual bias, its sheer number of users makes that most places in popular destinations will have sufficient reviews to give a good impression of what they are like. Of course, if that little hidden gem of a bar gets ‘discovered’ in this way, before long it will have a ton of raving reviews on TA and get overrun by tourists. That’s how I ‘lost’ one of my favourite pintxo bars in Barcelona, which is now a tourist hot spot. (I won’t tell you which one!)

CouchSurfing takes an entirely different approach. Through its website members can ask locals for lodging (‘surf their couch’) and meet-up with other travellers. What you’ll see and do depends entirely on with whom you happen to surf, and you have a very good chance of experiencing something local. In theory this works great, but in recent years even CS has been suffering from its own success. What used to be a not-for-profit organization run by volunteers, was bought up by venture capitalists in 2011, and their push for growth and monetization has resulted in quantity over quality, scaring off many of the original active core. You now see more and more people on the site just looking for a free bed, rather than a cultural exchange.

There are other websites that are less coy about their intentions. Airbnb is a case in point. Through this immensely popular network, people can rent out their spare room or even their whole apartment to travellers. Airbnb takes a cut of the rental price. It gives locals a way to help cover their rent, travellers get a cheaper and better accommodation than a hotel room, and both get to interact with each other. In theory at least. I’ve used Airbnb a few times in different places around Europe and North Africa, and about half the time I was simply renting a space, without the host showing a whole lot of interest in meeting me. Some of the ‘hosts’ on Airbnb are just rental agencies, looking for an additional channel to market their offerings.

The wisdom of locals

Clearly, it appears that the online organized version of word-of-mouth travel doesn’t reall lead to alternative or authentic experiences at all. It largely has become yet another way in which popular tourist venues promote themselves. Then is there still a way to travel off the beaten path?

Cash says: “The best you can do is just go somewhere. Why spend hours online doing research about a place, if you can just go there and learn what you need to learn. Travel to the place, start talking to some people, and listen to what they tell you.” While this is reasonable advice, you also run the risk of a bad to mediocre experience. In the city where I grew up, a random local is likely to recommend that you go visit the church (not worth it), go shopping in the largest mall in town (horrible), and eat at the Italian sandwich stand (ok, whose are actually good sandwiches). Because that’s where they go. You want an authentic experience, but that doesn’t mean patronizing the mass consumer culture that most locals in any Western country do.

Another (fairly obvious) issue is that your time is limited, so you typically want to gather some intelligence before going somewhere. This is not always easy, nor always accurate. I once travelled to the generally unloved city of Bilbao, Spain, and I was absolutely exalted. I also travelled to much touted Tuscon, AZ, once, which bored me to tears. So having a reliable way of researching your destinations–be it the country where you’ll go travel around for a month or the restaurant where you’ll eat tonight–definitely has some value.

“So… you want to discover authentic places, that only the locals know about, but you don’t want to spend time becoming a local. You want something quick and easy, but at the same time unused by ‘mainstream’ tourists. Do you see the contradiction?” Cash asks me sarcastically. “Yeah, that about sums it up”, I reply, realizing how silly I sound. Yet I feel that this should be possible.
One way of quickly getting the lowdown on new places, is by talking to the right people. I have one friend who can always tell me what the hippest alternative concert or exhibition in town is, regardless of the day of the week. Another friend of mine has travelled to over 100 countries, and can quickly give me a summary of the up- and downsides of any destination I’m considering to go to. These people are amazing resources for information, not only because they are in the know, but because access to their knowledge is limited (they don’t post this stuff on TripAdvisor). Did I mention that they’re also a lot of fun to talk to over a beer?

The key to successful travel might be to know the right people, rather than to have access to the right travel guides or websites. So when you get to a new place, ask around a bit. But don’t ask: “Where should I go to have a good time here?” Ask instead: “Whom should I talk to to learn about what’s going on here?” Do this a few times, and before you know it, you’ve developed a great local network that will make your journey a success. And you might even make some new friends along the way.


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