Travel should be satisfying and rewarding for all involved. Here are 15 tips to help you travel less like a tourist and more like a local when you next go on holiday.
Travelling like a local isn’t just a nice-sounding platitude. From Amsterdam to Boracay, Santorini and Venice, many of our favourite holiday destinations are feeling the strain of over-tourism.
As travellers, there’s lots we can do to help alleviate the problem. Or at least, not make things any worse. In fact, a movement is coalescing around “responsible travelling” in a bid to help improve the current state of things.
You can get on the bandwagon and do your part by observing these 15 tips on your next holiday.
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When it’s customary, haggling can be a fun way to score some goodies while forging a meaningful connection with the locals. However, be mindful of how far you take haggling, and how you go about it.
Driving too hard a bargain, or going about it rudely or aggressively will sour the experience for everyone, and you won’t get the products you want. Think of haggling as a rapid-fire negotiation where both you and the seller find a deal you can both feel good about.
Instead of focusing on driving down the price as much as possible, try buying more pieces and asking for a bulk discount. This is more helpful for the seller, especially those who are hawking perishable goods.
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Buy from local businesses
A visit to, say, the world’s highest Starbucks at Taipei 101 can certainly be a highlight of your trip. But beyond special circumstances like this, try to choose brands and businesses native to your host country instead, such as that family-run cafe round the corner from your hotel.
This way, you’ll be helping to support local businesses that arguably add more charm and character to your favourite holiday destination than soulless mega-franchises ever could.
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Spread the wealth
By now, everyone and their grandmas have probably heard of Jay Fai and her Michelin-starred crab egg omelette in Bangkok. Last I heard, waiting times were up to 4 hours for a table.
Here’s the thing. Michelin-starred eateries aren’t the only place to have a decent meal. In fact, I’d argue that the overcrowding such accolades inevitably brings, only causes food quality to drop, making things worse for everyone.
Instead of insisting on only going to the best dining spots, try broadening your horizons to seek out other local eateries for the chance to stumble across other culinary gems. In the process, you’ll spread your tourist dollar among the local community, instead of concentrating it all in the hands of a few.
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Research animal attractions
The goal here is to avoid animal exploitation, which is sadly, still all too common in many parts of the world.
Before booking tickets to an animal attraction, spend some time researching how the animals are treated and what scandals or complaints have been reported.
As a general rule, the less direct interaction involved, the better for the animal’s welfare. So definitely skip the tiger temple visits.
Learn the local language
Here’s a simple yet effective way to be a better tourist: learn the local language.
Or at least, try. Learn a few basic phrases that would be helpful when buying things or when you’re out and about – such as “Hello”, “Thank You”, “How Much”, “Good bye,” “Yes/No”.
Don’t insist or demand the locals speak in English when they aren’t able – that’s just arrogance. Also, with free apps like Google Translate, what’s your excuse?
Don’t give to beggars
Don’t give to beggars, no matter how convincing they appear. While this may sound cold-hearted, giving to beggars will only encourage the perpetrators (sometimes, the parents, sometimes entire crime syndicates) behind such schemes to keep it up.
If you really want to support your host country, look for a registered charity to give to. When in doubt, internationally recognised organisations such as the Red Cross, are safe bets. Alternatively, look for donation boxes set up at airports, shopping malls and other publicly accessible places.
Be mindful of cultural differences
Cultural differences can run the gamut from overt, such as covering up when entering a place of worship, to subtle, such as how to get the attention of wait staff. As a traveller, the onus is on you to learn the cultural norms and try your best to avoid flouting any.
Observe what the locals do, and try to follow suit. If you fumble and earn a glare, don’t react with anger or be defensive. Instead, smile and offer apologies and explain you’re a tourist. You’ll almost always find forgiveness to be quick in coming.
Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home
Yes, a holiday is a chance to cut loose a little and have some new experiences but good sense must still prevail.
One good rule of thumb is not to do anything you wouldn’t do at home, such as climbing over someone’s roof just so you can get a nice photo.
Or, stripping buck naked and posing with a sacred tree or on a sacred mountain (what is it with sacred sites that make some people want to take off their clothes?)
You don’t want to be that guy/gal that gives the locals another reason to hate tourists, do you?
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Use public transport whenever possible
Most countries have public transit systems that are well-developed and safe, which should be your first choice when getting around.
This will not only help you reduce emissions when travelling, it is also a great way to get to know your holiday destination on a much more intimate level. It’s a fun way to discover everything from street-side restaurants to quaint neighbourhoods, indie cafes and local places of interest.
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Bring your own water bottle
When travelling, don’t leave your water bottle behind. It’s handy for keeping yourself hydrated while reducing the amount of bottled water you consume.
You can easily boil water in your hotel room the night before and fill up your water bottle before going out. Alternatively, get a travel bottle with a filter to fill up from taps while on the go.
Eat in instead of takeaway
Whenever possible, opt to dine in instead of getting your food to go. You’ll get to enjoy your food at its best – along with the sights and sounds of local dining – and avoid creating plastic waste at the same time.
This goes double for night markets, where every purchase comes in a paper bag stuffed into a plastic bag. Ask for the paper bag only and eat as you stroll around – most street food is meant to be consumed that way anyway.
Some stalls offer seats but check before you take them. Presumably due to a lack of washing facilities nearby, some hawkers may cover their plates with a plastic bag before serving you food on it, creating plastic waste.
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Travel during off-peak seasons
This one is simply about being considerate to the people who actually live in your host country. By choosing to travel during off-peak seasons, you can help to alleviate overcrowding by tourists, which have been highlighted as a problem in places as far flung as Santorini and Iceland, and as near as Bali.
Most recently, even gracious Japan spoke out about over-tourism as thongs of fans flooded the country after lockdowns were lifted.
Seek alternatives to popular spots
It’s helpful to approach tourism like you would a merry-go-round. Once you’ve had your turn, be gracious and let others have theirs. This means expanding your travel itinerary beyond the usual list of popular spots.
Instead of going back every March to see the sakura blossoms in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, why not try going to any of the other 50 or so viewing places in Japan instead?
Taking it one step further, try alternative places for sakura viewing, such as South Korea or even Paris.
Don’t discuss out loud how cheap things are
Have you ever noticed how you can spot a Singaporean from miles away when in Bangkok or KL, because they are excitedly chattering about how cheap things are? Perhaps you’ve even done so yourself?
Maybe it’s because we’re "traumatised" by the high prices here in Singapore, and so we can’t help our outbursts when visiting countries with lower prices. But this is also how Singaporeans earn a reputation for being penny-pinching and arrogant.
Yes, we are lucky to have a currency that is among the strongest in Asia, but let’s enjoy the privilege quietly instead of flaunting it in others’ faces.
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Be invisible and leave no trace
Perhaps the best overarching principle to adopt when travelling is to strive to be invisible and leave no trace. Essentially, this means doing everything you can to not stick out as a tourist, which oftentimes is as simple as not getting in the way of the locals.
Be mindful not to hold up traffic or cause obstruction when taking photos or videos. Smile and be friendly when asking for directions. Share a table during rush hour. And be sensitive to not make the less fortunate the subject of your posts or livestream.
Also, little things matter – tidying up your hotel room before checking out, only asking for housekeeping when you really need it, picking up your trash, using less bags when shopping… the list goes on.
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