The tourist trap paradox: Can an authentic local experience ever be defined?

It seems like every traveler these days is after the most authentic experience everywhere they go. From Conde Nast Traveler to Lonely Planet, a plethora of travel writers want to give readers insider information on the most off-the-beaten path experiences – eat like a local, drink like a local, party like a local! They all seem to invalidate popular restaurants and events as “tourist traps” while simultaneously turning these hidden gems into the very same thing.

Recently I went to Dublin (for St. Patrick’s Day, no less) and in reading reviews for different places, I was bombarded with comments about pubs and neighborhoods being packed with tourists and to be avoided, even when overall reviews were quite positive. So if a place is enjoyable by most accounts and it’s so popular that people from all over the world go to visit it, why would it be considered a trap? Why would it be considered a negative thing? It’s almost suggesting the city is putting on a facade for the tourists, pretending to be something it’s not.

Temple Bar in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day

What I found on that trip is that while many places were full of people from elsewhere, they were also full of actual Irish people, having a pint and singing and dancing a jig. From the old to the young, the professionals to the bricklayers, they were all enjoying the festival they’re known for throughout the world. And they didn’t even mind that they were sharing it with us. In fact, the Irish love meeting and chatting with strangers. And it didn’t make them or the bars any less Irish.

This got me thinking. If a place is so popular that it sees millions of tourists every year, doesn’t that become inherently part of a city’s identity? Doesn’t that accurately represent what you can expect to find in a given place? And why should that mean that locals can’t enjoy the very attractions that bring people to their city in droves? I happen to live in Miami. Should I avoid the beach – arguably the best thing about the city – just because 12 months out of the year, it’s full of out-of-towners? That would be pretty silly. Ultimately, when I’m not sitting in traffic on I-95 (talk about authentic!), I’m doing the exact same thing that people travel great lengths to come here to do – go to the beach and enjoy the nightlife. After all, the reputation had to have come from somewhere.

When I lived in Washington, DC, one of my favorite places in the city was the National Cathedral, considered by most to be a tourist attraction. As if only to be enjoyed once in your life, by people only passing through a place. But when I wanted peace and quiet, and to enjoy majestic architecture, I’d take a long walk to the cathedral and sit in there just to think. I played kickball in the National Mall, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. I ate cupcakes in Georgetown and I partied in Adams Morgan. Because there’s no better way to get the most out of the place in which you live than to enjoy its most amazing experiences. The fact that it’s also enjoyed by a group of spring breakers or a family of tourists from Michigan shouldn’t negate my own enjoyment of it.

National Cathedral in DC

The desire to travel like a local also contradicts the desire to experience the best of the best in a new place. Locals don’t always enjoy the best their own city has to offer. Some of us work 9 to 5 and come home to order pizza and watch Netflix on a Friday night. That’s not gonna be on anybody’s list of things to do anywhere in the world. And yet, it’s undoubtedly representative of what the people who live there are actually doing. When I travel, I do wanna see the clubs that I’ve read about and the restaurants that are booked months in advance. No one writes articles about the TGI Friday’s in a suburb in Queens, and there’s a reason for that.

The search for authenticity in travel is always going to be fundamentally flawed. No one place or experience is going to account for an entire city or an entire country’s tastes and experiences. For every Miami local, like me, that loves enjoying the beach, there’s one that hates it. There are always going to be people who like to spend their time in divey pool halls, while others prefer going to high-end clubs. It’s all genuine, because it all makes up the spectrum of things that people do here. Even the ones only here temporarily. It doesn’t make South Beach any less Miami. It doesn’t make Mardi Gras any less New Orleans and it doesn’t make the Temple Bar area any less Dublin.


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