Sarah Li Cain
During our vacation in Bali, my husband and I really wanted to purchase a piece of local art. We spent an afternoon strolling through the Ubud Art Market when we happened upon a stall in the back. After a bit of chatting and bargaining with the shopkeeper we left with a beautiful mask with pearl inlays and intricate carvings.
As soon as we got home, we carefully unwrapped the mask, so we could hang it up in our living room. When I flipped the mask over to hang it on the hook, I saw it: A white sticker on the inside with the words “Made in China.”
So much for buying local.
My husband and I really try to support the local economy when we travel, so we were disappointed when we realized we purchased an item that wasn’t made anywhere close to Bali. A quick investigation of what you’re buying (including the back) can help you avoid the same mistake, but there are plenty of other ways you can make sure you’re really getting the local experience—and helping the local economy—while you travel, too.
Why buying local really matters
Globally, the tourism industry is booming. International tourist arrivals grew by 7 percent in 2017, reaching more than 1.3 million people. The United Nations’ World Tourism Organization estimated that number increased by another 4 to 5 percent in 2018.
But all those booked vacations won’t automatically help the locals. Dale Vaughn, vice president of partnerships AirTreks, at one of the oldest travel companies in the world, suggests that tourism could have a negative effect on local economies, especially when it comes to labor. “The trickle-down economic impacts of tourism may never reach the people who work to create products, such as in developing nations,” he says.
It all comes down to what the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development called “structural leakages.” Essentially, even when local economies are set up to support tourism, and many workers work in the tourism industry (such is the case with many “tourist towns” like New Orleans or Key West), much of the money “leaks” out of local economy and in to foreign airlines, major hotel chains, and mass producers of keychains, shot glasses, and other souvenir tchotchkes.
When tourists take time to hunt down and patronize truly local establishments and artists, they’re essentially disrupting this chain and putting their tourism dollars directly into the local economy.
Staying and spending locally can also have a positive impact on the environment. Take the keychains, shot glasses, and tchotchkes, for example. Those items were likely manufactured of cheap plastic and then shipped from thousands of miles away. Considering the report conducted by the U.N. that suggests there will be around 12 billion tons of plastic litter in landfills and the natural environment if we don’t change our ways by 2050, supporting these companies feels counterintuitive.
Buying those souvenirs from a local artisan who’s passionate about sustainability can help reduce that growing plastic mass. Take Colleen Coughlin, a sustainable fashion designer based in Miami. Through her business, The Full Edit, she has helped to eliminate 4,236 pounds of fabric by upcycling fast fashion pieces into locally sold, new, and unique creations.
Shopping with these artisans also means helping more locals than you realize, since many local, growing companies also hire locals.
“We hire locals to help with designing and sewing items, and even help people remove items from home we can then reuse,” Coughlin says.
Another local business owner, Stacy Davidson, owner of Nashville-based fashion store My Vintage Look, hires local sewers and designers to create unique pieces you can only purchase at a small boutique area inside a popular antique mall called GasLamp Too or small pop-up shops around Nashville. She’s seen how small businesses help Nashville’s culture thrive and encourages people to do the same. For example, local businesses tend to be more accountable to the community and will readily spend money to help other independently owned companies.
“You’ve chosen to visit a destination because of what it has to offer,” she says, “So why not help its culture thrive?”
How to live (and shop) like a local
Even with the best of intentions, you may end up spending the day in a local artisan market, buy a piece of art that you think is local, and come home to find the “Made in China,” sticker on the back. To prevent this from happening, it pays—literally and figuratively—to do your research.
It’s not possible to know how your tourism dollars will truly impact the local economy unless you ask.
Vaughn, who has helped everyone from travel novices to the world’s most adventurous nomads plan their trips, says the best way to find the best, truly local businesses is to ask. “We’ve found the best travel experiences come when people ask questions,” he says. “If you start asking questions, you’re likely going to get honest advice.”
You can start with the simple (and somewhat obvious) choice: the information booth or the concierge at your hotel. “Almost every town in the world will have one of these,” Vaughn says. Many travelers overlook the info desks, relying on the internet to point them in the right direction, but there’s a good reason to reach out to the friendly face behind the counter. “People who work in these places love their community and want you to spend your money with their friends and neighbors. Most of them have phone numbers you can call ahead of time and ask any questions like these.”
When you are talking to the locals, especially in a tourism-heavy city, it also helps to keep in mind that every tourist asks where the locals go. Despite their best intentions, the local might have a canned response they give to most visitors. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask for specifics. Are you looking to buy art from a local street artist? Ask who their favorite is. Looking for an actual local dish, not just the ones for the tourists? Ask where they eat lunch. Get to know the person you’re talking to and you’ll get the best answers.
And when you’re out and about, think like a local. Grab a copy of the city’s alternative weekly newspaper from the coffee shop and see what vendors and stores are being featured or who is advertising. Since these papers are meant for locals, odds are good you’ll find a great place you wouldn’t have heard about watching the Food Network.
Avoiding the tourist traps
Despite your best intentions, some places take great lengths to appear local. For example, you can purchase voodoo dolls or “Cajun” hot sauce up and down Bourbon street in New Orleans. That seems pretty local, but those same items are mass-produced and sold in bulk in any Gulf Coast tourist shop, just in a different package. To ensure you’re getting something unique, it can help of you do a bit of research beforehand.
For example, you can do a search online for large chains like Hilton, Starwood, the Four Seasons, or brand alliances like OneWorld or Star Alliance, to see if they are associated with the cute boutique hotel you plan on booking. Vaughn also suggests looking through a hotel’s “about us” section of the site to find out who owns the property.
As for locally made items, Coughlin suggests looking to see how many of the same items are being sold in the store. Chances are if there are more than a few (such as 30 pieces) of the same items, its most likely mass produced or imported. Of course, there are always exceptions like food items so it’s always a good idea to ask.
“Artisans or handmade items tend to be created in smaller batches and have a story attached to their origin,” Coughlin says. “The story may be on a tag, explained to you by the salesperson, or on the company website.”
Rather than heading to heavily trafficked tourist areas, seek out local shopping plazas where you’re more likely to find the locally owned stores and products you can’t find on touristy streets. For example, 6th Street in Austin, Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and clothing stores in Pittsburgh’s The Strip district are places you may want to avoid.
It may a bit more effort when traveling, but it can be deeply satisfying to know you’re putting your dollars to good use. Travel is a great way to connect with others and make a great impact, so taking the extra time to go off the beaten path can be truly rewarding.