21 Mar 2010

Over the last few days, I’ve had many interesting opportunities to think about the eternal struggle between what’s local and what’s global, interested promotion or objective commentary, etc. I have to thank Lara and Terence of the Gran Tourismo Project for this one.

Hidden gems and popular spots

Today it’s the first day of spring, even though it’s quite grey out there. But the birds are singing, so that’s a good sign: no rain in the immediate future!

Over the last few days, I’ve had many interesting opportunities to think about the eternal struggle between what’s local and what’s global, interested promotion or objective commentary, etc. ;o)

I have joined the Local Travel Movement (and I need to thank Ethan Gelber of the incredible WHL Group), “a platform promoting the local way of travel – getting in touch with the local people, seeing a place like a local”, or at least as much as this is possible (there would be much to say about this as well).

Then this morning, I have had an interesting exchange (actually it was still going on now while I was writing, and I was loving it!) with the Lara Dunston and Terence Carter on their Gran Tourismo Project world tour, which I find pure genius (both on their part and on Home Away Holiday Rental group’s part).

They have Puglia (Apulia) on their list of places to go to, and they have chosen as their home base away from home a trullo, I guess in the area of Alberobello, but I might be wrong. I read this in one of their tweets, so I replied (all via Twitter) that I thought that that’s a very nice choice but a bit touristy. They disagreed of course and they replied that

what’s one person’s ‘hidden gem’ is another’s ‘local’.

My point was though, that of all the hidden gems for foreigners, they had chosen the least hidden and the type of accommodation that I am quite sure is the least popular among the locals (although I might be talking nonsense and for this we’ll have to wait for their certainly fabulous blog posts) and the most popular among the yet relatively few foreign travelers. The locals (meaning Italians)  that I know (but there will be many others that I don’t know and who can disproof my words) would probably go to a hotel on the beach, foreigners will probably like the trullo more.

Whenever I read about Apulia (and over the years I have seen innumerable “new Tuscany” type of slogans, ads and articles), I always see this exact area mentioned. That’s all. Since the main thing on their blog is that “they’ll be travelling slowly, living like locals” and that their mission is “to explore more enriching and authentic ways of travelling, and make travel more meaningful and more memorable”, it just seemed the least felicitous choice, since trulli were progressively abandoned by the locals and are now mostly holiday accommodations.

They replied by asking “if Apulia is touristy then what is Tuscany?”. The numbers of both tourists visiting Tuscany and the number of accommodation facilities present in the region are enormously higher than the Apulia numbers. And they also pointed out that renting a trullo was like renting a countryside villa in Tuscany. And I totally agree. And that was also exactly my point (it was probably the “non-said” we were not quite agreeing on).

Tuscany is enormously popular. Yet in a tiny fraction of its territory, and there are many areas that are just “outside the Tuscan sun“, because the industry keeps pushing the usual popular spots. And again, my criticism was not in the choice of the Apulia region, but of the location or even the type of accommodation in Apulia.

I feel that if one wants to truly have the local experience, one should probably chose a less popular destination in Apulia (or Tuscany).

We exchanged a few numbers after I said that choosing Alberobello in Apulia was essentially like choosing Chianti in Tuscany, and they said that there was no comparison between the 256 properties in Chianti and the 41 properties in Apulia. But in fact there is: 5% of the total in both cases.

No surprise either: obviously people invest in renovating properties where there is a larger demand (or like in our case with Casina di Rosa because they are just plain crazy and it was my great-grandparents home, and it is my pension plan! LOL ).

They pointed out that theirs is, in the end, a marketing/PR exercise for Home Away, and that one of the major factors that determined their choice was that they had to find a place with internet access, which is vital for their project. I understand this all, of course. In fact, it was the fact that it totally shows that made me leave the first tweet. I would have never thought that a tiny comment like that would have started such an interesting exchange though! And I hope that Lara and Terence take it the way it is: just as as minor criticism (but I wouldn’t even call it like that) on a tiny part of their project.

And mostly some good food for thought for me.

This brings back the usual dualism of local and global, sustainability and promotion, etc. It is truly difficult to avoid a conflict of interests (for all of us working in tourism and living in a tourist area).

I had read with great interest the blog post Gran Tourismo: where to draw the line between travel journalism and PR on the Going Local Travel site. I always follow their blog posts and their tweets and I love them.

My question was essentially: I know they need to find accommodation among the options advertised in Home Away, but why a trullo, which is, in my very personal opinion, the least authentic way to experience Apulia, and why choose something in the most popular area in Apulia? Why not a vacation apartment in the Taranto area, or in the Foggia area, or anywhere else that is not one of the few parts of Apulia that is actually known to foreigners already?

And here there is the usual vicious circle: the area is the most popular because it’s the most beautiful. The accommodation was the most suitable because the owners had good reasons to give internet access and fix it up properly because they had a good demand. This type of accommodation is quite popular because it’s the most out-of-the-ordinary. It’s in Home Away because the area is of tourist interest already. And there we go again.

So the problem here is what is the local experience we want to look for while traveling and we want to offer to travelers?

Does it mean that they should have chosen a less nice place because more authentic? Probably not, but there were certainly less popular areas in Apulia and less out-of-the-ordinary types of accommodation that they could have chosen.

I am sure that as usual they will find good local things to do even in a relatively popular area, and they will write amazing posts as usual that will prompt us all to travel to anywhere they will choose to go.

Personally, I would have chosen either somewhere near Taranto or on the western coast of Apulia, or a completely different destination that really deserves being discovered and is still off-the-beaten-path like the Marches (getting there), or Abruzzo and Molise or Basilicata,  or even Valle d’Aosta in Northern Italy, so as to stick to both the marketing/PR intent and the local travel promotion one.

They are right in comparing it with what happens in Tuscany (I can only really talk about the reality I know well). But if we are really to promote local travel, beside our promotional (or marketing/PR) exercise, then we should point out that there aren’t just countryside villas with swimming pool in Tuscany or trulli in Apulia. And actually few of the locals have access to either one of those… You can always rent a nicely done rental apartment in a village with real locals as you neighbours and go to the local public pool with them as it happens with the rentals at Casa Gigliola in Monticiano.

The internet access problem. That’s a bad one. You can always look for a local solution, though, for instance by asking the locals. In Italy, for instance, you can buy an internet usb keydrive with 30 hours of internet access for 10 euros or 40 hours for 9 euros. Of course 3G coverage is not always good. But, sorry to say, that’s what locals have to deal with.

A reality check for all of us, I guess.

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  1. Hi Gloria – just a few points to add to your post: you’ve written “in the end, (our Grantourismo project) is a marketing/PR exercise for Home Away, and that one of the major factors that determined their choice was that they had to find a place with internet access, which is vital for their project”.

    As I pointed out to your on Twitter, this is *partly* a PR/marketing exercise – HomeAway have hired us to blog and tweet (and publish stories) about the experience of staying in property rentals as being more authentic than staying in hotels – which is why the internet is so essential. But that’s one factor.

    However, if you read this information about the Project itself http://grantourismotravels.com/the-project/ you’ll see that this quest for authenticity and meaning in travel was a project we’d been developing for years, which arose from our work as travel writers, spending most of our time checking in and out of hotels, and getting frustrated by seeing other travellers spending all their time in the tourist zones, heads in their guidebooks, ticking off sights, or following guides waving flags.

    Our most satisfying experiences as travel writers were always when we worked on a city guidebook and spent a month or two or three in a city and learned to live as locals do. Of course, we’ve been expats too, living in the Middle East for 12 years, so we already have the skills to adapt quickly to places as locals do (and know how to buy SIM cards and USB cards as locals do! We now have quite a collection of them! 🙂 although funnily enough the owner of our place in Sardinia is buying us a USB so we can immediately get started) and these are the strategies we want to share with people through the project.

    So it was serendipitous that we discovered that HomeAway had a similar project in mind and we could work together. But while it *is* partly a marketing project, that’s not *all* it is. We’ve been based in the UAE for 12 years, so we know how easy it is for tourists to dismiss places because they only see it from the tourist zone, from hotel rooms – no city has been more unfairly treated than Dubai! tourists who visit on 24 hour stopovers and travel journalists who do 3-day junkets often don’t experience the things that locals love most about the place – so that was a reason we never wanted to stay in hotels for this project, even if they’re hotels locals stay in.

    However, we can’t forget that we’re writing for people who love travel and are contemplating travel, and most people (not all of course) travel because they on holidays, so while there is definitely an increasing interest in more authentic and more enriching local travel experiences – and this is no doubt a reaction to the globalization of travel and culture; that everything is becoming the same – people on the whole still want to stay in nice places, they still want to relax by a pool, they still have in their mind what an ideal holiday in Italy (or wherever) is from travel magazines and television shows that have inspired them to choose one destination over another.

    Not everyone wants to stay in a cheap motel by the beach, or a caravan in someone’s yard, or a local’s spare bedroom (or couch) in a house in the suburbs. Of course some people do, but we’re writing for people who are choosing or thinking about choosing holiday rentals (and that’s where the marketing bit comes in again). Of course some of us want to do those things – i’ve stayed in the outer suburbs of cities like Buenos Aires and Cusco with friends of my family and while in both cases it was an extraordinary learning experience, I know where I prefer staying and I probably wouldn’t do it again.

    This explains partly why we chose a trullo over an apartment in Taranto. The other reasons are explained on our blog, so I won’t repeat them again here.

    As we also explain on that Project page, we’re also trying to promote slow and sustainable travel this year, and trying to be more eco-friendly travellers. We’ve had to drive all over Europe for other projects, sometimes for two months at a time in a country or region, so we’re trying to consciously avoid driving as much as possible this year to reduce our carbon footprint. We want to be able to walk or bike as much as possible, and to use public transport instead when we can. So obviously this factor also influences the decisions we’ve made with HomeAway as to where we’ll stay.

    We *are* renting local apartments in local neighbourhoods, which is exactly what we just did in Jerez and now in Barcelona, and in Ceret, a village in France that we’re heading to next, and in many other destinations. But we’re also mixing the accommodation up a lot, to show people the wide range of styles of properties that people can rent – while everyone knows there are villas in Tuscany, not everyone knows about the trullo in Puglia. In Mexico, we’re staying in a casita, in Bali in a traditional house, and so on.

    Perhaps have a think about where *you* like to stay when you go overseas on holidays. Because many people travel very differently when they go *away* compared to how they travel when they are *at home*.

    Regarding your other off-the-beaten-track choices in Italy, Valle d’Aosta is incredibly touristy – we covered it for two books we wrote on Northern Italy – and Basilicata is *almost* as ‘popular’ as Puglia now, although of course it’s still off-the-beaten-track for many. But you’re right about the other places – they were on our list of choices, but we can’t stay everywhere.

    Gosh, I think I’ve written as much as your post (or more!), haven’t I?! I’m so sorry! That’s what happens when a travel writer comments. Thanks for the discussion! It’s been very interesting.

  2. Wow Laura, that IS a comment! LOL ! Thank you very much for taking the time to write this!

    Just to make a couple of things clearer, if they are not already, I would like to repeat that I am indeed a fan of your work (present and past).

    I absolutely agree that there is no need to sleep on somebody’s couch to get a local experience and that a nice place can just be as good. In the end, a holiday is what you make of it.

    I understand why you have chosen beautiful places to stay, that’s what I meant on Twitter when I wrote that in Italian we would describe your choice as “unire l’utile al dilettevole” (to combine business with pleasure).

    I also know you have been renting local apartments in local neighbourhoods: and this is exactly why this choice of a trullo surprised me. But maybe it’s just because this is my country so I get the feeling that a trullo is as non-local as it gets. LOL! It seemed a different choice than the ones you had made up to now. That’s all.

    I also agree with the choice of Puglia over, let’s say Tuscany. I never ever intended to criticise the choice of the Italian region, just the spot in the region and the type of accommodation. (Not sure Puglia is less touristy than Valle d’Aosta though… Just different seasonal tourists, I guess.)

    As to the places I would choose for myself, if I were to go on holiday, I would probably choose a less “colourful” accommodation than a trullo, but certainly a nice accommodation in a beautiful area (if I can afford it), just like the type of travelers you mention. I just had in my mind that you were after less popular choices among the many offered by Home Away. I guess I misinterpreted the aim of your effort.

    That you bring vacation rentals to the spotlight for a wider audience makes me the happiest person in the world (both as a vacation rental owner and a Home Away advertiser! LOL). I just have the double perspective of those who own a rental in a very popular spot (Pisa) and a rental in a much more beautiful but less promoted/popular/known place (the Upper Maremma… not Siena, not Maremma either…). And by the way, we have Internet everywhere! LOL

    Talking marketing strategies, which I realize are just a part of your work, and I have no problems at all with it, I just had this idea that you would chose less explored areas among those present in the portal site (which are nevertheless not unknown or people wouldn’t pay the money to be in the portal to begin with), because also in terms of marketing/PR I expected it would make sense for HomeAway. The rentals in Alberobello will always rent and the owners will always be happy to renew their Home Away subscription, whereas owners of properties in areas that deserve a bit of help in terms of visibility could benefit from your presence, and Home Away too in terms of more people wanted to go to those areas hence more properties for home away.

    This said, let me thank you once again very much for all of this. I am looking forward to reading about your next adventure!

  3. Apparently, my post was not well received by Lara and Terence as they have replied in a quite defensive way on Twitter (also using me as an example of bad advice re. Apulia as I have not been there in 10 years… well, besides never having asked to be seen as such, the fact that even so I was aware that the area they chose is the most popular in the region, doesn’t say anything good about this choice! 🙂 ).

    I am very, truly and deeply sorry that they felt offended. I never intended to say that my view was objective and theirs was not. I do not even believe in objectivity: we always filter anything through our subjectivity.

    I am however really disappointed that they didn’t have/take the time to read what I was writing and meant (they insisted several times that I was criticising the choice of Apulia, when I never did), and ended up misinterpreting my words.

    In the end, they wrote to me that one of my tweets suggested that my commentary was objective and theirs was promotion “yet you’re a property owner, we’re journalists

    I did not expect such a defensive attitude especially because I make no mystery of me being a vacation rental owner and because I never implied such thing in any of my tweets or here. I was actually referring to the topic of a blog post published on Going Local Travel, actually. You see… in Tuscany we say “a far del bene ai ciuchi si rimedian le pedate” (If you pet a donkey, it will kick you!). I thought I was making their work (which I have always appreciated very much, as I think I have stated more than once) known to the friends who follow my blog (I won’t have the many followers they have but I still have 4000 unique visitors each month), and instead I was wasting their time… Who would have guessed… You live, you learn.

    I think we all need a moment to think: being journalists doesn’t mean being right all the time or that one’s opinion is worth more than that of others. if one participates in a social network he/she has to be social and accept debate and different opinions.

    Well, despite wishing them well for their grand tourismo project, I am sorry to say, they have definitely lost a fan… and home away has probably lost two ads (not that neither of them will ever notice!) 🙂

    Bed time!

  4. Maria

    I find this article (and the reactions that it came with) very interesting for a number of reasons. And I am troubled (and a bit disturbed too…) Besides the unpleasantness of the whole interaction with the homeaway people, I am afraid we have already started to bury the local travel movement… That was fast…
    I am quite surprised to see the difference between the comment you have received here and the replies you received on Twitter. I am not sure why your question prompted such a frenzy, but I found the sarcasm and some of the remarks quite rude to tell the truth, so I am not surprised that they lost a fan! 😉 They have lost two, in fact! I hope you were not too upset Gloria: they were clearly not reading what you were writing, otherwise they wouldn’t have kept bringing Puglia vs. Tuscany up all the time even if anything in what you wrote seemed to even imply that you were against that choice. It got kind of pathetic at a certain point. The worst was when they played the journalist vs. rental owner card! how bad was that?! As if you were hiding that you own a business!! I guess it’s not easy for everybody to understand that you can run a business and believe in something for real while you do it…)
    Leaving the opinions on the reactions aside, though, the much more serious issue here is that episodes like this highlight how necessary and important it is to find a common ground against which we can define where you draw the line between a belief and trendy words. Nobody owns words, or concepts, that’s obvious. But if we don’t know what we mean when we talk about an authentic/local/sustainable travel experience, the whole idea is at stake, let us not fool ourselves. I think for commercial projects like this one, these terms are just convenient catchphrases, a good way to gain exposure from their popularity. Isn’t all about going local and slow these days? The problem here is that if we accept the fact that authenticity doesn’t exist, that even renting a windmill in the Netherlands or a lighthouse in Cornwall is an authentic experience because, when you go out, you go have a cup of cream tea at the local tea house, then what?! You were too kind if you want my opinion (you have it anyway!), because it is important that these ideas we believe in don’t become just the next trendy words to get visibility in the press. So the real questions are how serious we are about following a certain path and why we want to promote a certain view of traveling. If we start compromising on this things, the idea of local travel is already dead.

  5. Hi Maria, thank you very much for your comment and support! Let’s not talk about the “interactional” side of the story and consider it just a bad day in the life of two professionals :)!

    I am truly interested in what you say about the implications of “agreeing to disagree” on the concept of what is an authentic and local experience, so to speak. The problem is how do we determine what is authentic and local for everybody in such a subjective experience like traveling?

    But you are right, certain things cannot be seen as authentic in any way, nor as contributing to the promotion of a more local way of traveling. In the end, if we work to create a type of tourist offer that can bring people beyond the usual routes so that they get to know other and often more authentic realities, projects like this might end up frustrating all our efforts in the long run.

    Of course, as I said in my post, I do have a conflict of interest in a way (glad I am not a journalist 😉 ): I am glad if homeaway pays these two folks to go around and say how cool it is to choose vacation rentals rather than hotels, but at the same time, I am not glad at all when they end up reinforcing certain stereotypes such as that if you go to a popular place you can still just as easily have the local experience…

    Just like you (by the way, do you have a website or a blog?) for me, the idea of promoting a local more authentic way of traveling is a value, because I also AM a LOCAL. And not only because I hope that people discover my home village and its region, which are still off the tourist tracks, but also because I believe that that is the type of travel we should encourage. I try to promote that for our second home, Pisa, which on the other hand is quite touristy in places. But I know there is much more.

    I think I have written too much as usual. Thank you for your very insightful comment again, and I am looking forward to discussing these things with you again soon!

  6. I have just posted a long comment on Vicky’s beautifully written post.


  7. Hey Gloria,

    Firstly, I like the detail you’re going into with the definitions here. It’s important, it seems now there the buzz words, that everybody seems to be throw around are hidden gems.

    So what do you call a place that you would have not known if a local had not told you. I’d say this is ‘hidden gem’, ‘locals favorite’ or a place the ‘locals love’.

    I’m confused the reception is subjective – my hidden gem in New Zealand may be to a visiting American a run-down-fish-and-chip-shop that tries to serve Vietnamese.

    Why this matters is I’m working on communicating to people an adventure in New Zealand. There are definitely hidden gems, places the locals love, secret pathways, places the locals probably would love if they new about it and places that every body who comes here goes to see. They’ll learn and get to know these place. I’ve been trying to get it down to one phrase. Are they hidden gems? Places the locals love? Or is it just locals advice? Am I deceiving people if I say hidden gem? What do you think?

    I’m asking you as, it looks like you care about these little changes in delivering an authentic message. Would love to hear what you think? I’ve enjoyed reading your post.



    • Hi Adam, every definition is inevitably subjective and what is a hidden gem to you might be a dump to someone else. I think that if it is a hidden gem to you, you are allowed to call it that way. Any person with a bit of common sense will never stand what you mean. You can also try and explain what is that you mean. Your fish and chips place sounds like a hidden gem to me! 😉


  1. uberVU - social comments says:

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by casinadirosa: Hidden Gems and Popular Spots the eternal struggle between local and global,interested promotion & objective commentary http://bit.ly/dxQRmb

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