Can offbeat travel be sustainable too? Interview with La Carmina

Can offbeat travel be sustainable too? Interview with La Carmina

La Carmina, a Canadian blogger, author, journalist, and TV host offers adventures in travel, TV, and fashion. She specializes in Goth and Harajuku fashion and Japanese pop culture, and alternative travel experiences. Chi Lo has some questions about what this all means in relation to sustainable travel!

CHI: Hi La Carmina, you run an award winning alternative travel blog and you appear regularly as an expert host on travel TV shows like “No Reservations,” “Bizarre Foods,” “Oddities” and “Taboo.” Tell us a little bit about your area of expertise and how it relates to tourism. 

LA CARMINA: In 2007, I launched La Carmina, which evolved into a popular travel and culture website. My blog is especially known for its Japan subculture stories, but I write about offbeat travel experiences all around the world. I’ve traveled to over 60 countries, and some of my favourite adventures include volunteering with Yangon punk rockers, discovering body modifications in Tokyo, hailing the Moai of Easter Island, and spotlighting women running small businesses in Morocco.  

Can offbeat travel be sustainable too? Interview with La Carmina
“Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern”

I published 3 books about Japan pop culture with Random House and Penguin Books, and write regularly about travel for publications like Sunday Times, Business Insider, CNN, Yahoo, Movato (Canada-wide print lifestyle magazine), and Hong Kong Airlines’ in-flight magazine.

CHI: I’d love to hear more about how you work specifically with the destination!

I’m also a travel TV host, and appear regularly as an expert on Discovery, National Geographic, Food Network, Travel Channel and other major networks. Some of my top appearances include “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” in Tokyo, a “No Reservations” Anthony Bourdain promo, and ABC’s “Better Late than Never’ with William Shatner and Henry Winkler.

LA CARMINA: I collaborate regularly with tourism boards, as well as hotels, airlines, tour companies, and other travel-related partners. If I’m partnering with a tourism bureau, we typically work together to craft an individual press/FAM trip for my photographer(s) and me. 

It’s important that the project fits my niche, so that the coverage is authentic to my voice and audience. For example, I did a press trip with Montreal Tourism to feature Kinetik, a Goth music festival. In Paris, I learned about vampires at Pere Lachaise cemetery. In Tel Aviv, the tourism reps arranged meetings with local fashion bloggers and drag queens. 

Can offbeat travel be sustainable too? Interview with La Carmina
Enjoying bagels in Montreal

After we agree on an itinerary, the tourism board and I enter into a contract over the deliverables, such as a certain number of articles, photos, or social network posts with specific hashtags. Usually, I share my personal experiences on social media during the trip and immediately after. Then, I take 1-3 months to complete the long-form articles, which include dozens of professional photos and sometimes travel videos. 

CHI: Overtourism. We hear this word a lot nowadays. How is your work – in big cities in particular – providing a possible solution to overcrowding at tourist attractions? 

LA CARMINA: I’m all about highlighting off the beaten path attractions that tourists rarely frequent. Before a trip, I do extensive research and consult locals to find these hidden gems. It’s important to me to support small independent businesses and subcultures – from Cape Town street artists, to Kobe fetish bars – and I hope these stories make an impact. 

I also encourage people to visit destinations in the off season. For example, I went to Santorini in late March (with Visit Greece), and showcased how you could enjoy the island without the blazing heat and crowds. 

Can offbeat travel be sustainable too? Interview with La Carmina
Exploring Santorini in the low season

I try to take on projects that encourage travelers to seek out authentic local experiences, as opposed to a city’s “top 5” attractions.  This year, I project managed 200 writers and wrote nearly 700 articles on contract for Touring Bird, a new travel site by Google Area 120. Touring Bird helps travelers find insider tips for 200 major cities worldwide; instead of major landmarks, I’ll highlight edgy art galleries, creative chefs, and steampunk boutiques.

CHI: You do an incredible job exploring subcultures and encouraging locals to explore their own cities – how is this beneficial to the tourism economy? Why should the industry care?

LA CARMINA: In particular, younger travelers have increasingly been seeking specific, offbeat experiences. (Who knew there’d be such a large audience for Gothic travel?) Nowadays, it’s common to design tours or attractions around a type of food, or fans of a TV show. 

I think this bespoke approach is beneficial in many ways to the industry. Since travelers are eschewing package tours, locals get a greater chance to participate – such as by opening up their homes to guests, or leading walks in their neighborhoods. Destinations also have more opportunities to creatively attract travelers. For example, I’m talking to Merida (Yucatan) about featuring Day of the Dead and the brushing of the bones ceremony – a fascinating cultural angle that I’m certain will appeal to readers. 

CHI: What are some potential negative impacts of bringing awareness to these lesser known places, and what kinds of solutions might you suggest? 

LA CARMINA: This is something Anthony Bourdain lamented… he’d feature a hole-in-the-wall on his television show, and then it’d become overrun by visitors. Recently, there have been reports about people flocking to certain sites (like flower fields) to take Instagram photos, and damaging the natural environment.

Overtourism is certain a concern, but I think it’s a net positive to highlight these lesser-known places. Someone might try a regional delicacy that they’d never heard of, or purchase something from a boutique with a meaningful mission (like educating at-risk women in Cambodia). 

As for solutions, I think it’s important to educate visitors; for example, on my nature tour of Langkawi, the guide taught us how to behave around monkeys and not to feed them. Destinations should also determine their carrying capacity, and set limits. For example, there are now timed entries and rests periods for places like Machu Picchu. Instead of trying to maximize tourism dollars, leaders should think long-term about preserving spaces, and maintaining an enjoyable, uncrowded atmosphere for visitors. 

CHI: What kinds of projects have you been working on? 

LA CARMINA: I’m always involved in a variety of projects, which shine a spotlight on fringe cultures around the globe. 2019 has been a busy year for me: I teamed up with Travel Talk Tours to showcase a two-week journey in Egypt. I also spent time in Paris and Beirut – such an energetic and inspiring city! 

Can offbeat travel be sustainable too? Interview with La Carmina
Fair trade shopping featured on Touring Bird

The Google Touring Bird project (where I wrote and project managed on contract) was an intense one, but very rewarding. I’ve also been continuing to host and produce travel TV shows, including one for German network Pro Sieben, which was filmed in Tokyo. 

CHI: What trends are you seeing in your space as it relates to sustainable tourism, and what are your predictions for tourism and overtourism in the next 5-10 years? 

LA CARMINA: With the rise of Internet bookings and apps, travelers are becoming more open to non-traditional options. Many of these choices are sustainable, such as ride-sharing. I predict that the sharing economy will continue to grow, and that more travelers will opt for meaningful, tailored experiences. Social media will also continue to be a major driving force for travelers. 

Already, some places are putting a cap on tourist numbers. Maya Bay in Phuket (where “The Beach” was filmed) temporary closed, and the recent Mount Everest “traffic jam” disaster has made officials re-think the number of permits allowed. 

I’m certain we’ll see more strategies such as rest periods and reserved time slots, to combat overtourism. I also think new technologies can help with this problem. Cinque Terre is already experimenting with an app that shows how many people are on the paths in real-time, so that they can avoid getting stuck. Perhaps we’ll soon see virtual waiting lists, augmented and virtual reality experiences, and other creative solutions.  

CHI: Thanks, La Carmina! You can keep up with her adventures on her website: www.lacarmina.com

Can offbeat travel be sustainable too? Interview with La Carmina
Chi Lo
Chi Lo is recognised as an expert in sustainable tourism with over 10 years experience leading sustainability programmes spanning several continents. Her consultancy offers both sustainability advisory and coaching services for businesses wishing to operate more responsibly and conscientiously, as well as communications and content development services. Chi is active in the sustainable tourism community and is currently a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Executive Committee and Board, and the World Tourism Association for Culture & Heritage Advisory Board.

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