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The Problem With Hidden Gem Travel

Last Updated on August 25, 2020 by Nina Ahmedow

I love traveling and what it allows me to see and experience. But I do find the term “hidden gem” quite problematic.

“Hidden gem” travel destinations are highly sought after, especially in light of the current pandemic. When people seek out hidden gem travel spots what they want to accomplish is to see something that most other people don’t know, allowing them to feel like an explorer who discovered a new land. And it appears quite innocent at first: In times of overtourism and with the need for social distancing isn’t it better to go where “nobody else” is going?

The Main Issues With Today’s Hidden Gem Travel Obsession

The problem is the underlying colonialism. This obsession with being the first to step foot somewhere always excludes the local population to whom the place is not hidden at all in fact. If you search for “hidden gem travel” you will even find tour operators who focus specifically on making you feel like you’re going where nobody else will go. It makes me wonder if hidden gem travelers go where they really want to go, or if they are so caught up in “off-the-beaten-path” destinations that they miss out on some extraordinary places.

Off-the-beaten-path travel can also hurt vulnerable communities and the environment. In their quest to experience hidden gems, tourists mindlessly enter foreign lands that would maybe like to remain somewhat “hidden.” A responsible approach to travel would acknowledge that. Because the more you write about your hidden gem travel experiences the more tourists are actually going to flock there. So ironically, this focus on off-the-beaten-path trips might actually turn some of those hidden gems into overcrowded tourist traps in the long run. (There’s a reason Bhutan has made tourism a bit more complicated.)

And then there’s another issue: The focus on “off-the-beaten-path” destinations creates two groups of travelers – the elite who travel to hidden gems, and the masses, the plebs who go to huge resorts and attend “inauthentic” events.

But the thing is you’re not the first person who ever visited Bosnia. And Barcelona isn’t suddenly unappealing simply because a lot of people go there!

I’ve mentioned in the past that flight shaming is elitist, and it’s the same thing with hidden gem travel. Everything the average person can afford is suddenly deemed less-than. It almost seems like a game: Who can unlock the secret levels in Super Mario World first?

It’s perfectly fine to not like being surrounded by masses of people as you visit Venice, but it’s a different story to devalue a destination merely because it’s popular with other people.

At the end of the day, there’s a reason some destinations are all the rage. It may be because they are affordable, or because they are extremely impressive.

And I’m not saying there’s something wrong with traveling to less popular destinations if you’re really interested in them. But if you’re simply looking up those hidden gem travel blog posts because you want to be some sort of “explorer” and do things working-class people can’t afford then you have an issue.

Ultimately, we should all be aware that travel is a luxury. We should cherish all kinds of travel. And, by all means, we can have our preferences when we travel, but we shouldn’t dismiss other forms of travel for no other reason than their popularity with “ordinary” people.

So don’t be a colonialist elitist. Enjoy travel wherever it takes you, and don’t miss out on busy destinations simply because they are not “hidden” to the outsider. And who knows, you might even make new friends at one of the more “commercial” destinations. Why would you miss out on that opportunity?

What do you think? What’s your opinion about this obsession with hidden gem travel?

lemons and luggage pin. wadi rum desert in the background, blue sky white font: the problem with hidden gem travel

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    Lily | imperfect idealist
    August 25, 2020 at 5:45 pm

    Bhutan’s policy is really interesting! You actually get quite a bit of stuff with that $250 fee, and I love that more than 20% goes back to the government to provide education, healthcare, and environmental conservation. It does make traveling there more expensive though, that’s for sure. Most people probably can’t afford to spend that much per day.

    I agree with you that hidden gem traveling isn’t problematic if you’re just trying to avoid overtourism, and it can be a great way to discover new places (as long as you’re mindful of locals, as you mentioned). But if you’re doing it just to get brownie points for going somewhere “undiscovered,” and looking down on others for going to popular places, that’s no good.

    I find this interesting because I feel like hyping up super popular destinations can be problematic as well, especially overtouristed places like Barcelona and Venice (as you mentioned). I also feel that a lot of less-popular destinations tend to be cheaper, as overtouristed places inflate prices.

    I was also actually just about to write a post about a “hidden gem” city in France that I think more people should know about. I think regardless of whether you’re writing about a popular or “hidden” destination, it’s important to be mindful of the relevant tourism issues, and to bring them up.

    • Reply
      Nina Ahmedow
      August 26, 2020 at 5:58 pm

      I even think the price in Bhutan might not be more than what some people spend in other destinations. It’s a lot of money but given that everything is included, I agree with you that it’s pretty decent.

      And I absolutely agree that the major tourist spots shouldn’t be promoted without some information about more responsible ways to travel there. But I noticed that lately there’s all this hidden gem focus that doesn’t really seem to be motivated by trying to avoid overtourism but just being the “only” person who has been somewhere, or in the case of bloggers, being the first to write about a destination before it becomes too popular.

      Another point is that with the pandemic, places like the Maldives are really struggling, and if somebody now decides to tell everyone to go to Tuvalu instead because it’s a “hidden gem” it might also cause problems for countries that don’t really have much aside from tourism.

      • Reply
        Lily | imperfect idealist
        August 27, 2020 at 5:51 am

        Ooh, really good point about trying to support countries that depend on tourism. And countries that are “hidden gems” may also not have the infrastructure to support a lot of tourists, especially during this time. I’ll have to keep that in mind when writing travel posts during this time.

        • Reply
          Nina Ahmedow
          August 27, 2020 at 3:05 pm

          Yes, there are so many angles to consider right now, but I hope in the end the travel industry will improve as a result.

  • Reply
    Milena Marangon
    August 27, 2020 at 7:09 pm

    It is an interesting take, I like your reflection about travel elitism. Personally, I think words like “hidden gems” or “off-the-beaten-track” are used (and overused) in such a wide sense that is difficult to generalise.

    I opened my blog in part frustrated by the fact that international tourists seemed to concentrate in a few locations in Southern Europe, making them congested and overpriced and leaving other areas equally beautiful and that could benefit of some economic development, virtually uncovered. I also wanted to promote a bit more understanding of local culture (having lived in UK I had noticed that although British visited Spain a lot, mostly they didn’t seem to have much cultural exchange outside the tourist resorts). Saying that, the locations I write about are not “hidden gems” as they are generally well known in the country itself and they have some internal tourism already.

    Then there is the issue with influencers showing off and the environmental impact of promoting certain destinations, especially on Instagram, and yes I think that the hidden gem focus on social media can be an expression of snobbism or wanting to “look cool”. So many posts like “beautiful girl looking in the horizon on an uncontaminated beach” are just there for appeareance.

    Other times, it may be that genuinly a travel writer or blogger is looking for an original story one a place that is less-known. In this case I still think that if a blogger or a journalist is in a position to influence masses, then the ethic implications of writing or posting about a location (especially in a less developing or environmental fragile country) should be considered carefully.

    To conclude I struggle to come with a absolute conclusion on the matter as it can be very complex and nuanced. I think that while the “hidden gem” concept in itself is a clichè, with a relative meaning, trying to write about alternative destinations, may be a a contribution against the phenomena of overtourism, but there are also different variables to consider like the tone used and the characteristic of the actual locations.

    • Reply
      Nina Ahmedow
      August 28, 2020 at 4:21 pm

      Thanks a lot for your thoughts, Milena!

      I fully agree that it’s a shame that some parts of the world are overlooked, but like you said those are not hidden gems because the local population generally knows those locations. I absolutely support the idea of going beyond what everyone else is writing about (and I try to do that myself by including different angles to stories), but I think there’s a difference between genuine interest in a place that is less frequently written about in English and checking off “hidden gems.” There is a trend to travel to countries that are at war, for example, and it seems to be more of a case of “I’m going where nobody else is willing to go right now.” When “off-the-beaten-path” destinations are mere trends the negative impacts of tourism will inevitably follow. But if someone is really interested they should definitely go!

      And I also feel that if we are really interested in going deeper we can do that even in popular destinations. A city like Paris which gets so many visitors every year has more to offer than the Eiffel Tower.

      In the end, I think we need to get more in tune with what we really get out of traveling and let that guide us to where we want to go instead of the prettiest photos in a destination English speakers don’t usually travel to. Sites like yours can help to inform people about what else there is to see, perhaps after they have already seen the major sites.

  • Reply
    Josy A
    August 30, 2020 at 2:51 am

    If I am honest, I always take the ‘hidden gem’ posts with a pinch of salt. It’s a bit like the ‘ultimate guides’ written by people who have visited an area for a single day. It’s just words bloggers and vloggers use as click bait to attempt to get people to read their posts. I don’t think any of them are actually hidden, or unknown by locals.

    Still, I am always keen to find out about the areas local people like to explore that are less obvious. And I think it can actually be a good way to spread the love (and economic benefits) for an area, rather than just focusing on sights that are on multiple bucket lists…

    • Reply
      MacKenzie
      August 30, 2020 at 6:03 pm

      I feel the same way about titles of articles! I’ve written one that I really think is the best, so I put that. Otherwise, I’ve had to be creative in titling my posts, like using “unique” because I so dislike the click-bait-y-ness.

    • Reply
      Nina Ahmedow
      August 30, 2020 at 7:48 pm

      You are so right about it being a bit clickbait-y. And yes, I think it’s great to explore the places that are more popular with the local population as well. A good balance is important.

  • Reply
    MacKenzie
    August 30, 2020 at 8:30 am

    I love that you’ve written about this topic. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and mulling over.

    I understand the draw and purpose of bloggers/influencers/etc. using the terms “hidden gem” and “off-the-beaten-path,” but I completely agree with your point in many ways. Those “gems” aren’t hidden or undiscovered to begin with, and then pointing a finger at them and putting them in the public eye makes them even less of a “hidden” gem. Furthermore, what kind of damage is that causing to the locals who frequent the town, site, etc.? It was never hidden to them in the first place. The upside to that is an increase in money for the area (hopefully), but at what cost?

    Even within a popular city, there can be “hidden gems” that may or may not be cheaper or less busy, which further complicates the discussion.

    I do think I had a period where I fell into the spell of only traveling to off-the-path destinations. I only went to the popular spots because they were popular and to say I had been. Luckily that only lasted about one trip before I realized exactly what you point out here – these sites are popular for a reason. I should enjoy them for what they are! I still love less traveled areas, but promoting well-traveled and less-traveled spots has become more important than ever. If someone is visiting say, Bosnia, that’s great. But only if they are truly interested! If someone is only visiting Bosnia because it’s a less-traveled country, we need to sit down and have an honest conversation. In this case, I think it still might be called a hidden gem (for better or for worse), but the intention behind it is different, and that seems to be what matters.

    • Reply
      Nina Ahmedow
      August 30, 2020 at 7:50 pm

      Thank you so much for the detailed comment! And yes, it’s all about the intention, of course. I also think that if someone has traveled to all the super popular places it’s actually normal they will seek out other destinations. But when it’s only because they can be the only person to write about it it seems dishonest in a way.

  • Reply
    Emma
    August 30, 2020 at 6:06 pm

    I agree with the overuse of some of these terms, and I’m even guilty of having used the words “hidden gem” once or twice. I’m also aware it won’t start a hidden gem if we keep promoting it as such, so completely agree with you there. I see people use the words hidden gems for pretty much everything though so I’m not sure how much of them I find are true. When the hidden gems of Paris includes the Eiffel Tower you know you’ve got a problem. I think the Instagram trend is one that can make people feel like they can’t attain what others get to or do because it portrays elitism in a way that it wants people to be jealous of your lifestyle. I love my luxury hotel stays as much as the next, but it’s because I’m a travel agent and get good deals. So I’m also all about the budget destinations and have never flown anything but economy and I’m fine with that. The plane gets to the same place at the same time after all, no matter what seat you’re in. Really enjoyed reading this post and your opinions, and I know I’ll choose words more carefully going forward

    • Reply
      Nina Ahmedow
      August 30, 2020 at 7:53 pm

      OMG, the Eiffel Tower as a “hidden gem” in Paris. That’s amazing, haha!

      Instagram definitely plays a huge role as well. And it’s sad because I feel like there’s actually a potential to show that average people can do certain things, but I guess a lot of people use IG to feel like celebs, lol.

  • Reply
    Farrah
    September 1, 2020 at 3:35 am

    This is really thought-provoking–I think I do a mixture of both. I enjoy “hidden gem” places because I’m not a fan of crowds/people and like traveling to get away from everything, but I definitely do appreciate the beauty in areas that are super well-known as well (as most of them are definitely well known for a reason)! Like Josy said, when people blog about places that are “hidden gems,” I also take it with a grain (pinch? boulder?) of salt because there are so, so many clickbait-y titles out there. Overtourism is definitely an unfortunate issue though.

    • Reply
      Nina Ahmedow
      September 1, 2020 at 12:30 pm

      Thank you so much for the comment, Farrah! I think a mixture of both is a good approach. Again, there’s nothing wrong with going to less crowded places, the issue is when it happens mindlessly only because the place seems “hidden.”

  • Reply
    Hazel
    September 4, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    Hi Nina! First of all, thank you for shedding light to this topic. I’ve had enough of “elitist” shaming a destination just because it has become so popular to the masses. Why can’t they just be happy that these beautiful places are being seen and appreciated by more people? And I agree, there’s some potential harm when a hidden gem destination suddenly get so popular – the people in the community might not be able to prepare for the influx of tourists and they may suffer along the way. I think as long as these “hidden” destinations are regulated somehow then I’m okay.

    • Reply
      Nina Ahmedow
      September 5, 2020 at 12:27 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Hazel! I think regulation is an important point, and I believe we will see more of it, such as in the case of Bhutan already.

  • Reply
    Ali
    September 17, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    Off-the-beaten-path travel can also hurt vulnerable communities and the environment. So true. Sometimes the destroyed places cannot recover in our life time. It’s sad we keep doing this. Keep raising awareness. Great work

    • Reply
      Nina Ahmedow
      September 18, 2020 at 12:34 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Ali! There are definitely many different aspects to consider in this, especially in the current climate.

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