An interview with Nomadic Matt on authenticity, sustainability, and the influence of Covid-19 on his business.
Matt Kepnes, colloquially known as Nomadic Matt, is one of the world’s most famous travel bloggers. He started his blog, Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site, in March 2008; in the decade that followed, nomadicmatt.com has become a home for people to learn how to “travel more for less”. In addition to his blog, Kepnes wrote two books — How to Travel the World on $50 a Day and Ten Years a Nomad — organizes an annual travel conference for bloggers and other creators in the travel industry called TravelCon, and runs a charity called FLYTE that helps to make international travel accessible to low-income youth across the USA.
I spoke with Kepnes on the importance of authenticity in tourism, the role of spontaneity in using digital technology, and of course, the Covid-19 crisis. Has it impacted his business and, more importantly, his outlook on the future of travel?
The travel industry puts a large emphasis on the ‘authenticity’ of people and places. Airbnb, for instance, has built its brand on the promise of encounters with local hosts. What, to you, makes for an authentic trip?
I think the most important element of an authentic trip is to engage with as many locals as possible. Talk to them, ask them questions, and learn about how they live. Try the food they eat, visit the bars and restaurants they visit, and just try to get a sense of how they experience life in their country. Be open-minded and curious, but respectful too.
“Authentic travel” has become something of a buzzword and is used to market all kinds of different tours and trips that are probably more generic than they are “authentic.” And I think there are degrees of authenticity as well, which makes it all the more complicated to say what is “authentic” and what isn’t.
Authentic travel is just talking to people. It’s a fancy word for what people used to do before there was a fancy word for it.
If you engage with the locals as much as possible and learn about their way of life, you’ll have a much more nuanced and insightful trip.
I wonder how you view the relationship between spontaneity and the wide use of digital technology to plan our trips. Has it become easier to guide ourselves, or are we just increasingly being guided by opaque algorithms?
I remember traveling before the internet and smartphones. It involved both a lot more spontaneity but also a lot more planning upfront because, if you made a mistake, you couldn’t just Google a solution. So you had to plan and be adaptable. It was much more challenging at times — but it was also more rewarding when you succeeded.
These days, it’s incredibly easy to visit a destination but never really experience it because you’re constantly on your phone or social media. To me, that’s a waste. However, if you use the digital tools at your fingertips to learn new things and interact with more locals, then it can be a good thing.
I think planning is vital because you need to know where to stay, what to see, and how to get around. Fortunately, it’s much easier (both more convenient and more affordable) to do those things now than it was in the past. However, you also need to leave space for spontaneity so you can relax and really soak in a destination. Overplanning leads to boring, uninteresting trips in my experience. You just end up going through the motions. To me, it’s more about creating flexible plans that leave room for change and spontaneous experiences.
Do you view travel primarily as work or pleasure? What is the relationship between these things, to you?
Both. When I’m abroad, I travel for pleasure. I go to countries I want to visit and not ones I think will help create good content and I try not to work so I can focus on the experiences. I take notes, ask lots of questions, and save all my receipts but I make sure my travel experiences as enjoyable and not centered around work.
In years past, I would try to work and travel at the same time but I just ended up sacrificing one or the other. It gave me a lot of stress and anxiety and now I try to minimize that as much as possible. When I’m traveling, I focus on traveling. Then, when I get home, I get to work creating content.
Travel has a strong relationship to identity. Would you say traveling is something you do, or something you are? Has this changed for you over the years?
I think it depends on the person. Many people enjoy taking vacations, which are the experiences they have. They are fun and necessary, but they aren’t tied to that person’s identity or personal development.
Long-term travel, in my opinion, is an experience that can have a profound impact on a person’s perspective and personal development. It’s a lifestyle more than it is an activity and, because it lasts for months or year at a time, has more deep-rooted connections to a person’s identity.
Personally, I found long-term travel incredibly beneficial for my personal growth. Without a doubt, it helped me grow and develop and I am much better for it.
You have written in the past that the difference between ‘tourists’ and ‘travelers’ is often just a matter of bragging rights. Do you think the difference between these terms is useless?
I think it’s a silly debate. People naturally like to compete and find ways to one-up each other. This is just another vehicle for that. Travel isn’t a competition. It’s not a race. Everyone can travel in the fashion they like. That’s why it’s so amazing: because we all have our own style, experiences, and preferences. Two people can visit a destination and have polar opposite experiences. Travel is subjective, which is why it’s so timeless.
What do you think about the issues of overtourism and sustainable tourism as more and more people gain access to the world?
I think that more people traveling, on the whole, is a good thing. Travel shouldn’t be an elitist activity. It should be open to everyone because it can be such profound, impactful experience. It creates more open-minded, globally-aware citizens of the world. It brings people together, which is a necessary thing in my opinion.
However, the obvious downside is overtourism. People are visiting the same places over and over again, straining the local economy and environment. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. By limiting cruise ships, encouraging people to visit less “Instagrammable” destinations, and showing travelers how to organize more sustainable trips we can drastically change the flow of overtourism.
Destinations are already pushing back against overtourism and bloggers are leading the charge when it comes to providing alternative destinations and resources for more sustainable travels. So, I think the wind is shifting. Nobody wants to be a tourist stuck in a crowded destination. People want genuine, unique experiences. Because of that, I think we’ll see some big changes regarding overtourism in the near future.
How have you experienced the Covid-19 crisis, both as an industry expert and as a traveler? Has it changed your ideas about the future of tourism?
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically impacted me personally and professionally. For starters, I tested positive for the virus back in March and had a mild case that lingered for almost two weeks. I was fortunate that my case was mild and I was able to manage on my own without having to seek medical attention.
Professionally, the pandemic has been a huge challenge. Our traffic and revenue dropped 90% and we were forced to reschedule our annual conference, TravelCon. We’ve had to adapt and make changes to our business model, but it’s looking much better now. We’re optimistic about the future, though the travel industry will be much, much smaller when it does reopen. A lot of tour companies, blogs, and publications have already gone out of business. It will be years before things return to normal, I think.