As long as people have been traveling, they’ve sought mementos and souvenirs. Ancient Egyptians and Romans brought spices, animal skins, and gold back from foreign trade missions or conquests. Modern travelers hunt for handicrafts or traditional art, tangible reminders of other places to use in their own lives at home: a Moroccan rug splayed across the living room floor, a gleaming Venetian glass vase to fill with wildflowers. But what if those local crafts aren’t local at all? A 2022 report estimated that up to 75 percent of Australian souvenirs marketed as “Indigenous” were fakes.
Offenses including painted boomerangs and didgeridoos traced to workshops in Indonesia and art galleries convicted of forging distinctive Aboriginal dot paintings. (Learn which souvenirs not to buy, from ivory carvings to sea turtle shells.) At tourist attractions around the world, purchasing locally made arts and crafts can be as challenging as navigating a Turkish bazaar.
In Cairo’s centuries-old Khan Al-Khalili bazaar, handwoven Egyptian cotton scarves hang near a pile of cheap plastic scarab beetles of unknown origin; around the main square in Santa Fe, New Mexico, shops sell genuine turquoise jewelry made by Pueblo peoples as well as convincing forgeries. Here’s why the knockoff business is so prevalent, why shopping for the real thing is so important, and how to tell fakes from genuine crafts. Why not to buy fake crafts Inexpensive, counterfeit art, ceramics, and textiles funnel income away from communities that rely on tourism, from the Gullah people who create sweetgrass baskets in South Carolina to tweed and tartan fabric weavers in Scotland. “When you buy a mass-produced product, you might be supporting a business that doesn’t pay its workers a fair wage,” says Jeremy Fritzhand, founder of Studio Bagru, a fair-trade block-printing workshop outside of Jaipur, India.
“The materials they use, like polyester or other plastic-based fibers, are not as sustainable, whereas artisans tend to use sustainable, locally sourced materials like cotton.” Please be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited. Please be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
Left: This hand-blocked Indian printed textile was produced by Jaipur’s Studio Bagru. Right: This fake Indian block print was made using screen printing in a factory. (How to dive into Jaipur’s crafts scene, from printing classes to marble workshops.) Purchasing local goods helps support longtime traditions and fragile communities.
“Creating souvenirs, from mugs to fine art, is us practicing our culture,” says Stephanie Parkin, a Quandamooka lawyer who chairs Australia’s Indigenous Art Code, a fair-trade crafts advocacy group. “You can’t get that with an imitation.” How to buy the real thing It used to be simpler to suss out local souvenirs.
In a place like Oaxaca, Mexico, travelers could head for the town center and find markets or artisan workshops, assuming the black clay pottery and embroidered blouses for sale were produced nearby. Items that were created by human hands, not machines, usually looked a bit imperfect—errant brush strokes in Japanese calligraphy, uneven dye in block-printed Indian textiles such as the ones from Studio Bagru. Now artificial intelligence and 3D printing mean big factories can recreate traditional designs without paying local artisans, turning out knockoffs so advanced that even professionals have trouble identifying them.
“Imitators will intentionally include bleeds and overlaps, to make block-printed fabrics look authentic,” says Fritzhand. “They know what travelers want.” The best way to know if your souvenir is the real thing? Go to a workshop where you can see crafters actually producing rugs, pots, or metalwork.
“Don’t assume that someone in a marketplace is an artisan,” says Halle Butvin, a fair-trade expert at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. “Do you see them making the craft? Many vendors just gather products from artisans and mark them up. Choose tourism experiences that take you directly to artisans.” Please be respectful of copyright.
Unauthorized use is prohibited. Seek out cooperatives or fair-trade marketplaces, where groups of artists show, sell, and sometimes produce their own work, often with the support of the government or non-profit group. (Explore how indigo dyeing is making a comeback in South Carolina.) For example, the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans’ craft village features works by Palestinian artisans plus glassblowing and embroidering workshops.
Artesanias de Colombia is a collection of boutiques that sell local crafts around Colombia. The Indigenous dot paintings and basketry at the Gallery of Central Australia, near Uluru in the Northern Territory, are purchased directly from regional art collectives and come with authentication certificates and artist bios. Some countries have vetting programs that label local products.
In Canada, an Igloo trademark indicates goods created by the Inuit peoples, such as sealskin earrings and stone carvings. Throughout India, the Craftmark symbol helps shoppers distinguish between handmade and machine-made saris, block prints, and vibrant Jamdani weavings. In Australia, look for pieces wearing the black and red sphere logo of the Indigenous Art Code. Tours where you learn to craft Fueled by a growing interest in experiential travel, tour companies focused on crafts are springing up, too.
Ace Camps has sold out all of its 2023 weeklong trips, which take small groups to weave baskets in South Africa or dye fabrics with indigo in Bali. “Many travelers want to learn something new while they’re on vacation. At the same time, they are also looking for an insider’s view,” says founder Angela Ritchie.
“They want to both learn and buy from local artisans.” Other crafts tour companies include Thread Caravan, which hosts small group trips to make pottery in northern Morocco or weave with the Indigenous Guna people of Panama and Colombia. Vacation With An Artist organizes one-on-one masterclasses in more than 25 countries, including Spanish woodworking in Barcelona, shadow-puppet making in Malaysia, and perfume blending in Los Angeles. “By connecting travelers with makers, we’re hoping people will become more conscious of what they buy,” says Caitlin Garcia-Ahern, the founder of Thread Caravan.
“Getting to know who made your keepsakes makes those items more significant.”