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Up close and personal
As has been said before, the quest for authenticity has become a general trend. Beyond the major natural attractions and must-see sites, travellers visiting foreign countries are interested in experiencing the local culture and soaking up the lifestyle. Rural tourism fits in nicely with this desire for immediacy, but the trend also represents an opportunity for big cities to diversify their approach and keep visitors coming back. Some businesses understand this and are offering tourists a chance to experience the unique culture of local people and neighbourhoods
Leaving the Beaten Path Behind
Discover the “Paris des Parisiens” and the soul of its neighbourhoods, immerse yourself in the city’s history and culture, eat traditional dishes with a family, take a guided tour led by residents of the area, visit local hangouts, join in a community event, stay with local people, and so on. What better way to accommodate visitors looking for this kind of interaction?
Beyond the scope of organized tours and classic itineraries, an alternative range of travel options is springing up to cater to small groups and independent travellers seeking uncommon experiences and contact with the locals. Not missing a beat, Paris has incorporated these alternative services into its tourism diversification strategy.
Services such as Meet the Danes, Like-a-Local, Global Greeters, Fédération Stattreisen and Belleville insolite are cropping up all over the place. Their role is to connect travellers with local residents who act as tour guides. The formula varies; some services are free and some charge a fee, some operate with the help of volunteers and some offer a more personalized service. For instance, Meet the Danes gives tourists the opportunity to share a traditional meal with a Danish family in a friendly and welcoming setting. The organization finds host families of similar age and interests.
Meals, lodging and outings are all part of the unique experience offered by Like-a-Local, an organization which operates in The Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Be it shopping in Stockholm, discovering the old and new faces of Lisbon, checking out the nightlife in Oporto, sampling “pinchos & tapas” in Madrid or staying on a houseboat in Amsterdam, there’s something to appeal to every traveller.
Under the banner of Global Greeters, services in Toronto, Fairbanks (Alaska), Melbourne and Adelaide (Australia), Buenos Aires (Argentina), New York, Houston, and Chicago make a visit to their city memorable with a free tour-guide service staffed by volunteers. Speaking different languages, and of all ages and backgrounds, they proudly show off their city while providing visitors with a wealth of “insider” information.
In Germany, the organization Fédération Stattreisen (loosely meaning “travelling differently”) adheres to the practices of sustainable development and low-impact tourism, and standards are very strict. Comprising 19 associations in 23 German cities as well as Brussels and Bern, their tours focus on exploring a city and its neighbourhoods while avoiding the usual tourist traps. They combine encounters with local residents with an in-depth look at the city’s history, politics and people. Quirky or little-known aspects of the destination are also covered.
In Paris, Belleville insolite is doing some groundbreaking work in the art of community-supported tourism with an approach that differs radically from the traditional tour blueprint. Young guides, mostly students on the verge of entering the professional world, take visitors to see the attractions of this vibrant and cosmopolitan Paris neighbourhood. Several other initiatives have also been developed, including some that target new residents, seniors and the unemployed.
Along with saving the traveller money, home-exchange is another way of fulfilling a visitor’s desire for authenticity. Living in a house in a foreign country, buying from local merchants, adapting to the local rhythm of life, meeting local residents and seeking neighbourly advice are all experiences the make tourists feel they are soaking up the local culture.
The Internet has given the home-exchange phenomenon a real boost. The HomeLink International website has 13,500 members in 69 countries, while HomeExchange.com boasts 9,000 members in 85 countries.
Introducing visitors to the local culture begins with a chocolate from the local confectionary placed on a guest’s pillow, with furnishings that reflect the national culture, with a B&B operator who invites the visitors to join the family for dinner, with a party that gets the visitor up and dancing, with a tour of undiscovered areas, with a car rally that involves tourists discovering new places, with shopping locally and chatting to residents…
In essence, local community participation enhances a visitor’s experience while reducing the stresses high-volume tourism can cause.
– Gaboury, Louise. “Des résidants font découvrir leur ville aux touristes,” La Presse, April 8, 2006.
– Holm, Olaf. “De Paris à Berlin, de Bruxelles à New York – Visiter autrement les villes du monde,” Cahier Espace. No. 78, July 2003, p. 134-143.
– Springwise. “Cultural Exchange for a Day.” Springwise Newsletter, May 2, 2006.
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