Busy, commonplace tourist sights no longer interest travellers.
Many are venturing off the beaten track to seek out genuine experiences with locals, such as hiking through the Algerian desert with locals or cycling through Shanghai.
“Authenticity” is the magic word. “Tourists want to get to know real life,” says one researcher.
It’s this urge for genuine cultural experience that is prompting a growing number of travellers to forego major sights, like Egypt’s pyramids or North America’s Niagara Falls, for the chance to immerse themselves with locals.
“It’s about providing a contrast to everyday life at home, but also an unusual and special experience, which not everyone has. Visiting a temple can’t provide that,” says industry observers.
Most visitors to North Africa, for example, will stick to the usual travel catalogue itinerary and spend their time touring the royal cities of Morocco or exploring the ancient temples along the Nile – perhaps on a bus tour.
But others prefer to venture off the beaten track. For them, a European travel company offers an alternative: A tour through the Algerian desert guided by real Tuareg.
“This is not a hired team. They don’t do this every week or every month, and they only do it with us because we know the elders in the region,” says the company’s chief executive.
“The tour guide is usually either a Tuareg or someone with good links to the locals who acts as a bridge-builder. This is an extremely authentic exchange between cultures.”
A desert tour with the Tuareg is perhaps towards the extreme end of the scale, but more and more travel companies are incorporating contact with locals into their itineraries, along with the usual churches, temples, old towns and markets.
Algeria is not the only destination offered by this bespoke travel operator. The company also runs tours led by locals in Italy: “We found a fisherman, Pino, from the Aeolian Islands, who shows our guests ‘his’ Italy,” says one travel expert.
Pino takes holidaymakers from island to island in his boat. “It is a way of glimpsing the Italian soul.” And that is exactly what many travellers want nowadays – at least as a supplement to the standard itinerary.
Another provider, the Munich-based Marco Polo Reisen, focuses on authentic experiences – not just the usual tourist attractions. “Such experiences are lasting and emotional,” says Holger Baldus, managing director of Marco Polo Reisen.
“In Beijing, for instance, everyone wants to see the Forbidden City. But they already know what it looks like.” Sensory experiences leave a far longer-lasting impression in people’s minds, he says. “How did something smell? How did it taste?”
The company likes to take its customers to unexpected places – for example, on a morning bike tour of Shanghai, bang in the middle of city traffic.
“You can see people doing tai chi in the park in the morning or having breakfast in their kitchens,” says Baldus – everyday life as the main attraction. “It just blows you away.”
Yet why are such experiences so in demand?
Firstly, many countries have become more accessible. Twenty to 30 years ago, visitors to Nepal would have been happy to simply travel safely from one end of the country to the other. Today, that’s nothing special.
Secondly, tourists are staying fitter and more adventurous for longer, so demands on organizers have risen.
Travellers want unrehearsed experiences, says Baldus: “People have become very choosy in that respect and don’t go for kitsch any more. If our guests believe the offer smacks of a promotional event, they become really angry. Our tour guide will incur their wrath if expectations are not met.”
Despite the growing appeal of the less-beaten track, the usual sights won’t be disappearing from itineraries any time soon. “Only when the must-sees have been checked off does immersion into everyday, local life begin. Every first-time visitor comes to see the highlights – it’s in the traveller’s psyche.”
But observers are becoming more certain: “The need for authenticity will continue to grow.”