Travel trends: Is non-tourism the new big thing?

I read in an easyJet in-flight magazine recently that not being a tourist is now the way to go on holiday. We’re sick of selfies, sun loungers and sterile resorts. What we want is non-tourism, or real experiences. We want to get down with the locals, and do what they do.

This isn’t new, it’s really another way of defining experiential tourism – but it is now becoming widespread, and experiences are becoming more and more unusual. Any tour operator or agency worth their salt will have a stash of great locals experiences ready to upsell.

There is already a flourishing market in experiential tourism, from digital operators such as Withlocals, Toursbylocals, Airbnb Experiences, and many more. These might involve a walking tour in a city with a local, for example, who takes you to untouristy restaurants and cafes and shares specialist knowledge that only a resident would know.

Walk the dark streets of Venice on a Codega Experience

Unusual non-tourism experiences

But some new non-tourism experiences go the extra unusual mile. In Venice, if you stay at the Baglioni Hotel, you can take a night-time Codega experience with a  black-cloaked and masked ‘codega’ guide to walk around the dark corners of the city by lamplight. And in Porto a group of disgruntled local architects set up The Worst Tours. They saw mass tourism arrive in their small city, bringing bus tours and groups, causing locals to leave the centre and cafes to be replaced by American chains. So their aim was to take tourists on an anti-tour – to show them neglected parts of Porto. They also wanted to open up a discussion with visitors about gentrification, museification and austerity, so expect to have a deep and meaningful chat about non-tourism if you take a tour with them. But their tours are also fun and self-denigrating, and now, perhaps ironically, attract a cult audience.

There is a very fine line between what is and what isn’t tourism. After all, locals go to museums, too, and sunbathe when it’s hot. The key is for visitors to feel like they’re not tourists, so unusual knowledge is good, and following big groups is bad. But for any experience that becomes popular, it soon becomes ‘tourism’, too. However, as with the trend a few years ago for local supper clubs, where a home cook would invite paying guests in to share a special meal, both locals and visitors take part. We’re all hungry for authentic new experiences. In my local artisan pizza restaurant here in the UK, they offer a pizza-making experience, mostly done by people from the city.

Go beyond Mosow’s Red Square by hiring a local to show you around

A good few years ago, my colleague Claire Castro visited Kiev and Moscow, but crucially she was with Ukrainian friends who showed her around, offering the lowdown on the idiosyncrasies of the cities. Why, for example, everyone moved out of the way for a cavalcade of official cars – in the way we would for an ambulance, or where to find the best vodka bar. These days, you can have this experience by hiring a local guide through one of the digital sites dedicated to the new experiential wave of tourism. As travel recruiters, we are increasingly working within this expanding digital hospitality sector, to provide hospitality technology candidates.

Experiential travel

I learned to make authentic pasta in Florence

Today, almost everywhere offers a local-cuisine cooking course, for example, to really get to know the food of the area. I did a great one in a specialist pasta shop in Florence, learning to roll pasta like a pro. It was through Airbnb Experiences, and because it was a very small group, and the restaurant was an authentic pasta place, it felt like a real experience – and we learned something new to go and try at home. We did the same on our team incentive trip to Spain last year. We chose not to stay in a big fancy hotel and have a party. Instead we stayed in a beautiful small hotel and took part in a cooking course there.

Some of the Progressive Travel Recruitment team learning to cook tortilla in Spain

Another local friend runs farm tours of her smallholding in Scotland, where you can milk a goat, stroke a cow and scratch the tummy of a particularly friendly pig. It’s a great way to get inside the country you’re visiting, and see how people off the beaten track are living. She has also taken on Woofers, who are volunteers who stay on organic and small farms around the world, helping out in exchange for food and board. This sort of volunteering is the ultimate non-tourism experience.

A Withlocals guide can tell you what’s what in the food markets of Colombo, Sri Lanka

One of my colleagues took a walking food tour with while in Sri Lanka. She said the guide was so helpful explaining what all the unusual vegetables and fruit were in the market, and discussing local specialities on street stalls and in restaurants. It gave her visit an added level of depth, and because it was just her and the guide, she didn’t feel like she was getting in the way, which you might on a large walking tour, when you’re just seen as a mass of tourists.





Helping distribute surplus farm produce to food banks in Tel Aviv can be part of a trip to Israel

Volunteering can be part of non-tourism experiences

You can even help people work to scratch a non-tourism itch. In Tel Aviv, Leket is an organisation that you can volunteer to help for just a few hours – while you’re on holiday, for example. You’ll help to pick or distribute surplus food to the needy via food banks, among other good works.

This year, for our travel recruitment sales incentive our directors have lined up a number of experiences in Edinburgh and in Durban, too.

I’d love to hear your non-tourism experiences. Connect with me on LinkedIn here >