Travel trends – Could black cabs become novelty tourist attractions?

I was in London for World Travel Market recently, and took a number of cabs while in the capital. Except, mostly, they weren’t cabs, they were Ubers. I did use a couple of traditional black cabs when hailing one seemed easier than using the Uber app, but I found them less good value for money and with no real difference in service to the Ubers. As with any travel I do, it got me thinking about the possibility of a new travel activity. Could old-style black cabs become obsolete, and end up being a novelty tourist attractions?

If they do, they’re in good company. In Havana, Cuba, vintage cars used to be the only cars available following strict trade restrictions following the revolution in the Fifties. Other cars used there tended to be Soviet style, also a novelty for European and American visitors. With visitor numbers on the rise in Cuba, these beautiful old cars are increasingly being restored to bring in tourist dollars – by taking people on tours of Havana and beyond in sleek converted Cadillacs and Ford Sedans.

Likewise, gondolas, now essential tourist attractions in Venice, were once the primary method of transport along the canals. At the height of their popularity, in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were about 10,000 gondolas. Today it’s less than 500, all of which are strictly monitored – they must be painted black and gondoliers must wear a set outfit of stripy top, boater hat and black trousers – to provide a uniform service to tourists today. But the benefit of tourism is that the gondolas have become preserved, and not obsolete.

Those who complain that black cabs are an integral part of the London streetscape and shouldn’t be allowed to be beaten by the Uber market forget that horse-drawn hackney carriages also used to be part of the London scenery. Today, these carriages are only available as tourist attractions in the city’s parks.

But instead of just accepting that their trade is being superseded by app-driven taxi services, some cabbies are already turning to tourism. There is a growing selection of Viator black cab tours of the capital, from visiting Downton Abbey film locations, to a tour of Christmas lights highlights, and a night time ghost tour by cab, among many others. You pay a premium for the expertise of The Knowledge-trained local London cabbie, and to travel in the iconic vehicles while seeing the sights. It’s a good idea, and one that’s sure to grow. One tour, taking passengers out of London to see a few stately homes, charges a hefty £699. If you can make that in a day, why bother sticking with bog-standard passengers?

Successful marketing

Both Uber and black cabs are keen to be seen as doing the right thing, fully aware that positive marketing can be make or break in business, and in the past have publicised that they will drive veterans for free in certain circumstances. What is sure, is that Uber are good at staying one step ahead of the game, from being first to capture the instant pay market while black cabs were still struggling even to allow card payments, and by introducing alternative services, such as Uber Eats – where Uber delivers takeaways, and Uber Pool – where you share with other riders.

As of September 2018, you can get an Uber in 633 cities worldwide. Its success has been copycatted by others such as Lyft, but Uber is still the most well-known alternative to traditional cabs. This global approach means that people the world over now talk about ‘Ubering’, and ‘getting an Uber’, replacing the word taxi, which as Hoover will tell you, is a great mark of success.

We say, the more decent and inventive travel experiences or tourist attractions there are, the better for tourists the world over. Likewise, the more good taxi services there are that are inexpensive and easy to use, that’s also good for travellers and tourists. And if cabbies can reinvent themselves as tour guides, then they’ll be keeping one step ahead, too.

Connect with James Roberts on LinkedIn here.

Find travel jobs with Progressive Travel Recruitment here.