The Rise of the Curated Tour

Tourists with a guide in front of the Coliseum, Rome

Want to go deeper on your next vacation? You can find a trip just for you.

By April Kilcrease

When Catherine Cu, cofounder of the dental floss company Cocofloss, was in Milan last year for a factory visit, she wanted to learn more about the city than she could on the factory floor. Instead of taking the usual route and boarding a packed tour bus, she booked a private running tour on Airbnb Experiences for herself and a coworker. Their guide (or “host,” the Airbnb term), Valentina, a native of the city, led them on a run that included jogging under the shade of massive elm trees in Parco Sempione and a stop at the immense Castello Sforzesco, built in the 15th century.

“It was really intimate,” says Cu. “If I mentioned I wanted to see something, we would do that. She catered the whole experience to our pace and what we were interested in.”

The days of bumping into other tourists while you struggle to hear your guide speak through a crackling microphone may, thankfully, be numbered. Travelers are hungry for more personal interactions with locals, and a growing number of travel websites and mobile apps are stepping in to bridge that connection.

“More and more travelers are looking for unique experiences that they can bring back home. And that is something very different than being in a bus with 50 people and then walking behind someone with an umbrella,” says Matthijs Keij, the CEO of Withlocals, which has been matching travelers with local guides since 2013.

Along with filling the growing demand for more authentic, off-the-beaten-path experiences, advancements in booking technology have made it dramatically easier for travelers to meet up with locals who have a passion or skill to share.

“A decade ago, when flights and hotels were already fully digital, most tours and travel activities were still totally analog and offline,” says Carlee Stellfox Loya, regional manager for GetYourGuide, a Berlin-based activity aggregator. “Even today, the majority of tour bookings happen offline, but that’s changing fast.”

According to the research firm Phocuswright, the global market for tours and activities is expected to reach $183 billion in 2020, making it the fastest-growing segment in the travel industry. Investors have taken note. Klook, a Hong Kong–based booking platform, secured $425 million in April, and GetYourGuide announced that it received funding of $484 million in May.

Airbnb got into the game in November 2016 with the launch of Airbnb Experiences, which now features more than 30,000 activities in 1,000 cities. Rather than seek out established tour guides, the company made a concerted effort to recruit talented residents, such as a master calligrapher in Osaka, Japan, and a pro surfer in Porto, Portugal, to become hosts. The effort appears to have paid off. Reservations on Airbnb Experiences increased nearly seven times from 2017 to 2018.

“The whole market is moving in this direction,” says Keij. “All the big companies—including Airbnb, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Expedia—are moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach. Everybody has different needs, different expectations. If you can make sure that you have something that aligns with all those different travelers, that’s a great place to be in.”

For those looking for a true taste of another culture, several sites, including Eatwith, Meal Sharing, Traveling Spoon, and PlateCulture, pair travelers with gifted home cooks and Michelin-starred chefs for cooking classes, food tours, and dinner parties.

In Tokyo, Eatwith host Shino Fukuyama takes guests grocery shopping and then welcomes them into her traditional home for a lesson on slicing and preparing sushi, followed by a traditional multicourse dinner. A visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, could include perusing the spices and produce at a local market with Traveling Spoon hosts Daniel and Tigist, followed by a class in their kitchen on how to make a traditional Ethiopian dish and the perfect injera, and to roast coffee beans.

Art and history buffs would be wise to check out Context Travel for deep-dive tours led by scholars and topic experts. Customers can follow a fashion historian on a stroll through the birth of Parisian haute couture or explore two of Antoni Gaudí’s fantastical masterpieces, Casa Milà and Casa Batlló, in Barcelona with a native Catalan architect.

Opportunities to try your hand at an artistic skill exist as well. In the hip neighborhood of Maboneng in Johannesburg, South Africa, visitors can make colorful jewelry out of shweshwe, traditional fabric printed with intricate geometric patterns, in the home studio of an Airbnb Experiences host. Travelers to Istanbul, Turkey, can wander through open-air markets, and hidden alleyways on a photography tour with the former executive editor of the Turkish edition of National Geographic, available on Vayable, an app for finding independent guides.

Want to go really deep? Vacation with an Artist offers mini-apprenticeships, typically around two to six days long, with master artists in 23 countries. Learn hand building and wheel throwing techniques with a ceramist in the Indian state of Goa, paint a mural with a street artist in Buenos Aires, Argentina, or harvest indigo and dye your own fabrics with a textile designer in a village north of Hanoi, Vietnam.

If walking tours and workshops don’t meet your adrenaline needs, a few apps are ready to ramp things up. Cyclists can turn to VeloGuide for curated cycling tours in in 72 countries. “I can’t count how many people have told me that they booked our experiences because they did not want to sit on the beach all day every day,” says founder and CEO Joel Goralski. In the small beach town of Bucerías, Mexico, Goralski himself takes visitors on a two-wheeled tasting tour to sample local cheeses and ceviche, and drink a flight of craft beers. More advanced cyclists can live out their Tour de France fantasies on a customized ride through steep climbs and rolling coastal vistas in the Côte d’Azur with an active racer or take on challenging ascents in Malaysia’s lush Cameron Highlands with a former Ironman competitor.

Started in 2018, Lyfx features hundreds of locally led adventures of all stripes. Follow a Nepalese guide along shepherds’ trails and through alpine forests in the Himalayas. Or sail with a veteran sea captain to a remote island in northern Norway to ski down pristine slopes.

In June, Airbnb sauntered into this rugged arena with Adventures, a collection of two- to ten-day outdoorsy journeys designed by hosts with deep local knowledge. In Oman, native Nabeel AlRuwaidhi escorts visitors on a five-day trip that includes canyoning in a gorge, camping in the sand dunes, and swimming in natural pools in a mountain village.

Explorers who want to commune with wildlife have an abundance of options. Focused on helping rural and indigenous communities in Central and South America benefit directly from tourism revenue, Keteka has a wide selection of nature excursions. In Costa Rica, you can paddle through narrow mangrove tunnels and spot blue herons, roseate spoonbills, crocodiles, and other wildlife on a kayak tour with a local birding expert. Skip the crowded Amazon River cruises and opt to observe rain forest wildlife—scarlet macaws, spider monkeys, vibrant blue morpho butterflies—while snuggly swaying in a hammock hung high up in the canopy on a three-day tree-climbing and hiking adventure in Manaus, Brazil. On Local Alike, a sustainable travel start-up, travelers can book a trip to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary outside Chiang Mai, Thailand, and join the elephants for a therapeutic mud bath and river swim.

If a Big Five safari is on your list, head to Safarisource. Started in 2017, the website allows travelers to avoid the middleman and create customized, culturally immersive safaris with local guides. “This way,
African tourism revenue stays in Africa,” says founder Jessika Nilsson. She recommends a four-day trip in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve led by a Masai-German couple, Mpairo and Corinna. The journey includes watching lions and cheetahs hunt for their dinner and learning how to make beaded jewelry or practicing spear throwing in a Masai village.

These booking platforms are a boon to many local hosts. Fayruza Abrahams, a third-generation Malay cook living in Cape Town, South Africa, began listing cooking classes on Airbnb Experiences after an autoimmune disorder brought an end to her previous career in travel and tourism.

“Airbnb has literally saved my life,” she says. The flexible hours allow Abrahams to take care of her health and still provide for herself and her 10-year-old daughter. She now hosts three cooking Experiences in her home and she’s writing a Cape Malay cookbook. “I put in 190 percent effort as I am no longer able to work nine to five daily,” says the 51-year-old. “I realize that if I want to maintain this lifestyle, I need to make [my Experiences] as successful as possible.” DW

April Kilcrease is a writer, editor, and new mother in Oakland, California.



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