Three people having beverages and laughing around a table at a cafe

Untourism's ethos of slowing down, focusing on interactions with people, and letting go of the need to "see" everything aligns perfectly with the way some tourism industry professionals are re-imagining the future. | Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

July 21, 2020

From the overcrowded scenic viewpoints crowded with people taking selfies to tacky tourist shops hawking bulk-produced trinkets that put locally owned operations out of business, tourism can be exceedingly ugly. Anyone who has traveled or who works in the tourism industry has observed these atrocities in action … but what can possibly stop an oversized snowball that’s barreling down a hill, growing in size and momentum as it goes?

Tourism’s exponential growth over the past few years benefited millions of people with jobs and economic security. But Newton’s Law about equal actions and reactions was in play: Even as destinations, tour operators, businesses, and travelers benefited from this growth, just as many people were desperate for it to stop.

Tourism drove up the cost of living in cities, making housing unaffordable for residents and driving them from their favorite local bars and cafes. It overcrowded trails and attractions, causing arguments, accidents, and even death. It turned meaningful sites into expensive, must-visit bucket list items, endangered animals and people, and gave rise to attractions that offered nothing but a monetary return.

Even before COVID-19 swept across the globe, there was a backlash to this money-grabbing, destructive, and exploitative form of tourism. There had to be a better way … and there is.

Last year, the Untourist Guide in Amsterdam made headlines when it announced that people could “marry” an Amsterdammer for the day. The experience includes a fake wedding followed by a “honeymoon” exploring the lesser-known parts of this popular Dutch city. While the concept is a bit hokey, the crux of the experience really is the second half of the day: Bypassing all of the “must-see” sites for experiences that most travelers wouldn’t know about.

Even before COVID-19 swept across the globe, there was a backlash to this money-grabbing, destructive, and exploitative form of tourism.

But the Untourist Guide isn’t the first to turn tourism on its head. In 2008, Bruno Gomes stumbled onto the idea accidentally. When friends visited him in Lisbon, he took them surfing and wine tasting, sharing his love of the city with sincerity. He hated the traditional idea of tourism, yet valued the experiences he could offer to his friends as a local. Encouraged by these visitors, an idea began to evolve — an idea that took shape organically.

In 2010, Gomes founded We Hate Tourism Tours, writing off the sanitized script many tour operators adopt. The company avoids tourists traps and doesn’t sugarcoat the local experience. “It’s always been about the people,” he told me when we spoke by phone in May. “I was never interested in showing off monuments because I was also never interested in seeing monuments for the sake of seeing them. It has always been natural with the way that we are doing things.”

Here’s the thing about the traditional tourism model: It’s easy because it is expected. Travelers have been trained to expect certain things during their trips, and travel service providers have shaped their tours to fit this expected story. It fits a script that includes the “must-see” sites and “local” experiences without complication or questions.

Here’s the thing about the traditional tourism model: It’s easy because it is expected.

But those “must-see” sites? They come with a pre-scripted script that’s largely been written by the dominant culture. And those “local” experiences? Occasionally these devolve into a form of cultural appropriation because travelers actually want to see people in their cultural costumes performing traditional rituals versus conversing with locals engaging in their everyday activities.

This “traditional” form of tourism is a circular model that feeds itself, and it can lead to unrealistic traveler expectations, one-sided storytelling, overcrowding at popular tourist hot spots, and exploitation of local people and cultures.

Two months into the global lockdown, Gomes reflected on the fact, in “rethinking” the future of travel, the tourism industry is waking up to the way We Hate Tourism Tours has approached its business for the past decade. “Honestly, since the beginning, we believed we were doing good to ourselves, to the people, and to the community we were involved with. For us, there are no really big changes,” he said. “We don’t want to do things much different because we were doing things quite right.”

Flipping the traditional tourism model — and pursuing the idea of “untourism” — means upending what travelers expect. It’s about not necessarily delivering what visitors want but about what is genuine and real to the destinations and communities they visit. Untourism includes:

  • New ways of looking at popular places. Sometimes that means learning about uncomfortable truths about a destination’s history. It means seeking out different people to share these stories.
  • Not about getting the “popular shot” but about understanding social and cultural context. If visitors only want to take the perfect Instagram photo of a site without learning about the context and/or sharing what they’ve learned with others, what value does that offer to a destination? This kind of tourism can create the conditions for more visitors who value a destination strictly for its aesthetic purposes.
  • Getting “off the beaten track” with a local under a local’s direction. Part of a destination’s appeal is its variety of residents. Empower them, create the opportunity for human connection, and spread the economic benefits across more of the population. In the past, Untourist Guides has encouraged travelers to take canal tours on former refugee boats guided by refugees. Invisible Cities’ guides weave their stories of homelessness into the city’s fabric. These are both good examples of amplifying the voices of marginalized local populations.
  • Avoiding sanitizing a destination. No place is perfect. It’s okay — and important — to be honest about the complexities of a place. Have conversations about day-to-day issues, like gentrification, homelessness, and environmental concerns.
  • Providing financial support throughout a destination, particularly beyond the “popular” neighborhoods and sites.
  • Keeping operations small and personal. We Hate Tourism Tours has walked away from financial offers to expand their operations, but these offers ran counter to the company’s ethos and the whole purpose of what Gomes and his team wanted to offer.

“This is going to force everyone to think about what we want and what we need. For the majority of people, the way they travel will definitely be different.” - Bruno Gomes

Taking a big-picture look at the pandemic pause, the global lockdown put a lot of things in focus. It’s glaringly obvious how injustice and discrimination fit into society, both on a local and global scale. The importance of frontline workers is clearer than ever. And, Gomes said, “This is going to force everyone to think about what we want and what we need. For the majority of people, the way they travel will definitely be different.”

When it comes to tourism, COVID-19 has also highlighted stark realities about traveler trends and the future of the industry:

  • An increased interest in local travel. People are staying close to home out of necessity, but there’s also an increased interest in exploring their own backyards.
  • Traveling with family or in small groups.
  • Slowing down versus speeding up.
  • Caring for and showing interest in people over places.
  • Complications with travel in general. Is collecting all of those passport stamps really worth the effort, or is it more worthwhile to have meaningful experiences in fewer places?

Just as overtourism was overwhelming destinations, untourism’s unassuming presence was just beginning to gain mainstream momentum. It offers strong, long-term economic benefits, is smaller and slower, focuses on and is mindful of people and experiences rather than bucket lists, and shows an interest in stories over selfies.

With the new reality of tourism coming into focus, untourism — and its underpinning of ethos — may be the tourism model the industry needs.


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