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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Tourism Shaped by 'Unseen' Communities Surfaces Unheard Stories, Infuses Capital Into Destinations

Instead of the traditional approach of shielding tourists from places' 'messy' parts, more travel-focused social enterprises are working with marginalized communities to introduce tourists to their destination’s complex fabric.

Nearly 20 years ago, a series of events led David, a London resident, to become a “hidden homeless” — a person living with others temporarily, without a permanent home. Today, he introduces travelers to the lesser-known spots around London Bridge while weaving in stories about the area’s history of poverty, social exclusion and homelessness as a guide with Unseen Tours.

These issues aren’t the first thing to come to mind when people think about London; but Unseen Tours is not your typical travel company. A not-for-profit social enterprise, Unseen Tours offers walking tours and experiences curated and led by people affected by homelessness.

The organization is not part of the poverty tourism agenda; rather, its tours surface unheard perspectives that haven’t been part of London’s tourism narrative in the past.

“We see that people who have experienced homelessness in a city know the city better than most people would,” said Jayni Gudka, CEO of Unseen Tours. “They know the hidden stories, the quirky facts, and things you'd never find in a guidebook.”

David agreed: “My tourist customers have said they enjoy the less popular tours that are not the usual thing, where the tour guide is more personal.”

As travelers increasingly seek out unique, place-based experiences; tours like these deliver. “People are more interested in real, authentic stories of a place — moving away from the sanitized tours that only touch the surface of a destination,” Gudka said.

Historically, tourism has allowed — and even encouraged — people to travel while remaining blissfully unaware of the “real-world” challenges impacting their chosen destinations. Additionally, the overriding tourism narrative has silenced and excluded historically marginalized communities that either didn’t fit the ideal vision of tourism and/or made travelers feel uncomfortable.

However, that thinking is beginning to change with the collision of the climate crisis, overtourism, an interest in “authentic” experiences, and a realization within the tourism industry that drastic change is needed for it to survive and thrive. Now, instead of shielding tourists from the “messy” parts of destinations, more travel-focused social enterprises and organizations are stepping into the spotlight to introduce tourists to their complex fabric.

This has a myriad of knock-on positive impacts: Far from being “saviorism” activities, these experiences are focused on local residents’ overall wellbeing by offering technical training, meaningful careers, and financial support — which is infused back into their communities. People who haven’t been seen or heard in the past are given agency and a chance to share their own stories. For destinations heaving under the weight of overtourism, these experiences offer a solution for dispersing visitors beyond the popular hotspots. And local, people-focused initiatives like these demonstrate how tourism can avoid centering travelers while supporting marginalized communities that have been excluded from tourism in the past.

“There are several reasons for partnering and supporting local organizations from marginalized populations. For starters, they are the ones who need it the most,” said Tricia Schers, director of partnerships and development at Planeterra — a non-profit organization that works with community partners to support local tourism initiatives around the world. Examples include Pink City Rickshaw Co. — which offers tours of Jaipur, India aboard rickshaws driven by women from low-income households; and Oodles of Noodles — a tour and training kitchen powered by STREETS International that provides practical, skills-based and hospitality-specific training for at-risk youth in Vietnam.

Other examples around the world include UK-based Migrateful — which offers training for and cooking classes taught by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers; Get Up and Go Colombia — which offers several tours and is invested in several projects supporting communities most affected by the Colombian armed conflict; and Nai Nami — which offers storytelling tours of Nairobi led by former street children.

“Over the years, we have seen how working in tourism has motivated women to start their first jobs outside the home, take on leadership roles in their communities, allowed their children to access education, or helped youth gain skills to help them find long-term employment,” Schers said. “Our community partners are also using tourism to power their futures by investing in infrastructure and initiatives to take care of the environment, health and education for their community, among others.”

By utilizing services and booking experiences run by marginalized communities, travelers in turn support the holistic care of the places they visit. For example, at Barcelona’s INOUT Hostel, 90 percent of the staff is made up of people with disabilities.

“This is an example of the inclusion of people with disabilities in the tourism sector, and proof that a special work center of these characteristics can be successful and compete with companies in the sector on equal terms,” said Izaskun Quilez Arsuaga, INOUT Hostel’s technical manager. The hostel is part of Icaria Social Initiatives — a non-profit organization with a mission focused on the social and professional inclusion of people with disabilities.

Tourism revenue at the property goes toward staff pay, training and benefits; but also care for Collserola Nature Park, where the hostel is located: “We love working here, surrounded by nature,” Arsuaga added. “Therefore, the entire team is very aware of the park’s cleanliness and fire protection. All of this is what we try to convey to the travelers who stay with us.”

While tourism is increasingly being used as a vehicle to support social initiatives, Gudka pointed out it is essential that people who have been excluded from these spaces in the past aren’t now exploited as travelers seek out local experiences.

“For this reason, I think it's of utmost importance for marginalized communities to be involved in, if not leading, decision-making about tourism — or indeed, any other initiatives — that seeks to support and/or present them,” she said.

At Unseen Tours, for example, guides receive training that allows them to create tours around their own experiences and interests — giving them full ownership of their tours.

The tourism industry has long touted its potential to be a “force for good.” When it is used as a tool to amplify previously unheard voices, encourage thoughtful engagement in the places people visit, and support communities beyond tourism-facing businesses, that reality is closer to being realized.

“Our development approach is focused on the tourism sector; however, tourism is only the means to an end. Therefore, we encourage our community partners to follow the path that benefits them the most,” Schers said. “People are always going to be traveling. Let’s at the very least help communities benefit from this. Because, in our experience, we’ve seen firsthand that when you support communities — they take those earnings and reinvest them back into their neighborhoods; which helps improve the lives of many, instead of just a few.”