Pól Ó Conghaile: Can small neighbourhood tours save tourism’s soul?
Small, responsibly-managed city tours connect us with real people in the places we visit, our Travel Editor writes
'I don't like Communists," sniffed the lady cramming sticks of sugarcane into a juicing machine on Calle Ocho.
A fan whirred over our heads, and the old man beside me nodded.
"I spent nearly two years in prison," he said, going on to unpack the story of his capture as a Cuban exile fighting at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
"They spent millions getting us out. I finally came back here on Christmas Eve," he sighed, gesturing to the streets outside.
I sipped my guarapo, amazed at how quickly I'd become immersed in his neighbourhood. An hour or two before, I was pinning Calle Ocho in Google Maps. Now, I was in the thick of it - from minty mojitos and cigars being rolled, to watching old men play dominoes and chatting to people like the owner of a nearby Santeria shop ("it's the religion of the street," he told me).
Calle Ocho is not in Cuba, of course. It's the beating heart of the Cuban community in Miami, Florida. I was a guest with Urban Adventures (urbanadventures.com; €52), whose walking tours aim to connect visitors with local takes on city neighbourhoods.
It was the latest of several similar tours I've taken - from City Unscripted in Tokyo to local strolls with Sligo's Auriel Robinson (seatrails.ie) and Donna Fox in Armagh (donnafoxtours.com).
Why not explore alone?
Well, I do. But, as a travel writer, small tours and local guides also help me get my bearings and an inside track on how a culture works. They open up storylines. I listen to locals in their own words.
There are practical benefits, too. Travellers get to meet like-minded souls, explore in safety, find places to return to and get an authentic, interactive experience - something I think is increasingly valued over traditional sightseeing.
The key thing is that the tours are small and responsibly managed. Urban Adventures is part of global adventure tour operator, Intrepid Travel, but it works with local guides and focuses on sustainable, immersive travel - an approach I wish was more mainstream. Yes, €50 or €60 is an expensive few hours. But it's worth it - not least to the small businesses that get a few extra visits, tips, and social shares.
When I first began travelling, I did it out of a desire to experience other cultures, to meet the people who lived in them, to share what I found. I learned that, wherever we live, from a mosquito's perspective, we're all the same.
Today, that feels more important than ever. In a world strangled by political divisions and threatened by overtourism, a local approach can not only take the pressure off peak attractions, but engage us with the people who live in the places we visit.
Even a simple sugarcane juice can help save tourism's soul.
Read more:Brendan O'Connor: How we learned to love Miami - in just three days