In the perpetual search for something different to experience, urban explorations will have travellers looking for a modern twist on the traditional city break and short-stay. Unspoilt jungles and isolated natural beauty spots currently enjoy prominence, but iconic cities continue to shine and sparkle their desirability on many travel bucket lists. As we explore the multidimensional beauty of the city, let’s turn our focus onto the bright lights of urban tourism beckoning travellers this year.

Cityscape escape

Cities will always capture the wanderlusty imagination. The concept of a faraway metropolis can encapsulate fantasies of an ideal lifestyle as much as represent exotic escape to a place of sophistication and imagined glamour. Traditionally, cities were the industrial engines that drove a country, making the countryside or coastal towns a much-needed refuge from the grind of working life. Where cities held interest for tourists based on pre-existing features and attractions, mass tourism frequently causing overtourism has put pressure on destinations; also driving tourism traffic out of the city.

Things are changing. Cities are overhauling their reputations to become havens for those that live in them and are putting a modern twist on the traditional urban tourism model. Cities are bringing sexy back.

Sustainability in the city

It’s not only demanded by local residents in popular cities – sustainable tourism is also preferred by modern travellers. Nobody wants to be the unwelcome guest despised and wished away by locals. Barcelona and Venice are prime exhibits A and B. Several other major tourist magnets have equally run fowl of overtourism and the industry has heard their pleas. We are all complicit in the problem as well as the solution. It means we consider the capacity of a city at its busiest times and reconsider how we market and sell those destinations. Initiatives by local entrepreneurs should and can be encouraged through tourism.

Travellers aren’t interested in superficial local interactions nor do they want their tourism spend funding polluted, constantly crowded, culturally degraded destinations with grumpy residents.

They’re sensitive to sustainability issues and the impact of tourism on destinations and their inhabitants. They expect to participate in tourism activities that improve conditions in-destination with sustainable alternatives that enable meaningful interactions with locals and are beneficial to both.

The moving parts of urban tourism

First came the place to live, located favourably in a resource-rich place in attractive natural surroundings. Then came places of worship, architecture, historical sites, entertainment and leisure venues. Next came the planned components like infrastructure to get the city working: hospitals, airports, railways, etc. Then places for shopping like markets and malls, amusement like parks, gardens, sports grounds, recreation venues, hotels, and restaurants were added.

I mention this finally but the real purpose of the city is its residents, bearers of culture and history, inextricably linked with that of the city or wherever they’ve migrated from. Each of these components potentially attract visitors and most cities boast multiple combinations you can easily package to draw the crowds.

Cities are more than industrial concrete jungles but they don’t even need to be idyllic to be interesting.

What we’re concerned with now is the impact of tourism on the city’s economic and development opportunities, capacity and sustainability. And we consider how a city communicates itself as being visitor-friendly with information on what travellers want and what they can do. For one thing, it’s an irrefutable fact that tourism is a great revenue earner and employer for any destination.

When tourists come, they don’t just stay in hotels, lodges, resorts, B&Bs and guesthouses, they also do day tours and excursions, take transfers, visit markets, eat in restaurants, etc.

What’s good for the city now is that travel trends for 2018 are taking travellers into destinations at all times of the year, not only during peak season.

In fact, they’ll be keen to visit even when the weather isn’t ‘perfect’ – they’ll expect it to be cheaper and less crowded too. It’s good because that spreads out the traffic and eases congestion during peak times and those seasonal tourism-based jobs enjoy more longevity. A more prosperous city can afford more development and while urban revitalisation first benefits residents, its appeal for tourism is also further boosted.

Then there’s the argument that tourism promotes world peace.. Big statement, I know, but as a global community we’ve been put through the ringer by terrorism and the threat thereof. One positive step in the right direction is certainly higher value interactions.

Nothing beats making friends within the local community who can give you a view of their city, neighbourhood and culture from their own perspective, especially if you’re financially supporting their tourism or related businesses. They also happen to be the best people to teach travellers how to be culturally sensitive. And, according to research on the year’s trends, travellers will increasingly seek to allocate more of their budget spend on the likes of inner city exploration tours, community projects, and other local tourism initiatives. It’s about giving back and ditching superficial interactions for deeper, more meaningful experiences.

A diversity of products

Urban tourism typically includes an eclectic array of products. Top of the list is a geographical location like Cape Town’s proximity of striking mountain to wild Atlantic ocean. There’s pre-existing scenery, prevailing weather conditions depending on season, wildlife, national parks. There are museums, historical and religious sites – an entire city can be so steeped in historical value to make it worth a visit.

There’s architecture and innovation like Beijing’s Bird Nest stadium, sports arenas and outdoor facilities, as well as sports events. There are shopping venues like the Bangkok night markets and other oriental consumer havens that stimulate the senses 24/7.

There are theatres, seasonal or annual festivals, music and dance venues like anywhere Buena Vista Social Club music is played in Havana. There are theme parks and fairs, leisure venues like bars, cafe’s, restaurants, casinos, cinemas and film festivals (so many cities host their own nowadays), and nightlife options that are enough to make travellers flock to a city.

There’s fashion and pop culture that are major influencers, from iconic photo opp’s for social media (cue the millennial #forthegram travellers) to the sophisticated lifestyle images portrayed in films and TV, like Sex & the City’s NYC, to quirky millennial crowd pleasers like gaming and love hotels of Tokyo. Whether it is in fact pop culture or rather seasonal events, business travel or the visiting friends and relatives phenomenon that motivates travel to cities, many of these products might not have begun their lives as specifically built for tourism, but potentially still invite urban tourism throughout the calendar year.

Culture and the city

Local living is a huge travel trend with travellers keen to understand and experience at first hand the lifestyles of the local residents. The city is no different.

Cities express the character of their residents and their culture through its buildings, recreational spaces and areas of engagement.

Seasonal activities such as fairs, festivals and harvests involve locals in the development of their cultural identity and provide regular entertainment. Festivals are often infused with cultural themes, in turn linked to religion or history. These are opportunities for tourists to scratch the surface of what they know about their hosts – just as they draw local crowds, they also become tourism products. The same with leisure activities and shopping venues, as ultimately these describe how locals relax and express their economic selves. Some cities boast vast markets with local produce, crafts, art, jewellery, food and beverages; others boast magnificent shopping malls or department stores in buildings that are themselves attractions.

If shopping’s your thing, wouldn’t you want to polish up your credit card for a spree in Dubai? The Dubai Mall, billed as the world’s biggest, features a traditional Arab souk, underwater zoo and Olympic-size ice rink. Mall of the Emirates is a shopping resort, perfect for families, where kids can go skiing while the adults spend their savings (while eyeing the Deira Gold Souk).

I love local enterprises that channel tourism spend into communities while taking tourists right to the heart of their destination.

It’s a win-win story of economic and cultural empowerment.

In Cape Town, a restaurant based loosely around the concept of a local tavern in the township of Gugulethu, Mzoli’s, has pride of place in its community with a history of its own. Visitors can learn about life in the bad old days of Apartheid, over a hearty plate of local African food and drink.

Montreal is a hive of live music joints that make this a cool jazz destination but it’s also an attractive metropolis with a sophisticated nightlife and food scene; that’s without even mentioning the largest jazz festivals in the world hosted annually in the city.

Get under the skin of Latin American dancing by building an entire experience around tango in Buenos Aires, samba in Rio de Janeiro, or salsa in Cuba. Find your party spots deep inside the barrios and offer recovery tours of classic Hispanic alamedas and avenidas as a sultry product extension.

Pop goes the city

Major trend continuing its influence through 2018 is pop culture: movies, MTV, fashion, millennial #forthegram moments. For Instagrammers in the know, iconic sites in world class cities make the perfect photo opp’s to post pics that prove they were there!

We’re talking about iconic structures like the Golden Gate Bridge, landmarks like Ipanema beach promenade, famous buildings like the Sydney Opera House, natural locations like Niagara Falls; the list is virtually endless.

Fashionistas who would attend Fashion Week events in, say, Milan, would appreciate similar experiences in new fashion capitals like Sao Paulo, with up-and-coming labels emerging from less obvious cities, like in Kenya and Ethiopia. Millennials especially love quirky, alternative trends in fashion that speak to local empowerment.

Fun times in the city

Typically cities host domestic, regional or international travellers for short stays and weekend breaks over 2 to 7 days. Many visit for business purposes or to visit friends and relatives, as I’ve done and hope to do again in the cities I’ve called home in the past.

The city becomes a nostalgic destination where past hangout spots are revisited or new explorations are sought out.

It’s used as a base from which to explore the surrounding areas – to this end and for the convenience of all who live and visit, good logistics are super important to optimise use of leisure time. That’s the great thing about well-designed urban areas: public transport and taxi services that work, good road systems and general public services.

For me visiting Santiago, Chile, would mean reliving the fun of the bohemian barrio, Bellavista, with old friends and hopping on the teleférico from Cerro San Cristobal for a bird’s eye view of the iconic Andes. Bangkok would entail a meal of my favourite international cuisine at an iconic rooftop restaurant and an easy re-orientation of the city via its Skytrain network. And I’m keen to visit Doha again for some shoe shopping and see how much it’s changed since its preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Stories of the iconic life and times of a city are told through architecture, historical monuments, ancient statues, unique street patterns, museums, art galleries, green areas, botanical gardens. Many of these edifices and landmarks have religious importance, which necessitates your guidance on how to show respect. The spirit and character of its people are conveyed in the events and charms of their daily lives and recreation. It provides you with a wealth of tourism products to potentially weave into the exploration of a city, from places of historical significance to modern flavours introducing the present. OP

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