Going unseen places

One of the highlights of last week’s World Responsible Tourism program for me was finding out about Unseen Tours (London’s Street Voices), which received a hefty whack of recognition by winning Best Tour Operator for Local Experiences and Joint Overall Winner at the Responsible Tourism Awards 2011 (the latter shared with Robin Pope Safaris).

Here’s the proposition.  If you “want to challenge your view of what it means to be a person living in London”  then Unseen Tours offers “historical but also unexplored glimpses of the city, as perceived through the lens of homelessness”:

“Uniquely, the tours interweave our homeless guides’ own stories and experiences, introducing a new social consciousness into commercial walking tours.”

How do they make this happen?  I’m guessing the initiative’s success has a lot to do with the spirit of those who get involved, and the nature of human engagement upon which the tours are based.  If there was anything disingenuous or exploitative going on otherwise…  Well, I just couldn’t see it working–tour guide, tour participant, or tour organiser; they would simply find each other out.

As it happens, a basic premise of the tours seems to be a non-judgemental view of those who “sleep rough” in public places.  And with that approach, mutual respect follows, as well as a willingness to learn from each other.

It’s also important to note that this hasn’t happened overnight.  Social enterprise, Sock Mob Events, developed the tours drawing on the experiences of a group of volunteers–the Sock Mob–who have been meeting and getting to know homeless people over the last seven years (although the tours themselves have been running for less than a year).

And “unseen” is such a wonderfully apt name.  How many of us just don’t see homelessness, because we ignore it or will it away when we percieve familiar places?  And how many visitors to London, and other cities for that matter, leave with superficial views, blinkered by scripted stories of the city they chose to visit, or stymied by time pressures and predictable “must-do” tour itineraries?

Instead, what these tours have the potential to do is reveal a whole other layer to the city.  And hearing some of the less well-known stories these places have to tell, in first-person, from people with particularly intimate views and experiences of these places; this should really help get visitors to London engaged during their stay.

So why did the judges consider this responsible tourism?  Unseen Tours demonstrates that, given some thought, creativity and commitment, wedded to an open-minded and considerate approach to meeting new people, it is eminently possible to ply the tourism trade and care for people and places at the same time.

And there’s nothing “add-on” about taking responsibility here, as with some corporate social responsibility (CSR) schemes that struggle to get beyond the conventional business remit.  Instead, social purpose, creating better places and engendering respectful contact between host and guest are uncannily and profoundy part and parcel of the visitor’s experience.

Yet this is one tourism initiative you kind of hope is unsustainable–ideally, unhappy forms of homelessness would cease to be, making these real rough guides impossible to find.  That said, I hope the ethos of Sock Mob & friends is maintained and that it goes a lot further too, to other seen and unseen places.


One Comment on “Going unseen places”

  1. […] I haven’t really looked into Joint Overall Winner of the Responsible Tourism Awards, Robin Pope Safaris, and that’s because the other Joint Winner absorbed the greater part of my attention.  Although a very young enterprise, Unseen Tours (London’s Street Voices) is a demonstration of what can be done within tourism to achieve a multiplicity of positive outcomes for all involved.  Another interesting facet of this initiative is that is plays host to locals in the destination–businesses groups have also been signing up to go on these alternative tours in their own city.  I’ve written more on this elsewhere. […]


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