Even if tourism companies are struggling to resume operations paused by Covid — let alone approach pre-pandemic levels — they must devise new ways to reach audiences interested in their products, even those tourists in their backyards. Especially if they've been popular, like many refugee-led tours have been.
Tours led by refugees were, prior to the pandemic, emerging as a popular way for tourists in certain cities to experience those destinations. Although most commonly associated with Berlin, refugees have also given tours in cities like Vienna, Philadelphia, and Amsterdam.
But like most inbound tour operators, organizations that run refugee-led tours have been battered heavily by Covid — especially since the groups the guides lead tend to be small and heavily dependent on overseas guests who were largely unable to travel during the pandemic. However, some companies have put plans into place to take advantage of what they view as the still enormous interest in such tours.
Why have people been interested in going on tours led by a refugee? When asked that question, Mohamad Othman, a tour designer and guide at Berlin-based Refugee Voices Tours, said they were a trendy topic at the time of the group being formed in 2016. He also credited the desire of many travelers to learn about different perspectives for the title of the organization’s main tour — Why We Are Here. A native of Syria, Othman said the tours he gives are focused on his birth country, adding he talks about the links between the Asian nation and historical events happening in Berlin, a city transformed by a large number of Syrian refugees.
“In our case, it’s more about the uniqueness of it,” he said about why some travelers may be attracted to its offerings, which have taken guests to locations such as Checkpoint Charlie and the Topography of Terror. “We’re still walking around Berlin, talking about Berlin, but connecting to a different history and a different city somewhere else in the world.”
While Othman estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of Refugee Voice Tours’ guests on its refugee-led tours came from the United States before the pandemic, it’s a different story for Polyana de Oliveira, the owner and director of Brazilian travel company Viare Travel. Although she was unable to provide a figure documenting how popular its refugee-led tours of downtown São Paulo are, she stated most of the guests have been local. “They wanted to see a side of the city and country from another point of view,” de Oliveira said.
Despite refugees from Syria and Venezuela serving as guides on Viare Travel’s offerings, de Oliveira describes the excursions as “immigration tours” that illuminate São Paulo’s history of attracting newcomers, culminating with its current immigrants and refugees. It received the second largest number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants of any Brazilian city in 2019.
But regardless of where their guests largely come from, Refugee Voice Tours and Viare Travel have experienced struggles not uncommon for many inbound tour operators. Executives from multiple such organizations told Skift that they haven’t resumed the offerings they halted due to the pandemic. De Oliviera said all of the latter company’s tours — including the monthly, refugee-led group tours — were paused because of Covid. None of its group tours have restarted. As for Othman, he was seriously concerned about the future of Refugee Voices Tours. “About six months ago, I was thinking that this might be dead,” he said, adding he has fears for other businesses specializing in tours.
Refugee Voices Tours was able to resume its offerings in August of this year after halting them in May 2020. But the resumption of trips hasn’t seen the large scale return of guest numbers the organization enjoyed prior to the pandemic. Othman said that weekly tours attracted 10-12 people on average pre-Covid. However, that number has shrunk to five and since relaunching two months ago, Othman has had to cancel four tours due to a lack of people.
But the organization is plotting its future. Othman said, in the next couple of months, the Berlin tours will feature a Afghan-born guide. “We’ll push a narrative that there are other refugees,” he said, in contrast to the belief that all refugees in Germany are Syrian-born, although they make up the largest number in the country. Furthermore, he expressed confidence that Refugee Voices Tours would conduct trips in cities other than Berlin and Copenhagen, where the group has expanded to. Othman said the organization has plans for tours in Italy and is ready to operate in Madrid and the Netherlands when circumstances enable it to do so. Those tours would feature the same concept present in the Berlin tours, using refugees to tell the story of a certain city.
De Oliveira is also moving forward with plans to resume refugee-led tours in São Paulo in January, 2022, albeit not in the group settings they were held pre-Covid. “We will offer it to (flexible independent traveler) clients who we see have an interest in this sort of multicultural experience in the city,” she said. “Since we work with tailor-made experiences, we’ll usually gauge what the client’s interests in history and culture are, and offer this among a couple of other tours as options for them.”
While de Oliveira admits that many visitors to São Paulo — regardless of whether they’re Brazilian or not — don’t seek refugee-led tours, she believes they get a valuable experience.
“The guests leave with a better sense not only of what the refugee experience is like in Brazil, but how our country has welcomed them, and how the guides’ lives were in their home countries,” she said. “Getting this sort of understanding is an incredible cultural exchange because it educates locals and travelers alike to have a greater sense of respect for those who have made sacrifices to live here.”
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Photo Credit: A picture from Berlin, a popular city for refugee-led tours Refugee Voices Tours