Skift Take

In a shift away from traditional tourist hubs, private tour guides nurture small group experiences in less-popular cities to grow their business organically.

The appeal of France’s Paris or Portugal’s Lisbon often overshadows cities like Nice or Faro. However, lesser-known cities are seeing new demand as summer travel hits its stride.

The surge in travel to record highs means crowds of tourists, long queues, and the in-destination stress and congestion that goes along with it. These second-tier cities offer culture and attractions without the crowds, according to Matthijs Keij, CEO of Withlocals.   

Withlocals has expanded to 106 such cities in 2023, with the booking revenue growth in these new cities doubling from 6% in April to 12% in June.

“Our average revenue per booking is higher by 30% in these cities compared to the bigger cities in Europe like Paris and Rome,” said Withlocals chief growth officer Shradha Bhatia.

Bhatia outlined how Withlocals no longer needs to compete in the overcrowded first-tier cities of Paris or Barcelona for example, with demand for private tours in more second-tier cities such as Nice or Malaga decreasing its reliance on these popular destinations, as outlined in its Top 10 secondary cities table below.

Second-Tier CityFirst-Tier City
Split, Croatia
Malaga, Spain
Catania, Italy
Granada, Spain
Nice, France
Marseille, France
Valletta, Italy
Funchal, Portugal
Siena, Italy
Faro, Portugal
Dubrovnik, Croatia
Barcelona, Spain
Naples, Italy
Seville, Spain
Paris, France
Paris, France
Naples, Italy
Porto, Portugal
Florence, Italy
Lisbon, Portugal
Source: Withlocals

According to Skift Research’s recent State of Travel 2023 report, seven of the top 10 most searched destinations for the peak 2023 travel period are in Europe. 

Keij added that second-tier cities in Asia, like Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia, are also witnessing a tourism resurgence. “If you go to Thailand, Bangkok is your entry point, but then in Chiang Mai for instance in the north of the country, private tours are offering access to often lesser-known attractions,” said Keij.

“We’ve noticed that people are personalizing tours to understand their family traditions and lineage, day trips, languages and passions,” said Bhatia.

Withlocals data also showed that second-tier cities were popular with cruise passengers. “We also noticed a lot of travelers booking multiple tours in a single trip across destinations covered by their cruise lines,” she added.

Sharing the Real Croatia

“Beauty is a subjective opinion,” said Darko Batinić, who has been a private tour guide for about 10 years in Split in Croatia, a second-tier city to Dubrovnik.

Batinić offers four guided tours, with the bulk of his Withlocals guest bookings from the U.S. His Split History Tour and the Krka Waterfalls Tour are the most popular.

Batinić claimed he completes about 40 tours per month, mostly with families and an average group size of 3 to 5 people. He charges about $100 for a regular 3-hour tour, with apps like Withlocals charging 25-30% commission.

While he is listed with several tours and activities sites, including Tours by Locals, he said most tours are booked through the recommendations of people in his town and referrals from his guests.

“Good marketing is important.” he added. “Like any other company or app, Withlocals can improve in marketing, but I think the app is well recognized around the world.”

“In my career, I have never guided big groups and I hope it will stay like that. I am interested in private small groups so I can dedicate my time and energy fully to them,” said Batinić.

He recounted how a recent tour of Krka with a family from Ohio went so well, the family booked his services for the entire week.

“We explored authentic Croatian sites, and since we became friends, they told me about a plan to buy a vacation house here. If I helped them fall in love with Croatia, I consider that the biggest compliment.”

‘Life and Cities Are Organic’

“I don’t accept any groups bigger than 15, even that is too much,” said private guide Peter Corsius, based in Maastricht – the small group tour was central to having a good experience in this Dutch second-tier city, he added.

Uniquely positioned, sharing borders with Belgium and Germany, one could end up conversing in Dutch, French, or German depending on the direction one walks, according to Corsius.

“It’s a small town and usually sees 3 million tourists a year flocking to the downtown area that’s only 115 hectares. They all come here so I don’t like interfering with local life with huge groups,” said Corsius.

Corsius said that the percentage charged by Withlocals of up to 30% was high, and that he could charge less than the average $100 if he wanted to. However, he said maintaining market standard prices by not undercutting was important, especially for those who depended solely on tours for a living.

He believed cities are organic entities, continually evolving over time, cautioning against the ‘Disneyfication’ of history. Even when sites appear historically accurate, Corsius emphasized that understanding their transformation is key to appreciating the city’s genuine essence.

“It matters what you tell them but more important is the way you tell it. Tomorrow most of it will be forgotten but in like two weeks time they will know if they’ve had a good time.”


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Tags: croatia, experiences, france, guides, paris, portugal, tour guides, tourism, tours and activities, Travel Trends

Photo credit: Demand for private tours in second-tier cities like Nice is re-emerging as a trend in Europe and Southeast Asia. Source: Unsplash. Unsplash

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