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In Search of 'Authentic' City Tour Guides

This site pairs locals up with travelers for guided strolls.

Toronto's Kensington Market neighborhood. (Ryan/Flickr)

When Fletcher and Hailey Johnson from Canada arrived in Paris, they didn't know exactly where they wanted to go or what they wanted to see, but they did know that they wanted to avoid the Paris a Lonely Planet guidebook would show them.

Katie, a Paris local, showed up at their hotel to tour them around the city. Their indecision wasn't the slightest problem for her; she knew exactly where to take them—the Galeries Lafayette down the road. Katie led them up one escalator and then another. When they got out at the rooftop, they were able to survey the city’s historical sights, such as the Eiffel Tower, the gold dome of Les Invalides, the Paris Opera House, and La Madeleine, all through Katie's eyes.

Toronto native Kiran Samra wants travelers to put down their phones and learn from the locals with her business endeavor, Lokafy, currently up and running in Toronto and Paris and launching soon in New York City. The service matches travelers with local residents.

Samra launched the site in 2013, inspired by her experiences as a solo traveler in Eastern Europe a decade before. On break from working as a teaching assistant in France, Samra found herself struggling to connect with her surroundings in a meaningful way. Then, in Hungary, she chatted online with a man named Sabi, who also showed her around in person. It was a lesson in history and human connection. "When I look back on that trip, the thing that stands out is Budapest because of that conversation that I had with him and just getting to know that place in a deeper way," she tells CityLab.  

Strolling through Paris’s Latin Quarter. (Paul D’Ambra/Flickr)

Through talking with folks about their travel experiences, Samra also found that many young travelers only go to cities where they have friends or know of a hostel where they can form social connections with people. Those conversations validated the idea of Lokafy for Samra.

A Lokafy experience reaches deeper into where people actually live. "It's not so much just about seeing the key sights—it's really being let into someone's world and seeing what they're passionate about, their experiences, and hearing their story," explains Samra.

Samra recruits “Lokafyers” through the “creative gigs” section on Craigslist. "I think it's really great for travelers to meet the artists in a city because artists are the ones who kind of step back and interpret life and soak in what's going on around them," she says. She views the local guides as something between a tour leader and a friend.

Travelers can expect to see the hidden gems, says Samra. In Toronto, one Lokafyer took her guests to St. Lawrence Market by way of side streets so that they could see street art they may have overlooked. The guide also took the guests to the roof of her work, where they had an incredible view of the city—a destination they never would have stumbled upon. On the way to their destinations, they spoke about daily Toronto business so that the travelers, visiting from Germany, could get a feel for living in the Canadian city. "A Lokafy experience is as much about the conversation as it is about what you see along the way and the information the Lokafyer will give you,” Samra says. She prioritizes the human connection that links the information a traveler may have learned about a place online with a face-to-face social connection.

An underpass on King Street in Toronto. (Timothy Neesam/Flickr)

Visitors’ quest for an “authentic” experience might make some residents worried that large groups of travelers will show up at their favorite local spots. But Samra says that Lokafy's method is actually going to help to alleviate the problem of having residential areas overrun by travelers. Lokafy will open up more areas of the city to travelers, and in turn hopefully bring them together with locals.

The custom tours range from one to six travelers at a time, and cost $15 per person (about the same as many larger walking tour companies). The biggest early adopters have been working professionals, ages 24-50, who are traveling solo. The other group inquiring about Lokafy is parents traveling with their teenagers, says Samra. "It's something that surprised me, but in hindsight makes sense because as a parent it allows you to do something cool and interesting with your teenager and nurture their interests, too."

Samra hopes this form of tourism will create a movement to help us get back to this spirit of hospitality and being open to new people, instead of chiding tourists. Take, for instance, a 2013 video by the popular puppet duo Glove and Boots. “Johnny T's NYC Tourist Tips: Get Outta The Way, You're A Jerk” is a visitor-hating short that encouraged non-locals to stay in their hotel rooms during rush hour. It went viral. "I don't think that there should be necessarily any sort of discrimination or animosity towards people who are visiting,” Samra adds. “But it's kind of become that way."

About the Author

  • Sarah Iannone is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.