Wukang Mansion is one of the landmarks in the former French concession. (ALYWIN CHEW / CHINA DAILY)
"This feels like a documentary unfolding before me," said Nantanittaya Sesaweech, a Thai tourist, as her guide talks about the history behind Wukang Mansion.
"I love how this walking tour is like a history lesson. Regular tours are not as rich in information as this."
Unlike typical group tours that take tourists to several destinations across the city within a day, Sesaweech's three-hour walking tour by local travel agency Simplicity was limited to just one location－Shanghai's former French concession.
Participants of this tour start their journey on Huaihai Middle Road, which was formerly called Avenue Joffre before 1950, before entering the charming Wukang Road stretch where French plane trees flank the roads and contemporary-style cafes are sandwiched between historical buildings and small, rustic shops.
Besides Wukang Mansion, participants on this tour get to learn about the history behind places such as the former residence of the Italian Consulate General, the home of the late Chinese author Ba Jin, the trendy lifestyle complex Ferguson Lane and a quaint teahouse that is located in an idyllic garden hidden from plain sight.
Ferguson Lane, a trendy lifestyle hub along Wukang Road, is popular among locals and tourists. (ALYWIN CHEW/CHINA DAILY)
The philosophy of this walking tour is that less is more, says Simplicity's cofounder Anne Xu.
"On normal tours, you travel around in a bus to many locations across the city. The tour guide gives you a brief description of the place. You get some time to walk around, take photos and buy souvenirs. Before you know it, you're back on the bus and taken to the next destination. You don't really get to experience anything," said Xu.
"Walking tours, on the other hand, are all about the experience and the details. This means tourists end up having a more intimate knowledge of the city."
Though Simplicity was only founded in 2017, its walking tours have been selling like hotcakes. Xu, who has been working in the travel industry for close to a decade, said that her tours for the first half of this year have already been sold out. Many foreign travel platforms such as Urban Adventure have also expressed an interest to list Simplicity's services.
Simplicity guide Benny Zhang tells tourist Nantanittaya Sesaweech about the history of the famous comic Sanmao. (ALYWIN CHEW/CHINA DAILY)
A booming market segment
According to Xu, while professional walking tours were already popular in London in the 1980s, it wasn't till 2014 that such activities became more commonplace in Shanghai. The segment then received a major boost in 2015 when QYER.com, a Chinese online travel platform for social networking and services, launched a campaign in China to solicit for global partners to promote walking tours in the country.
The launch of Airbnb's Experiences Program in November 2016, added Xu, also helped to promote such tours. In a 2017 interview with Fortune magazine, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said that the company's Experiences business had grown 12 times from January to October that year, and nearly 13 times faster than its homes businesses during the same period.
Today, one would be able to find dozens of private walking tours in Shanghai that are themed around culture, photography and food on sites like Airbnb, QYER and Viator. Competition in this segment today, said Xu, is fiercer than ever.
"I think a lot of people are joining the market because organizing a city walk seems like a relatively easy business to run. You don't need special skills. You just need a good knowledge of the city. Besides, this service also meets people's current needs for travel," she said.
"There is definitely a lot more competition now. There are even architecture firms that are entering the game. For example, the American Institute of Architects offers their own architecture-focused tours across the city."
The growing number of tourists to Shanghai is also an enticing factor for people to offer such services. Officials had in 2017 announced that Shanghai welcomed 8.73 million inbound travelers that year, and the figure is expected to swell to 10 million by 2020 and 14 million by 2035.
According to official statistics, the annual revenue of the city's tourism sector had grown an average 7.1 percent from 2013 to 2017. Shanghai was also ranked as the biggest tourism market last year by the World Travel & Tourism Council. In the organization's annual Cities Report, Shanghai topped the rankings with a market size of US$35 billion. Beijing took second place with US$32.5 billion while Paris was third with US$28 billion.
The growth of the walking tours segment is not limited to just Shanghai. Last year, US adventure travel company Backroads reported that its walking and hiking tours had experienced double digit growth over the past few years and were its fastest-growing segment.
Hu Ruixi, cofounder of Lost Plate, a travel operator that specializes in food tours, pointed out that while competition is indeed growing, independent walking tour operators that provide an authentic local experience are still few and far between.
Lost Plate guides take foreign tourists on food tours in China. (ALYWIN CHEW/CHINA DAILY)
"I think competition in Shanghai is strong. There are a lot of people who want a piece of the action. But there is still a lack of independently-run authentic experiences－most tours are still run by big tour agencies who offer typical sightseeing destinations, and the bottom line is that most of those destinations in Shanghai are easily accessible without a guide, and they are not an authentic Shanghai or China experience," said Hu.
Demand for experience
There also appears to be a connection between the popularity of walking tours and market research findings which state that travelers around the world today are increasingly focused on experience. Skift, a provider of news, research and marketing services for the travel industry, had in its 2017 US Experiential Survey found that 65 percent of travelers named "experiencing something new" as one of their top priorities.
The same trend is taking place in China. In a 2018 McKinsey report titled Chinese tourists: Dispelling the myths, the research firm stated that Chinese consumers today want a more customized and flexible travel experience and are more interested in local experiences than visiting important landmarks, which used to be a top priority in the past.
"Exploring off the beaten path on foot in areas that tourists don't even know about, let alone visit, is something that people are really looking for these days because they are longing to go places other people don't. Why? Because they travel so far to get here and don't want their time or money to be wasted," said Lost Plate's other cofounder Brian Bergey.
"People also want to tell their friends stories about their travels, a lot of which happens over social media. We know this because 30 percent of our guests say that they heard about us from a previous customer, so sharing your travel experiences with others is part of traveling. Tours like ours let people access part of the city that they would never otherwise experience. It's something new and fresh, and it's going to help make their stories even better."
Xu also noted that it isn't so much that walking tours are becoming more popular, but that there has always been a latent demand for such services.
"In the past, when technology was not as advanced, people would rely on tour agencies. But the advent of platforms like Ctrip and Booking.com have made it easier for people to pick their own airlines, hotels and transport. However, there is still one aspect of travel that they can't really perform effectively themselves because of the cultural and language barriers－and that's learning about the city," she explained.
"It's like going to a new school or company. You're going to need an orientation program to learn about the place. Walking tours fulfill this need."
An appetite for culture
According to Bergey, food tours have been one of the fastest-growing segments of the global travel industry. He pointed out that while such services were hardly available a decade ago, they can now be found in most major Chinese cities.
ALSO READ: Nation sees glittering tourism prospects
Lost Plate's growth is in itself an indication of how quickly this market segment has grown. In 2014, the year it was established, the company only offered one tour in Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province. Today, it offers nine unique tours across four Chinese cities. During its first year of operations, Lost Plate only had 500 customers. In 2018, Lost Plate hosted walking tours for more than 11,000 guests.
"Food is a universal language, and every culture is partly defined by their cuisine. Every travel blog or article always mentions what food people should eat, and many of social media's top hashtags are related to food," explained Bergey.
Lost Plate guides take foreign tourists on food tours in China. (ALYWIN CHEW/CHINA DAILY)
"Travelers want to experience the local culture through food, but in many foreign countries like China, it is very inaccessible if you don't speak the local language. Our food tours really help people discover local food and the best places to eat it which they simply aren't able to research themselves."
Simplicity has identified the opportunities offered by this trend too. Earlier this year, the company debuted its first food tour that takes guests from the old neighorhood of Laoximen to the glitzy and hip Xintiandi area in downtown Shanghai. Clients will also get to participate in fun challenges, such as eating century eggs, beef offals and other foods that are often considered exotic in foreign cultures.
"I'm really proud of this new walking tour offering because it features a seamless transition from the old world where guests get to try classic snacks to modern day Shanghai where the contemporary, cosmopolitan offerings are at," said Xu.
"This tour is not just about eating local delicacies. Rather, it's learning about the city's history through food. Telling the Shanghai story has always been integral to our company's philosophy. I think our food tour could very well be the best this city has to offer."
HONG KONG NEWS