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In Europe, Immigrants Lead Tours Through Cities’ Most Overlooked Cultural Gems: Their Own Neighborhoods

In Europe, Immigrants Lead Tours Through Cities’ Most Overlooked Cultural Gems: Their Own Neighborhoods

Stefania D'Ignoti

Photo by Migrantours

Photo by Migrantours

A small group crowds around a woman wearing a blue hijab, listening carefully as she speaks from the middle of an open-air market and gestures to nearby stalls overflowing with fruits and spices. One of the group picks a fruit from a stall and the woman next to him inhales its perfume, then they turn their attention back to the speaker’s stories before walking to the next landmark, a former cemetery.
 
Essediya Magboul, 37, is a tour guide from Morocco. The walking tours she leads, however, do not take place in Marrakech or Casablanca, but in Turin, Italy, where she has lived since 2003. Her walks introduce both foreign visitors and locals to multicultural neighborhoods off the beaten path from Turin’s more iconic attractions, places mainly populated by immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, South America, China, and Eastern Europe. These communities make up about 15 percent of Turin’s population, though this diversity is often overlooked by tourists and residents alike. 
 
On this autumn afternoon, Magboul’s group is a mix of about 15 people, including university students and a few local married couples with their friends, all eager to see the city from a different perspective. They go through the old cemetery and stop at bakeries, butcheries, and grocery stores run by the Arab, Chinese, and Romanian populations in Turin, concluding the tour with a walk through a famous weekly flea market before reaching the tour group’s headquarters. 

Photo by Stefania D'Ignoti

Photo by Stefania D'Ignoti

The idea of Migrantour (also spelled MyGranTour) was born through Viaggi Solidali, an Italian travel agency that organizes responsible tourism vacation packages in developing countries around the world. After years of promoting travel abroad, the company is now also boosting original, sustainable tourism in its own country, inspired by the potential of Turin’s multicultural neighborhoods. “Paradoxically, an activity done in our cities and not in the destination countries we promote was the most successful initiative of our organization,” says Enrico Marletto, president of Viaggi Solidali, in a phone interview conducted in Italian. “You don’t need to travel abroad to see the world. There are many pieces of the world showcased in multicultural neighborhoods in Italian main cities that locals don’t even know about, despite growing up in those cities.”

According to U.N. statistics, over 360,000 refugees and migrants made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean last year. Of those, more than 180,000 of these migrants landed in Italy, which has now overtaken Greece as the main point of entry for refugees trying to reach Europe. Those lucky enough to land in Italy are a combination of asylum seekers and migrant workers escaping wars or extreme poverty or both.
 
The Migrantour initiative is a collaborative effort among Viaggi Solidali, the Italian NGO Fondazione ACRA, and Oxfam Italy, with seed funding from the European Union. It has three ambitious goals: educate local citizens about intercultural integration, empower the growing migrant community, and make the tourism industry more economically and socially sustainable by hiring underemployed residents and promoting visits to local multicultural attractions.

Viaggi Solidali isn’t alone in focusing on sustainable tourism. The United Nations declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. “It is an opportunity to advance the contribution of the tourism sector to the three pillars of sustainability—economic, social, and environmental, while raising awareness of the true dimensions of a sector which is often undervalued,” said U.N. World Tourism Secretary-General Taleb Rifai in a press release.

Photo by Migrantours

Photo by Migrantours

In November, Migrantour took home the silver award for “Best Innovation by a Tour Operator” from the World Travel Market trade show in London. Professor Harold Goodwin, chair of judges, said in a press release that “the judges were impressed by this new form of urban tourism and its ability to increase mutual understanding between communities in a period when migration is in the political spotlight.”

The Migrantour network is open to any tourism outfit or organization that believes it can create one or more tours in the style of Viaggi Solidali’s Turin walks. Since its inception in 2010, the network has grown to include 150 “intercultural companions” running more than 20 different tour itineraries in prominent European cities like Florence, Paris, Lisbon, and Valencia. While new partners may use Migrantour’s name and branding in their own countries, they must fund the tours themselves. “I have received many calls from cities who wanted to re-propose our idea in their own society, the latest being Brussels,” says Marletto, who also mentions he hopes to bring London into the network soon. Viaggi Solidali usually accepts requests to use the Migrantour brand and freely advises foreign organizations who want to start their own similar tours or incorporate Migrantour elements into excursions that already exist in European cities with a dense foreign population. 

Marletto says Migrantour’s goal is not only to promote the integration of foreign-born residents by providing them with a source of income, but also to highlight the contributions that migrants bring to the cities. “What sets our brand apart is the added value of meeting and having an exchange with the local people in a spirit of mutual respect between the vacationer and the host community,” says Marletto.
 
Aspiring tour guides sign up online and are vetted by Migrantour operators, particularly in regards to their ability to speak the local language. “Fluency is fundamental to conduct the tours,” says Marletto. “We choose the [applicants] with the best storytelling and public speaking skills, and we train them.” According to Marletto, a good percentage of tour guides are asylum-seekers and only live in a specific city for a short amount of time, so they work as freelancers, earning 60 euros per tour (90 if the tour is in a language other than the local one, such as English or French). Around 140 walks take place every year in Turin alone.
 
Magboul, who studied tourism in her home country before arriving in Italy in 2002, says she became a guide with Migrantour in part to “change the mentality of people and the kind of look Italians sometimes give to us Moroccans and Arabs in general.”

One unanticipated benefit of the training for Magboul was meeting her fellow trainees, who represented a diverse array of cultures, ethnicities, and experiences. While tour guides specialize in their native ethnicity, they are also required to learn about other migrant communities in the tour city and be able to speak to how they all coexist. “This job opportunity enriched me not only in terms of economic income, but also on a personal and cultural level. I hope to be able to show how beautiful my culture is, [and how] that can also be found in the spices sold at the local market,” says Magboul.
 
Migrantour is growing in popularity, mainly from word-of-mouth. In Turin, the yearly average is about 2,000 participants, with a large percentage coming from local elementary and secondary schools that have added the walking to their curriculum. In Italy and France, Migrantour has started to get media attention as well. The French newspaper Le Monde recently showcased the tours in Paris and Turin as part of an article on ethical travel opportunities around the globe.

But there have been moments of hostility, too, Marletto says. “Normally the people who attend our tours are open-minded and join us because they want to. But there have been times when Italian newspapers or French citizens have [criticized] giving foreigners a job,” he says.
 
An article published in the Italian daily Il Giornale last year criticized the lack of migrants taking the tour themselves, and suggested, disapprovingly, that the willingness to open an intercultural dialogue was only coming from the Italian side. The paper also claimed that the walks looked more like a safari than a way to understand different cultures, and implied the attendees were observing migrants as they would animals in a zoo. In a blog post, Nicolas Bay, secretary general of France’s xenophobic political party Front National, accused the Migrantour initiative of being a mere excuse to promote migrants’ invasion of Europe, and attacked the EU’s decision to finance the project in its early stage.

Despite these sporadic negative reactions, the tours generally seem to leave a positive impression on attendees. Sofia Brandinali, a Milan resident, attended a walk focused on the Chinese presence in Italy’s financial capital, and wrote on Migrantour’s Facebook page, “I truly enjoyed the tour, and wish I could hear more often stories about the area that today I visited with new eyes.”

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