Unseen Tours is a London-based social enterprise founded in 2010. It offers homeless and vulnerably housed Londoners the opportunity to train as tour guides in the city. This provides a new livelihood, but also allows these marginalised Londoners to share their knowledge and be seen – when so often the homeless are an invisible part of the city.
Since 2010, Unseen Tours has employed 20 guides that take tourists around different areas of London – Brick Lane, Camden, Shoreditch, London Bridge, Brixton, Mayfair and Covent Garden. The tours include tourist sights and locations which are off the beaten track, and are paired with personal stories of homelessness in the capital.
Research has shown that the tours can challenge social stigmas while involving those that have previously been marginalised. By guiding tourists through these spaces, homeless guides are not only making themselves and their experience of space more visible, but also reclaiming their place in it as legitimate.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Unseen Tours has moved its activity online by hosting Zoom “Not-in-a-Pub-Quiz” events in which homeless people participate in curating questions for the virtual quizzes. It has demonstrated that in times of crisis, virtual spaces have also become spaces for marginalised Londoners to reclaim power.
Homelessness and tourism
Tourism plays an important role in defining how we see and understand spaces and places. It helps to create an idea of the people and behaviour that are appropriate for a destination, and equally what and who is out of place. The relationship between homelessness and tourism is an example of this.
Tourists often wander cities with no particular goals, discovering and experiencing urban life, looking for adventure and discovery. Homeless Londoners adopt similar physical movements in space as they seek food, shelter, warmth and other necessities. However, they are essentially regarded by society as being out of place.
In major tourist cities, tourists and homeless people share many common spaces. However, tourists’ subjective experience of those spaces is celebrated through brochures, social media and newspapers, while homeless people are often invisible.
This is despite the fact that homeless numbers have been rising in the past decade. An estimated 4,266 people were sleeping rough in England by autumn 2019, of which more than 1,100 were located in London – around two and a half times more than in 2010.
In addition to the lack of affordable housing, or the lack of consideration given by policymakers to the future of those affected, the social stigma attached to homelessness is a crucial issue. This stigma is challenged by initiatives such as Unseen Tours. It can be seen as social tourism – tourism which enriches both tourists and the people who live in the place they are visiting.
The current coronavirus pandemic has brought the global tourism industry to a halt. Millions of people have lost their income and livelihoods, including the Unseen Tours guides.
The UK government has moved around 5,400 rough sleepers into hotels – and the number has risen during the pandemic due to the loss in jobs in the hospitality sector. However, there are concerns about the long-term sustainability of these plans.
The volunteers that run Unseen Tours have established an innovative approach to create a new opportunity for those guides affected by the crisis. Unseen Tours’ “Not-in-a-Pub-Quiz” has become a monthly event that brings together guides and those keen to enjoy an evening of entertainment, while also challenging the stigma surrounding homelessness and providing income for the guides.
The virtual pub quizzes, taking place on Zoom, have attracted more than 160 people so far, who pay a small fee to take part. The guides provide quiz questions or become quiz masters themselves.
Guides focus their questions on exactly those areas that they live and guide tourists in. They use the virtual spaces available to them to assert their right to occupy specific areas of physical space, like areas of the city which are normally considered the domain of tourists. This ultimately helps them to reclaim power over spaces that are out of reach, taken away by COVID-19.
The social enterprise has also now extended the quiz to businesses interested in virtual team building for their employees during the lockdown. This has turned the tours into a great way for local businesses to learn about the areas they operate in.
These virtual spaces elevate the guides into a position of authority and knowledge through these educational quizzes. They also provide an opportunity for guides to empower themselves, both financially and in a more abstract sense.
The virtual becomes a powerful tool for social change in the city in times of crisis, combining global and local forces to do good. What remains to be seen is what the future of tourism holds, and the place that homeless tour guides can occupy in what is likely to be a very different industry.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.