It’s a social network of a different kind! Susan Borches of Global Greeters says enthusiastic and passionate volunteers across the globe help tourists experience their city like a local

Say you plan to visit Paris early March, what are your chances of getting a friendly local to take you on a free tour of chic French cafes? It’s actually not as hard as it sounds, especially if you went through the Global Greeters network, “which provides a framework for a visitor to find an enthusiastic, friendly volunteer, who will help you experience the city like a local”, says Susan Borches, board member of the Global Greeters network and founder of Houston Greeters. “It was our belief that when you go to a new city, even though you might be interested in the statues and monuments, you might want to get to know the people, find out about life around there and the places they enjoy.”

Covering 39 cities

When Susan came up with the idea of a local network in Houston, back in 2003, she found similar programmes in New York (Big-Apple Greeters), and a few other cities. “So we pulled those people together and had our first meeting,” she says. “And we all agreed that there was great value in seeing if other cities were interested in this.” They were — because, today, 39 cities across the globe are part of the Greeters network.

On a visit to Chennai recently, for the music and dance season, Susan says the Greeter programme is identical across cities. “It’s a simple concept. What it does is offer a setting, through which a visitor can meet a trustworthy local, and, at no cost, have an opportunity to spend about half-a-day with them. It’s very comforting — to talk to the local, find out about restaurants, transport options, that sort of thing, and, after the greet, you can go back and decide what to home in on.” All the greeters are volunteers (not professional guides), who are passionate and proud of their city, and want to showcase it to visitors, says Susan, adding that the greets are designed for a one-on-one basis, although small groups of up to six persons are accepted. And while the greets are free, visitors sometimes leave a donation. “It is entirely up to them,” says Susan. “About half of the Greeter networks don’t rely on government funding, and donations sustain them.”

To arrange for a greet, the visitor is asked to fill out and submit a visit request form, a few weeks before the trip. The visitor can specify their interest, preferred day, time and language; their profile is then matched with a greeter, who gets in touch with them to take it forward. In Houston, for instance, a whopping 85 activities are on offer. “We have 120 volunteers, speaking 17 different languages! But, we usually ask visitors to identify three activities, because if a greeter for a particular programme is not available, we can’t have another person sitting in for them. Passions are not interchangeable,” she smiles.

The popular activities are usually easy to arrange, as there typically are up to 10 people offering that programme. “In Houston, the Texas Medical Centre — the largest in the world — is very popular, and so is the downtown tunnel system, which I find very odd,” laughs Susan. (Why, she quips, would people come to a city and choose to go underground?) The greets, however, are popular not only with visitors, but also with locals, who would like to gain a different insight into their own city. “Sometimes, you find that locals don’t know what to do with their guests, and arrange a greet for them.” And when people have exhausted their itineraries, they can opt for a ‘greeter’s choice’, where they leave it to the greeter to show them something vastly interesting!

“India has so much to show and tell; but it can be a bit overwhelming for the visitor,” says Susan, who’s been out every day in Chennai, and now knows The Music Academy very well. “It will be wonderful if there was an opportunity for visitors to talk to a local person, rather than be lectured at, altogether, in a tour bus; their experience will be a much better one. After all, that’s what people crave,” she concludes.

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