Greeter Roberto shows the author and her family around Florence. Greeter Roberto shows the author and her family around Florence.
Life Travel Love where you live? Here’s how you can share that love Updated:

Love where you live? Here’s how you can share that love

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In 1992, a group of enthusiastic New York volunteers set out to show travellers “their New York”, forming a volunteer guiding organisation called Big Apple Greeter.

Ten years later my husband and I were waiting in a New York hotel lobby wondering what our greeter would be like when someone flopped down beside us and began speaking so quickly we could hardly keep up. “Hey guys! I left home at 8.15, yes, 8.15 – anyway, there was this train, I don’t know what happened, but I was waiting at the platform and then … oh, hey – I’m Jo.”

Jo stuck out her hand and shook ours enthusiastically before continuing her story without pausing for breath.

The young Chinese-American was not only our own age, she was also a quintessential New Yorker – or at least our idea of one – and we spent the next four hours hanging on her every word as she took us around Chinatown, helped us navigate the subway, walked with us across Brooklyn Bridge and showed us where to buy the best hot dog we’ve ever had.

Our first greeter tour wouldn’t be our last. In 2005, Big Apple Greeter invited other similar organisations around the world to join them and form a Global Greeter Network.

The organisation has since become known as the International Greeter Association and there are more than 140 Greeter cities where enthusiastic volunteers share their love of their home town with visitors from around the world.

The International Greeter Association celebrates the genuine joys of travel – making new and often surprising discoveries, forming connections with others and seeing a destination through the eyes of the locals who live there.

Based on the concept of participatory tourism, which offers multicultural exchanges and enrichment for visitors and residents alike, Greeter tours cost nothing and there is no tipping.

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Blair Allsopp hard at work, making visitors to Brisbane feel welcome. Photo: Brisbane Marketing

Blair Allsopp was one of the first volunteer Greeters to sign up when my home town of Brisbane joined the International Greeter Association in 2012. His wife saw an article calling for volunteers and said, “This is exactly what you do when we have visitors!”

Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to have a friend who lives locally like Blair to show them around.

This is where the International Greeter Association comes in. Many greeters are passionate travellers themselves and can’t wait to share their city with people from out of town.

“I’ve travelled to many cities both for work and pleasure and one thing I’ve always found is that having friends locally always makes the trip so much more enjoyable,” Mr Allsopp says.

“It’s such an advantage to have a local show you the ropes. A couple of hours picking up tips and tricks is all most people need to get started on their own journey of discovery.”

Like the guides who lead them, each greeter tour is different. In Paris, our guide was a retired professor who showed us around Montmartre where he had lived for more than 30 years.

Pierre didn’t just have the perfect name, he also had a folder of fascinating historical photos of many of the places on our tour. Much to my surprise, he also shared my passion for the impossibly romantic movie Amelie and showed us where it was filmed.

Pierre had the communication skills of someone who had spent their life teaching and an irreverent sense of humour. Any thoughts that the French were haughty or unfriendly were dashed as he showed us around.

Greeter tours are about more than simply seeing the sights, they also offer a fascinating glimpse into the heart and soul of a destination and the people who make it great.

While our greeters in other European cities have been older and mostly retired, the team of volunteers in Florence were youngsters with an average age of about 30.

Roberto admitted he was still getting the hang of what visitors from other countries enjoyed doing when we joined him for a tour in 2015. He wasn’t as polished as Pierre but he was good fun and knew plenty of “secret spots” tourists could go for free, a legacy of his early years in Florence as a student.

Almost 20 years after our first Big Apple Greeter experience, we returned to New York and did another tour, this time with our teenage son, who wasn’t born in 2002.

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The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens – a Greeter-led discovery. Photo: Getty

He opted for Greeter’s Choice, which meant the tour’s location would be up to our guide. We ended up in our greeter’s local ‘hood – Astoria in Queens – and cruised down alleyways lined with street art, ate Greek giros and marvelled at the old movie cameras and Muppet exhibition at the incredible Museum of the Moving Image, which we previously never knew existed.

Once again, our greeter helped us navigate the subway system and explained how to catch the right train back to our hotel.