What Is Second City Tourism?

Skyline of Abu Dhabi from the Corniche beach

With the rise in overtourism causing significant problems for destinations and local communities, a new trend has emerged called second city tourism where travellers are leaning toward visiting less crowded places. But what is second city tourism? Why does second city tourism help local destinations and why has it become so popular all of a sudden when backpackers have technically been doing it for decades?

There is no doubt that overtourism has become a significant problem in recent years, there have been mass protests against AirBnB, local communities have rioted and told travellers to stay away, the cruise ship industry is of course causing issues of its own and governments have even shut entire islands down to give them a rest from tourists and to allow the ecosystems to recover.

Second city tourism is simply looking to explore the lesser known city or destinations within a country and avoiding the major capital cities and tourism hotspots.

As a result, especially after the worldwide covid19 pandemic, travellers have been looking toward destinations that are less crowded, more off the beaten path and far away from the packed, crowded capital cities and major tourist hotspots, and because of this the new trend of second city tourism has become a thing.

What Is Second City Tourism?

Second city tourism at it’s simplest and most technical definition means avoiding a country’s capital city, which is often overcrowded, overtouristed and packed, and instead heading to the countries second largest city which is often largely overlooked instead. Liverpool instead of London, Alexandria instead of Cairo, Abu Dhabi instead of Dubai, Bufallo instead of NYC, you get the idea.

More widely, and more realistically the definition can be extended to any place or region that is not the major tourist hotspot, so it doesn’t specifically have to be the actual second city. It can be a region that most tourists just don’t travel to, an island a bit further down the coast that doesn’t get as many visitors as the big party island everyone wants to see.

It doesn’t even mean travellers have to avoid the major hotspots entirely either, it just means extending your travels and spreading the tourism out a little bit instead of focusing entirely on one heavily trafficked and popular destination. This bit is crucial as popular destinations are popular for a reason and no one would suggest going to Egypt and not seeing the Pyramids of Giza or going to India and not going to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

For example on my last visit to Egypt, one of my favourite destinations, of course I went back to see the Pyramids of Giza and lamented at the crowds, but I also took the time to visit the Pyramids at Memphis and Saqqara too and had the entire sites too myself all day, and then went to spend some time in Alexandria instead of Cairo. Everyone always wants to visit the golden triangle in India, and I have myself, but on my last visit I went to Gujurat instead which gets very few western tourists in comparison despite having iconic attractions of its own that could easily rival anything else in the country.

Second City Travel doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the popular travel hotspots entirely, it just means spreading your travel, and the positive impact it can have, around a little bit.

In a way this is what all backpackers and independent travellers have been doing for decades anyway, it is just a way to once again bring our obviously superior ways of travel into the mainstream. After the backpacker mecca of Khao San Road became mainstream and gentrified for package tourists, backpackers moved on to Isan, when the same thing happened to the southern Thai Islands, backpackers moved onto Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is all about spending time discovering those lesser known destinations, those hidden gems and the jewels most people wouldn’t even think of, and not simply spending all of your travel in one place.

kuala lumpur malaysia colonial architecture

Why Is Second City Tourism Needed?

It is needed frankly because overtourism has grown beyond an industry buzzword to an actual problem felt by ordinary communities. Quite simply too many people are piling into too few destinations, trying to get that perfect insta shot, trying to tick off those endless bucketlists fuelled by ubiquitous must see lists and trying to see those iconic sites. Tourism has overwhelmed entire communities, displaced locals and put protected species and historical landmarks at risk, to name just a few of the negative effects.

Second city tourism is something that can be taken on board by travellers and the industry alike. From an industry perspective, tourism boards and DMOs can do a much better job of spreading out their marketing messages to not include the same destinations all the time, this is becoming increasingly imperative as it is clear the demand for tourism is growing as exponentially as our population and will not slow down anytime soon. On top of that measures can be put in place to control numbers, as has been done on Macchu Picchu for many years, and ensure that some sites – especially those historical, natural or wildlife habitated sites that are particularly at risk – have specific protections built in to the tourism process. From an individual traveller point of view there is a lot we can do as well, and there are a lot of rewards and benefits to second city travel too.

Reducing Overtourism.

The most obvious benefit to second city travel is that it will inevitably help to reduce the load and the pressure on popular destinations that have become vastly overcrowded. That doesn’t mean tourists won’t still enjoy those places as I said earlier, but it does mean those that are there – including the locals – will probably enjoy the experience a lot more.

Helping Lesser Known Destinations.

The flip side to this coin of course is that when travellers disperse from more popular sites they will need somewhere to go. That means that the lesser known destinations will benefit from recieving all those displaced tourists and the country or region overall will have a much more balanced, and therefore much more manageable and sustainable, tourism impact.

Saving Money And Increasing Economies.

This shared and balanced approach to tourism means that the negative economic impact on major tourist sites such as outpricing locals from the housing market or displacing jobs and careers for locals will be lessened to an extent and the regions, cities or places that are not as well known for tourism will get an economic boost, not just directly to tourism specific industries but the tertiary hospitality businesses too such as locally owned restaurants, cafe’s, entertainment venues and more. And on the plus side for travellers it will save you a lot of money too as the lesser known regions are generally a lot cheaper than their heavily touristed counterparts. 

Getting To Know A Destination Better.

Of course with all of those practical benefits, second city tourism also brings to the fore the benefits of a much slower, deeper and in depth way of travel, something independent travellers and backpackers have always known. Instead of travelling to the major hotspots for a quick selfie for your social media profile, where the only people you encounter are touts, other tourists and the service industry that caters to them, travelling out to areas that aren’t necessarilly catered for package tourists gives you the chance to interact far more with locals on a much more realistic day to day level. You will experience far more of the local culture, more so if you are pushed out of your comfort zone a little and learn a little of the local language, you will observe a culture that you simply won’t see in the tourist hotspots and you will engage with your travels on a much deeper and far more meaningful level.

As I said there is nothing really new about ‘second city tourism’ as such; backpackers have been travelling this way for decades, willing to find somewhere new, discover the hidden gems before the tourist masses and travel on a more local level, but if this new trend encourages even more people to travel that way then this can only be a good thing.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

Gap Years, Overtourism And How Travel Is Ruining The Places We Love.

How To Make Your Gap Year Responsible, Ethical And Sustainable.

Is AirBnB Unethical And Irresponsible?

My Growing Anger And Frustration With Egyptian Tourism.

Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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6 comments on “What Is Second City Tourism?
  1. Jenny Clare says:

    Hi just wanted to thank you for the site, I love reading this and it has kept my spirits up dreaming of travel over lockdowns. Thank you. Jenny

  2. Caroline Murphy says:

    I think as a backpacker myself this is something I have always done, I’ve just never really thought about it much beyond finding a (usually) cheaper travel hub and exploring places less people go to. It’s wierd how it is actually a thing!

  3. Rob says:

    Love this! I’ve always enjoyed visiting lesser known cities for all the reasons you mentioned! It always surprised me why more people didn’t.

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