This is Athens with a Local

Launched in 2011 by the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, the programme began with a dedicated volunteer community offering free walking tours.

The "This is Athens with a Local" Programme connects visitors with passionate residents for free walking tours.  This innovative programme fosters genuine cultural exchange through personalised itineraries, led by multilingual volunteers who share their unique perspectives on the city's diverse neighbourhoods.

The "This is Athens with a Local" Programme connects visitors with passionate residents for free walking tours.  This innovative programme fosters genuine cultural exchange through personalised itineraries, led by multilingual volunteers who share their unique perspectives on the city's diverse neighbourhoods.

Spyridon Kagkas, Digital & Community Manager at This is Athens, presented the journey of 'This is Athens with a Local' since its inception and how the programme was conceived as a way to showcase the true spirit of Athens through the eyes of its residents.

Launched in 2011 by the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, the programme began with a dedicated volunteer community offering free walking tours. In 2014, a platform was introduced, allowing visitors to book their free walks in advance. A significant milestone arrived five years later with the programme's full integration into the website of This is Athens, transforming it into a core tourism service for the city.

About the Programme

The 'This is Athens with a Local' programme fosters genuine connections between visitors and Athenians. Local residents curate personalised walking tours that venture beyond traditional tourist spots. These tours navigate the diverse neighbourhoods of Athens, allowing visitors to experience the city through a local lens and immerse themselves in the authentic Athenian lifestyle.

Each walk is unique, catering to the interests of both the local guide and the visitor. To provide a starting point, the programme offers themed walks like 'Surf Athens with a Local' or 'Explore Your Neighbourhood - Discover Street Art.' These themes serve diverse interests, ensuring a memorable and personalised experience for all.

While This is Athens facilitates the connection, it intentionally grants full control over the tour content to the local guides. This fosters an honest and authentic experience, allowing each guide to share their unique perspective and personal stories about the city. This is Athens takes pride in this democratic approach, empowering locals to act as ambassadors and co-create a narrative for the city.

Drawing on International Trends

This is Athens wasn't the first organisation to adopt this type of programme. Taking inspiration from other DMOs, they aimed to create an original programme which incorporated elements from their favourite examples, including:

  1. Visit Brisbane, Brisbane Greeters - This programme shows the warm hospitality that Brisbane is known for. Since its inception, it has connected over 80,000 visitors with passionate locals.
  2. Visit Copenhagen, Meet the Danes - Aligned with Denmark's reputation as being among 'The Happiest People in the World', this programme offers international visitors a unique and personal way to experience Danish culture.

A key element that This is Athens sought to replicate from these programmes was the engaging interaction between locals and tourists. In today's tourism landscape, forging genuine connections with residents has become an attraction in itself. This shift in visitor preferences has essentially created a new tourism product: one that prioritises authentic cultural exchange and a deeper understanding of a destination's essence.

Paid Experiences VS Volunteer-Driven Authenticity

The tourism landscape increasingly offers experiences that connect locals and visitors for a fee. Platforms such as Airbnb Experiences and off-the-beaten-path guides, provide a level of authenticity while generating income for participants. Yet, these are also highly commercial in nature, where locals become commodities that are perceived as being less honest.

'This is Athens with a Local' takes a distinct approach, fostering genuine interactions through a volunteer model. These volunteers operate selflessly, not accepting payment or tips for their time and knowledge of the city. The programme has received more than 90 applications from Athenians, who must be fluent in either English, Spanish, French or German and achieve an average review of at least 3.5 stars to ensure the tours are of high quality. Maintaining consistency is crucial, with volunteers guiding visitors on at least four walks annually to remain active members of the programme.

This phenomenon of "Volunteerism" is also employed by other DMOs, empowering residents and visitors to contribute to destinations through specific projects, often aiming to connect locals and tourists. A couple of our standout examples of Volunteerism that not only bridge the gap between locals and visitors, but also leverage the marketing value from such campaigns include:

  1. Visit Faroe Islands, Closed for Maintenance: This annual initiative invites a select number of visitors to participate in island restoration projects, promoting environmental responsibility and building connections with residents.
  1. Visit Finland, Rent a Finn: Launched in 2019, this innovative programme paired visitors with 'happiness guides', who share their local experiences and reconnect visitors with nature.

Recruiting Volunteers

'This is Athens with a Local' uses a multi-pronged approach to recruit volunteers, especially those who are specialists in the various themed walks. The programme has leveraged established volunteer networks, such as SynAthina, Ethelon and Athens Pride, to reach a wider audience. Meanwhile, the programme also specifically targets young and enthusiastic tourism students, with participation in the programme offering valuable hands-on experience within the industry, allowing them to apply their knowledge in a real-world setting.

This is Athens organises educational seminars and provides first aid training during these sessions, shares research about the city and provides educational walks for volunteers. To encourage collaboration, bi-monthly meetings and a dedicated Facebook group helps volunteers share their knowledge, while the DMO has monthly meet-ups with the most active volunteers.  

While incentives, such as public transport tickets, are offered to volunteers, the programme thrives on a core principle – volunteers are primarily motivated by the intrinsic value they find in contributing to a meaningful project and becoming part of a larger community.

Promoting Responsible Tourism

'This is Athens with a Local' personifies how responsible tourism can benefit a destination. The programme promotes cultural understanding, supports local communities and minimises environmental impact, all while offering visitors an authentic and personalised Athenian experience.

This is Athens with a Local helps promote sustainable and responsible travel, with a more equitable distribution of the economic benefits of tourism. The programme alleviates congestion in the city centre at the main tourist sites, which improves visitor experiences. Directing visitors towards local neighbourhoods promotes a more sustainable distribution of tourism's economic impact across the city by increasing foot traffic and patronage for small businesses.

The 'This is Athens with a Local' programme is just one part of the city's sustainability ambitions, with a clear plan for sustainable development outlined, including infrastructural upgrades, the preservation of cultural heritage and a strategy for climate action in tourism.


Whilst the programme's free walking tours are a major draw for visitors, its true value lies in the meaningful connections it helps develop. Testimonials from visitors describe their guide as a 'friend', highlighting the programme's ability to create lasting memories and positive cultural exchange. Similarly, local volunteers find inherent value in sharing their passion for Athens and its culture with visitors.

Data from 2023 reveals strong demand, with 1,266 walk requests received and 158 completed tours. Relying on volunteers means that tours need to be booked a minimum of 3 days in advance, enabling volunteers to have sufficient time to plan a personalised tour and include it within their schedule. An interesting demographic trend emerged from the data, with it becoming apparent that interest in the programme increases with age, with 19% of participants being aged 18-25, up to 32% for participants aged 50 or older (32%). The programme also attracted a diverse international audience, with visitors primarily from the US, Germany, the UK, Italy and Canada.

The This is Athens with a Local programme effectively caters to this demand, allowing visitors to shed the 'tourist' label and experience Athens through an Athenian lens. It's important to note that This is Athens sees quality-based performance metrics as being of greater importance than the number of tours provided. Therefore, reviews proving that visitors had insightful tours of the city are of the greatest importance when the DMO monitors the performance of the programme. Importantly, the team of volunteers also acts as an extra set of eyes on the ground for the DMO, spotting issues across all neighbourhoods that This is Athens may not have noticed before.

More inclusive offerings

Recognising the importance of inclusivity, 'This is Athens with a Local' acknowledges that not everyone enjoys guided tours. For those who seek a more independent exploration of the city, the DMO offers alternative solutions through podcasts and audio guides:

  1. Athens Unpacked - This 8-episode podcast series features bestselling writer and former anthropologist Sofka Zinovieff, as she delves into the hidden layers and captivating mysteries of Athens, her adopted home.
  2. We’ll Always Have Athens - This 6-episode podcast series invites guests, including celebrities such as Stephen Fry, to share their stories of Athens and what the city means to them, focusing on history, myths, culture, architecture and city life.
  3. Curated Audio Walks with Google Maps - This innovative initiative allows visitors to embark on self-guided tours, using Google Maps with integrated audio commentary. This immersive experience provides a unique way to discover the city at their own pace.

Key Takeaways

  • Trust Locals to be Powerful Ambassadors - Democratising the visitor experience by trusting locals to be ambassadors enables them to share more personal stories about what the city means to them, where they can steer visitors towards their vision of tourism. This less commercial approach enables a more honest exploration of a destination.
  • Leverage Local Connections to Create Authentic Experiences - The programme's success hinges on connecting visitors with passionate locals, offering a unique perspective beyond traditional tours. By considering a volunteer programme, a destination can tap into resident enthusiasm and create a sense of community ownership.
  • No One-Size-Fits-All Tours - Personalisation is key to ensuring visitor satisfaction. By following a strategy where shared interests drive interactions between visitors and locals, it becomes possible to tailor and carefully curate individual experiences that match the specific needs of visitors instead of following pre-defined and repetitive routes.
  • Promote Responsible Tourism - By fostering local connections and responsible tourism practices, 'This is Athens with a Local' demonstrates how to provide engaging and high-quality visitor experiences in neighbourhoods away from the main tourist locations. Adopting a similar strategy can help destinations create engaging programmes that encourage cultural understanding, support local communities and minimise environmental impact.
  • Utilise Data and Feedback for Continuous Improvement - Monitor key metrics, such as completion rates and reviews, to ensure volunteers provide a friendly welcome to visitors and knowledgeable tours. This ensures a high-quality and consistent experience is maintained and feedback drives continuous improvement.
Published on:
May 2024
About the contributor

Spyridon Kagkas

Currently he is the Digital and Community Manager for This is Athens overseeing its digital channels, and its Sustainable and DEI initiatives. He is also the head of This is Athens with a Local, an initiative connecting volunteers with visitors so they can experience the city’s neighbourhoods through the eyes of a local.


Become a certified Sustainability Advocate

Created for destinations around the world, this programme will provide the insight to help you become a sustainability leader within your organisation.

Join the next cohort

Become a Certified Design Thinker

Designed to teach you how to master must-have tools and acquire essential skills to succeed in managing your destination or organisation, be ready to challenge all of your assumptions.

Join the next cohort

Become a Certified AI Leader

Designed to teach you how to master must-have tools and acquire essential skills to succeed in managing your destination or organisation, be ready to challenge all of your assumptions.

Join the next cohort