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Why travelling to a ‘second city’ is the biggest travel trend of 2020

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 15/01/2020 Laura Hampson, Jack Prescott


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At the beginning of the last decade, Instagram was invented and it changed the travel landscape forever.

By the end of the 2010’s cities, like Venice and Amsterdam, that had always enjoyed a healthy number of tourists began to impose restrictions and some even ‘begged’ tourists to stay away due to the dramatic rise in tourist numbers.

Overtourism – when too many visitors visit a particular destination – can lead to direct, physical effects like structural damage in places like Machu Picchu where millions of tourists visit each year. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, overtourism is also causing damaging effects that tourists cannot see like driving away locals, putting strain on infrastructure and threatening the city’s culture and heritage.

As we enter a new decade, one thing we can do to fight overtourism is embrace 2020’s biggest travel trend: becoming a ‘second city’ traveller.

Second city travel is exploring a country’s lesser-known destinations in a bid to reduce overtourism and help to protect the environment.

According to a report from Booking.com, 51 per cent of travellers would swap their original destination for a similar alternative if it meant making less of an environmental impact.

“We have seen a lot of interest in second cities, reflected by the number of low-cost airlines continually adding new routes to smaller destinations,” Jack Sheldon, founder of flight deals site Jack’s Flight Club, tells the Standard.

He adds: “Our member’s feedback is that they sometimes appreciate the chance to try out a more traditional and unique experience of the country they are visiting which is sometimes best found outside the most famous cities.”

Gallery: The sunniest places to escape this winter (Red UK)

The team at i-escape also credit budget airlines with the increased interest in smaller destinations. Sam Betts, Head of Marketing at i-escape says: “With the prevalence of budget airlines opening up access to second cities we are seeing a generation of travellers who have already visited classics like Lisbon, Paris, Madrid or Rome. They are now looking for new destinations that work for short breaks with the convenience of direct flights from a regional UK airport.

“Porto saw a lot more interest in 2019 and the start of an increasing trend for Seville. It’s likely that in the next few years this trend to expand to include more into central European destinations, with cultural cities like Antwerp or Salzburg starting to get more attention.”

Millennials are a big driver of second city travel, wanting a more ‘authentic’ travel experience. Tim Fryer, UK Country Manager of STA Travel, the world’s largest youth and student travel company, says the second city travel trend is down to people wanting to feel that they are “doing and seeing new places, experiencing different cultures, local cuisine and traditions”.

He continues: “Part of it may also be that people want to break trends, get off the beaten track and immerse themselves in the local culture. Many people are looking for the new ‘Insta’ place or just simply want to go ‘off radar’.”

Nicky Kelvin, Head of Content at The Points Guy adds that visiting second cities is an easy way to go off the beaten path, experiencing places that many other tourists don’t get to resulting in a better feel for local life.

Below, we outline our top second city destinations to visit this year.

Skip Barcelona… visit Seville

a tall building in a city: Seville (Unsplash) © Provided by Evening Standard Seville (Unsplash)

The sunshine-kissed city of Seville is often outshone by its larger, louder counterpart of Barcelona. But Brits are cottoning on to the southern Spanish city’s charm as i-escape says is saw a 71 per cent increase in bookings to Seville for 2019 compared to 2018.

Perhaps its biggest drawcard is the year-round mild temperatures, but the city boasts plenty of stunning sites to visit. The capital of Spain’s Andalusia region is home to the Alcázar castle complex, built during the Moorish Almohad dynasty and the 18th-century Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza bullring. This region is also the birthplace of flamenco dancing and Easter is a great time to visit for the Easter processions.

Skip Bruges… visit Ghent

a castle on top of a building: Ghent (Unsplash) © Provided by Evening Standard Ghent (Unsplash)

As Bruges continues to crack down on tourist numbers – it has climbed to 8.3 million per year, a 28 per cent increase since 2017 – we’re looking towards the Flemish city of Ghent instead. Belgium’s best kept secret, Ghent is going green; filled with zero waste cafes, an expansive weekend farmer’s market and it’s been listed as a finalist for the European Green Capital Award for the past two years in a row.

The architecture here is gothic and gritty, perhaps best experienced in Ghent’s only luxury hotel – 1898 The Post which is located within the upper floors of Ghent’s historic post office building.

Skip Lisbon… visit Porto

a harbor with a boat in the water: Porto (Unsplash) © Provided by Evening Standard Porto (Unsplash)

The team at i-escape say that bookings to Portugal’s second city of Porto rose by 31 per cent in 2019 compared to the year before, and it’s no wonder really. The compact city, famous for its colourful buildings and namesake Port wine, boasts stunning sunsets, delicious food and enviable architecture.

Along the narrow cobbled streets you’ll discover tucked away restaurants and bars, colourful boutiques and cosy boltholes. A walk across 1886 Dom Luís iron bridge crossing the Douro River is a must as is a visit to the famous bookstore, Livraria Lello with its ornate art nouveau features.

Skip New York City… visit Nashville

a view of a city: Nashville (Unsplash) © Provided by Evening Standard Nashville (Unsplash)

Nashville isn’t just a destination for country music lovers. The capital of Tennessee is a haven for foodies, shoppers and history buffs, too. Fryer, from STA Travel says: “Traditional hot spots such as New York will always be one of the number one destinations in the USA, but we’re also seeing an emergence of alternative cities such as New Orleans, Nashville, Austin and Seattle.”

After British Airways launched a direct route to the music city in 2018, it’s only grown in popularity for British visitors with Brits named as the second-highest group of international visitors to the state of Tennessee that same year.

Skip Mexico City… visit Oaxaca

a person standing in front of a flag: Oazaca (Unsplash) © Provided by Evening Standard Oazaca (Unsplash)

With overtourism rife in hotspots like Cancun and Tulum, Mexico’s Oaxaca region is the perfect antidote. Last March, foreign arrivals grew by 48 per cent to Oaxaca City and part of this growth has been attributed to the 15 new domestic flight routes and its connections to six US cities.

The inland city in the southern part of the country wears its UNESCO World Heritage badge with pride, and tourists will discover colourful colonial buildings, stunning churches and charming local squares.

Skip Auckland… visit Wellington

a train traveling down train tracks next to a fence with Wellington Cable Car in the background: Wellington (Pixabay) © Provided by Evening Standard Wellington (Pixabay)

New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington, lovingly called ‘windy Wellington’ by locals, saw a 13 per cent jump in international tourist spending in 2019 – the largest percentage increase in the country. Wellington packs a punch. What it lacks in size it makes up for in culture, often drawing comparisons to Australia’s Melbourne for its cool coffee shops, cosy cafes and boutique stores. It’s the home of New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa and also the parliament housed in the ‘Beehive’.

Skip Tokyo… visit Osaka

a group of people walking on a city street: Osaka (Unsplash) © Provided by Evening Standard Osaka (Unsplash)

Fryer says STA Travel has seen a growth in visitors adding Osaka, Kyoto and Hakone to their Tokyo trip. He adds: “Japan is increasing in popularity which we think has been driven by recent and upcoming international events and associated media coverage.

“Outside of Tokyo, we have seen growth in Osaka, Kyoto and Hakone, with increased accommodation bookings in all these areas. Rail passes have also grown, which also reflects increased travel around the country, rather than tourists simply staying in Tokyo.”

Osaka, just 15 minutes from Kyoto by bullet train is a popular hub for foodies. The Dotonburi district downtown is a brightly lit oasis serving Japanese delicacies like fried Octopus, the local specialty of Okonomiyaki and its even home to Japan’s original sushi train.

Skip Marrakech… visit Agadir

a flock of birds sitting on top of a sandy beach: Agadir (Unsplash) © Provided by Evening Standard Agadir (Unsplash)

With direct flights from London with both Ryanair and easyJet, Brits are flocking to Agadir for a coastal break – British tourists accounted for 647,101 overnight stays in Agadir last year compared to 559,050 overnight stays during 2018.

A coastal resort in the south of Morocco, Agadir is well known for its golden sands and beachfront promenade where you can stroll on one of the city’s 300 days of sunshine per year. Head to the waterfront and take your pick of cafes, restaurants and boat trips for groups. The famous ‘goat trees’ - where goats can be seen climbing Argan trees to reach the fruit – can also be visited from here.

Skip Berlin… visit Hamburg

a group of people on a boat in the water: Hamburg (Shutterstock) © Provided by Evening Standard Hamburg (Shutterstock)

While other German cities have a single identity – Frankfurt a hub for finance, Munich is known for manufacturing and Berlin is where the cool kids live - Hamburg is a mix of identities. The city, where yearly arrivals have grown in surplus of five million since the turn of the century, offers a beachy hub come summertime and is a place where tourists can spend days perusing one of the renowned art institutions in the centre including the Hamburger Kunsthalle and the Museum für Kunst.

When the sun sets, streets in the Reeperbahn district are full of fluorescent lights and it’s worth a walk down even just to see the sheer craziness of the bars – if you’re up for it, join the crowds partying into the small hours.

Skip Toronto… visit Halifax

a harbor filled with boats: Halifax (Shutterstock) © Provided by Evening Standard Halifax (Shutterstock)

A country so beautiful it's stolen the hearts of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex , this year skip past Canada’s largest metropolises and visit the coastal city of Halifax instead. Listed as one of TripAdvisor’s top destinations on the rise in 2018, the city is set along the coast of the North Atlantic in the Nova Scotia region, where charming red brick buildings dot the coastline which you can view along the city’s 4km waterfront boardwalk. You’ll find fresh fish on almost every menu and you can top off the evening with a visit to a local craft brewery.

Skip Buenos Aires… visit Salta

a close up of a yellow wall: Salta (Unsplash) © Provided by Evening Standard Salta (Unsplash)

Named as one of Booking.com’s top emerging cities for 2020, Salta is an old colonial city set in the north west of Argentina. With a main square in the centre, discover its cobblestone streets and cafes surrounding the palm tree lined plaza. While there, be sure to visit El Patio de la Empanada, a large food hall filled with numerous empanada sellers each offering different styles and flavours of the delicacy. Those who love Argentinian wine will delight in the vineyards of the nearby town, Cafayate and most of the wineries offer tours and tastings.

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