Audio walking tours enter the digital age in Cape Town

VoiceMap, a recently-launched mobile application for iPhones and Android devices, is using cutting-edge GPS technology and the age-old art of storytelling to change the way people experience cities. “VoiceMap is a publishing platform for location-aware audio tours – or, with less jargon and more poetry, a way of seeing the world through another person’s eyes,” explains CEO and co-founder, Iain Manley.

After downloading the app and selecting a route, VoiceMap users can put their phone in their pocket and follow a storyteller’s voice through a particular neighbourhood, while anecdotes, commentary and opinions play automatically at specific GPS locations.

Manley and fellow South African, Lauren Edwards, started the company partly as a reaction to the lack of personality in tour buses’ and museums’ audio guides. Rather than have a disembodied voice guide people through a place with layers and layers of history, why not find someone who is connected to it through memories and feelings of their own, they thought.

They aren’t the first to believe that locals and insiders can provide engaging, personal perspectives on their own neighbourhoods. “As the global demand for experiential travel starts to rise, travellers are increasingly looking for…experiences that are authentic and in tune with the local culture, and its people,” Cape Town Tourism wrote in a recent press release. The city’s official agency for tourism marketing have partnered with VoiceMap on a series of routes, created by team members from different sides of the city, partly as a way of adding their perspectives on the places where they live to the conversation.

Manley and Edwards founded VoiceMap almost a year ago, and to date they have twenty walking tours in Cape Town. In a single day, one could go from taking an audio tour with a lifelong resident of the city’s politically complex Bo-Kaap neighbourhood, to climbing inside a street artist’s head during a walk through the Fringe district, to learning about endemism in the Cape floral region via an experiential – and somewhat psychedelic – installation of fluorescent creatures hidden in a forest.

While the creators of The Endemic Project – and creators of various other routes – choose to offer their audio guides free to the public, other storytellers charge between $0.99 and $4.99 for their tours. It’s a platform on which anyone with a story to tell can make their voice heard, and their business model allows writers, tour guides or professional audio producers to earn royalties while doing so.

VoiceMap’s audio walking tours aren’t limited to Cape Town, or even South Africa. So far, storytellers have created audio walking tours in 19 cities, from Berlin to Buenos Aires to Bangkok.

“We have been listening for voices that passionately share their experience of living their daily lives in Cape Town, and now we’re offering them the platform to share their love for the city with the rest of the world,” said Cape Town Tourism Marketing Executive, Velma Corcoran. And, with sites like Airbnb and Instagram driving the sharing economy, a platform for locals to share stories with the world seems to be an obvious next step.

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