Naila Qureshi has lived in Houston for 14 years, but she didn't notice how green her city was until she started showing around visitors from foreign countries two years ago.
Qureshi is executive director of the Houston Greeters, one of 16 organizations around the world dedicated to offering visitors free tours from volunteer guides. Some other cities offer variations of the greeter concept, with volunteers or paid staff who interpret history, explain maps or subway systems, or recommend destinations.
Helping visitors discover Houston has given Qureshi a fresh view of her adopted hometown — and made her aware of things like its abundant green spaces and friendly locals.
"I had a visitor from Turkey who was just floored by how welcoming we were," said Qureshi. "She couldn't understand why a total stranger would say hello."
Volunteer greeting organizations have sprung up rapidly in recent years. The oldest, Big Apple Greeter, started in 1992. Now Big Apple Greeter is part of an association called Global Greeter Network with 16 destinations on four continents, including Melbourne, Australia, five cities in France, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Jos Nusse, chairman of the Global Greeter Network, says that in addition to the 16 official programs, the organization receives queries all the time from other locales interested in developing similar programs, from Jerusalem to Taiwan to Dubai. "The growth curve is exponential," Nusse said.
Despite the popularity of the concept, the weak economy is hurting some programs. Nusse, who is also the project manager for Greeters in The Hague, in the Netherlands, said the program there was initially funded by local government, but has had its budget cut by 25 percent, with a proposal to cut all funding in 2011. "We are facing a big challenge," Nusse said.
A similar financial crisis is developing in New York City. "The future of Big Apple Greeter is in doubt," says founder Lynn Brooks. The organization was a pioneer of the greeter concept, and has one of the biggest programs, with 300 greeters hosting 7,000 visitors a year, but as a non-profit that relies heavily on corporate contributions, its funding has shrunk due to the recession. Big Apple Greeter is now trying to raise $300,000 by Sept. 30 to continue operating at current levels. While most of the work is done by volunteers, expenses include insurance, office supplies, computer maintenance, and a small paid staff to oversee the program.
All the organizations under Global Greeter operate within clearly defined guidelines. Greeters are screened extensively before being selected, and spend no more than four hours with the visitor they're greeting. Meetings are planned in advance. At Big Apple Greeter, greeters meet with no more than six people at a time, often to show them around a neighborhood or have lunch with them in an out-of-the-way restaurant, said Gail Morse, director of programs and volunteers. Many Big Apple Greeters take tourists on their very first subway ride, or to a part of the city outside of Manhattan that they're curious about but weren't sure how to go about exploring.
Despite their informal hometown savvy, greeters "are not professional tour guides," said Morse. "The greeter might not know how many steps it is to the top of the Empire State Building; visitors can get that information out of a guidebook. The visitor understands they have an instant friend who will show them around, show them how to use the subway and the buses, and make the visitor feel like a real New Yorker."
Qureshi said she often finds herself greeting people who live in the Houston suburbs but haven't explored many of Houston's neighborhoods. A native of Pakistan, she specializes in taking people around a South Asian area of town.
"Some people aren't comfortable going into certain neighborhoods on their own," she said.
Chicago Greeter Program, part of the Global Greeter Network, started in 2002, and now has 200 volunteer greeters, said Kristin Unger, a public relations specialist with the Chicago Office of Tourism. This year the city is adding outposts with first-come, first-served greeters to show visitors around specific neighborhoods, such as Hyde Park.
Katie Law, manager of greeter and volunteer services for Chicago's Office of Tourism, speculated that one reason the program is growing overseas might be visitors from Europe who have experienced greeter programs in major U.S. cities, then carried the idea home with them.
"In the last few years, we've seen it taking off in Europe," she said. And, of course, she added, "it's free. You can't deny that people are looking for value when they travel right now, so that is a big draw."
There are also many variations of the greeter concept that aren't part of the official Global Greeter Network. A business district in Santa Monica, Calif., started a program last year called Downtown Ambassador that sends a staff of 30 paid greeters into the streets to offer help to tourists.
An estimated 10 to 20 million people visit the 40-square-block area of Santa Monica each year, said Andrew Thomas, director of operations at the Bayside District Corporation, which runs the downtown ambassador program.
"It's crazy," said Thomas. "On any given crowded weekend, we could have 80,000 people out here, so it gets pretty busy."
Santa Monica's greeters approach tourists who seem lost or just unsure and ask if they need directions or other help. They also have other responsibilities, such as reporting potholes or graffiti to the city, and escorting workers to their cars late at night.
"They always smile, they're cheerful, they're not afraid to approach people and say hello," said Thomas. "We have a handful of native Santa Monicans on the ambassador team, and they really have a wealth of knowledge."
Morse, in New York, said the volunteer greeters come from all walks of life. She has several doctors and retired teachers, a judge, a librarian, and a former federal prosecutor on her greeter roster.
"We look for people who love New York and can communicate that, people who are friendly and outgoing and can connect to a visitor quickly," said Morse. "We look for people who have natural curiosity and want to learn more about New York, someone who has warmth and a hospitality that is innate."
For greeters, the encounters are a chance to see their hometown through a fresh pair of eyes.
"We get a chance to visit things we didn't even realize are in Houston," said Ivan Butterfield, a Houston greeter who fields many questions about longhorns and cowboys. Butterfield has taken Russian graduate students to the rodeo and, with his wife, shown people around a local house made of beer cans.
"I can't even imagine not doing it," he said.