Rat Tourism Is the Next Squeaky Little Trend in Travel
We have social media to blame (or thank) for the latest travel phenomenon.
Much like '90s-style ultra-wide leg jeans, rats are having a moment right now.
Why now? Among other reasons, it's probably also due to the fact that they are literally very popular. Urban metropolises across the country have seen an increase in their rat populations over the past couple of years. It's escalated to the point where cities like New York have named an official "Rat Czar" (a real job and a real person named Kathleen Corradi, in case you were wondering) to help lead the city's efforts to deal with the vermin.
But as is often the case with trends, a cottage industry was never far behind. Apparently, rat tourism is now a thing.
New York City's very own Rat Daddy—or Kenny Bollwerk, as he is legally known—is living proof that rat tourism is real and, in his case, it's directly linked to the goal of rat extermination. After starting the "Rat Tok" TikTok series in which he showcases rat-infested areas in the city, Bollwerk decided to turn these virtual tours—which have helped him amass a TikTok following of over 276,000 people—into physical ones. "We're all walking around and just kind of rat spotting, just like you would spot planes at an airport, just you'd go to a zoo and stand outside of an exhibit," he recently told Thrillist. "That's basically what we're doing."
But while an actual sanitation issue brought Bollowerk and his Rat Tok to fame, he says the ultimate goal is actually finding a solution to the problem. His idea is that he'll bring people on tour every night (five or less, tops) to visit an infested area until social media followers, tourists, and visitors help raise enough awareness that the city actually addresses the population there. Once that's done, he'll move on to the next area—or to the next "season," as he calls them. According to Bollwerk, we are currently on Season 4 of Rat Tok.
Stemming from a social media phenomenon and a solution-oriented hatred for rats, it's no wonder that the Chicago "rat hole"—the social media-famous hole in a Chicago cement sidewalk resembling an uncanny cutout of a rat—became so popular so quickly, getting tourists and locals alike hop on a pilgrimage to go visit and pay tribute to it. For the ninth consecutive year in a row, in fact, Chicago was declared by Orkin, the pest control company, as the most rat-infested city in the US last year.
Do not let US-born social media phenomena fool you, though—these viral obsessions know no boundaries. Thanks to a spike in their popularity, rats and their twisted, yet glorified form of tourism are living the moment outside of the country too. The Sewer Museum in Brussels, Belgium—which educates visitors about the history of the city's sewers, the work of sewer workers, and the water cycle—recently launched a new exhibition focusing on rats.
Dubbed Rattus, the exhibit set out to educate visitors about these sewer-loving animals and to "dispel a few preconceptions and stereotypes about rats," as the Rattus website points out. Visitors get to experience life through a rat's eyes for a day, understanding what it means to be a little rodent in a dark atmosphere scurrying through Brussels' sewers. "Surprising questions, entertaining interactions and appropriate ergonomics stimulate not only sight, but also touch and hearing," reads the exhibit's description. "Thus, participants, big and small, become the protagonists of their own visit." Of course, the "rat for a day" experience is already a TikTok sensation, too.
Sewer and rat-related tourism are trending overseas, too. "We do see an increase in the number of visitors," a spokesperson for the Sewer Museum told Thillist. "2023 has been our best year ever with an increase of more than 30% versus 2022." They do, however, point out that 2023 was an exceptional year for Belgium museums as a whole, too.
Unsurprisingly, the most popular age group for visitors at the museum is the same as social media users. "We see a trend in people between 18 and 30 who are discovering the museum," they told Thrillist. And while most visitors come from Belgium, they are also noticing an increase in the number of foreign tourists.
Bollwerk explains that interest in rat tours has actually increased thanks to social media. Mostly, it's not even New Yorkers who join his tours. It's either people from other cities in the US or from other countries entirely, minus a few curious locals.
Part of the appeal, Bollwerk believes, is the uniqueness of rat "culture" in New York, which New Yorkers themselves don't really even take note of anymore. "[Visitors] were watching on TikTok," he says. "They were so intrigued. Instead of going to Times Square or the Empire State Building, nowadays people just want to go on the rat tour."
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Kathleen Corradi led the New York Sanitation Department. That is incorrect; Corradi holds an interagency position coordinating rat mitigation efforts.