I remember my first ever international trip. I was 13 at the time and I spotted the $399 deal to Cancun in the paper. (Yes, even at 13, I was reading the Travel Section of the Washington Post…) Without my parents knowing, I called and peppered the exasperated travel agent with questions. It wasn’t until everything was in place that I sprung my plan on my family and cajoled my parents into giving up their credit card details.
Booking travel has come a long way since then. According to a study by eMarketer, Americans spent USD139 billion in online travel sales in 2010 with that number expected to rise to USD182 billion by 2016. The Asia-Pacific market is likewise set to experience phenomenal growth, with a projected 197.7% increase by 2016.
According to the Dutch research firm NBTC Nipo Research, in 1999 only 1% of all Dutch booked holidays through the Internet, in 2005 this was already 42%, leading to a projection that “in the future more than half of the worldwide travelers will compose their holiday themselves.” As travelers are becoming more and more savvy, “consumers will demand more individual and authentic travel experiences in the future and will rely more than ever on technology to plan and enjoy their trips”, states the ITB World Travel Trends Report 2012/2013.
In the March edition of Oi, I wrote an article about what Star Trek has taught me about travel. I love the way the crew of the Enterprise sought to interact with the indigenous population (especially when they were either green or furry), without leaving a trace, taking away only a better understanding of a foreign culture.
There’s something to be said about traveling like a local. Increasingly, people are eschewing packaged tours and going the DIY route beyond booking their own flights online. Here are some of my best tips for a DIY travel experience:
Rent an apartment rather than a hotel: I loved the little apartment I rented while in Prague for a week. It was in a working class neighborhood. I ferreted out the nearest supermarket and saved money by buying meals from the hot food counter or making meals myself. There’s something to be said about wandering the aisles of a foreign supermarket to see how the locals eat. Best of all, the rental didn’t cost much more than a comparable hotel room would have and I was more aware of the local pace of life, not dictated by my hotel’s breakfast hours. Some of the more popular sites are Airbnb and Roomorama. You’ll have to do a bit of research as some sites are stronger for US rentals, others for Europe, etc. Just be careful as there have been lots of phishing reports regarding apartment owners who have had their emails hacked, only for unsuspecting renters to end up wiring money to someone else. Always use a credit card which offers some level of protection.
Break bread with locals: Some of my favorite travel / food moments have also come by eating with locals, whether it was a meal enjoyed family-style on a houseboat in Kampong Chnang, Cambodia, all of us seated on the smooth wooden plank floor with the food spread out in the middle, or hanging out in the kitchen of a friend’s house, soaking in the jovial atmosphere as the womenfolk prepared a mountain of green papaya salad while making the funniest of banter. I find Asian cultures in particular have retained a very hospitable attitude towards food. More than once, I’ve been wandering around back alleys and happened upon a family eating an early lunch (Asian homes very often leave their doors wide open). “Come, sit, join us,” they say by way of greeting a complete stranger. Other places to mingle are food markets and farmer’s markets. Many have communal tables which act as an icebreaker for conversation.
Get a local perspective on things: Striving to see through local eyes inevitably enhances the travel experience. Nima Chandler, featured in my Secret Bangkok article, talks about getting a local’s take: “It’s like seeing a movie you’ve already seen but now with locals and seeing where they laugh. I saw The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with Thais and they couldn’t understand why you would be a transvestite and not look better than that!” You can NOT get more local than that.
That said, unless you know people, it’s hard to find those authentic experiences. Hospitality exchange sites like couchsurfing.org often feature locals who are eager to show off their country to foreigners. There are nearly 3,000 hosts registered in Ho Chi Minh City, the vast majority of them local Vietnamese. While the premise implies simply somewhere to spend a few nights, hosts often spend time with surfers, showing them the sights or sharing a home-cooked meal. I talked with My Pham, a CouchSurfing ambassador for Ho Chi Minh City who told me, “We usually just hang out or have dinner at a local restaurant. If they’re traveling alone, I can even take them on my motorbike to places like the Cu Chi Tunnels or the Cao Dai temple.” Tony Huynh who has hosted about 50 surfers adds, “My mom arranges pillows and blankets for them. I show them bus routes so they can get around or take them clubbing or shopping. It’s all about friendships and meeting new people.” But as many are saying, that wide-eyed, altruistic shine has grown dim in recent years. Here in Vietnam, where local youths have very few opportunities to practice authentic use of English, having access to a foreigner is a rare, cherished experience. I’m not really involved in the CS culture, but had to think about what My told me. “Originally, CouchSurfing was about sharing travel experiences. It was a great way to practice English while learning about other cultures. But recently, that’s changed. Now, it’s almost like a dating site. Vietnamese girls are using it to find Western boyfriends. I know a few young Vietnamese who have quit school entirely, just to hang out with Westerners, both hosts and surfers, partying and drinking all day…”
Therein lies the crux of the matter. It’s rare that a local will simply take you under their wing. It did happen to me in the back alleys of a Cairo neighborhood when an old man spotted me checking my map. Despite his broken English and my non-existent Arabic, he offered to take me to the paper shop I was looking for which turned into a guided tour of the area, pointing out mosques and fez shops and slices of everyday life that I would’ve never seen on my own. Experiences like that are rare, though, and often depend on factors such as whether you’re male or female, age, traveling solo or in a group, and your general openness about interacting with locals. More often than not, to get a local experience, you’ll have to go through a tour company which has sanitized the trip for foreigners, usually taking the lion’s share of the profit to boot.
Which is why I was excited to stumble across a startup company called With Locals, recently. It’s so new, it hasn’t even started operating, but the premise is intriguing – providing a forum for locals / individuals to offer their own quirky tours and setting their own prices. It’s part of the movement away from hyper consumption to a more gentle collaborative consumption which focuses on community and shared access (think of sites like Airbnb and Taskrabbit where you can connect with people in your area to get errands done).
In September, With Locals is set to launch in Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, tantalizingly promising experiences like finding traditional Jewish food in Singapore (!) or having a Thai along for Songkran or plucking tea in the hills of Sri Lanka. The tagline is “We are heading to create 100,000 new restaurants”, ie. open up local homes and kitchens directly to travelers.
While it may not be as serendipitous as having a total stranger invite you back for an impromptu meal or a cup of tea with the family, it does represent direct access that I think I’d be happy to pay for. Price points are not available yet, so it’ll be interesting to see how much the experiences (eating, activities, touring) are costed at and whether they’ll be significantly cheaper than going through a traditional tour operator. But it does look like the next step in the evolution of DIY travel.