When we launched the Local Travel Movement, we stated our belief that Local Travel is greater than the sum of its parts and that the Local Travel Movement could be a rallying point through which, by working together, we can give locals a real voice, engage travellers and develop a dialogue within the travel industry.
In support of that, we made a number of important decisions, including NOT to define local travel too narrowly and NOT to bar the door to any person or organisation practicing local travel (in the broadest terms) or supporting it. This includes, but is not limited to, local travel professionals in their destinations, regional and global networks of local travel professionals, sellers and resellers of local travel product, homestay and couchsurfing networks and a broad selection of miscellaneous companies and websites exhibiting a strong commitment to Local Travel.
A Heated Debate About Couchsurfing
Now, prompted by comments on the Local Accommodation Networks post, we have been very interested in a debate about the value and legitimacy of one part of the local-travel community.
John Nicholls contributed the following to the wall of the Local Travel Facebook page:
‘Couchsurfing’ or similar practices will only deprive the local accommodation providers of revenue, not the multi-internationals (they will welcome it) hence is counterproductive to the whole concept of helping struggling communities generate independent viable economies.
Sounds more like a excuse for not paying your own way, but using the economic infrastruture that others have paid for. If you don’t support local accommodation industry then you are not a Local Travel supporter but a Travel Opportunist in self-denial.
Let’s not forget that legitimate accommodation providers employ local people, pay taxes, abide to hygiene & safety regulations, etc etc… How can they compete with a couch in someone’s lounge?
The next day, Nynette Sass added the following comment to the Local Travel blog:
Hi folks…can someone enlighten me how couchsurfing, living cheaply off the locals is good for the locals?? My country is a friendly people and is and i can see them being taken advantage of by travellers who are not interested in learning anything about our culture and people but more about how a free holiday can be had. Most of the hotels we have are locally owned and operated. they employ locals and pay taxes. So how the heck is couch surfing going to help the locals who run these operations. I can see advantages only for those wishing to live cheaply on the locals and bugger all for the locals.
I think there are two issues here: (1) whether the Local Travel Movement should include couchsurfing networks, and (2) whether couchsurfing is, as John says in a later comment, “sheer avarice”: “Couchsurfing will only deplete revenue from the most vulnerable, the bottom end of the accommodation feeding chain, the ones starting out that no one else will assist.”
First, should the Local Travel Movement exclude couchsurfing networks? No, it should not. As expressed above, Local Travel is inclusive. It is not about targeting only one kind of traveller or excluding another. That would be to the detriment of the nature of local travel and the means by which we can draw it into the mainstream.
Second, are couchsurfers hurting the Local Travel industry? No, they aren’t. To see this, we must look at the full market of travellers (moneyed and unmoneyed, mainstream and alternative), wherever they are looking for their local experiences. Like many travellers, I have the advantage of seeing both sides. I work for a local-travel network that could be classed as losing market to couchsurfers, but I am also very well-travelled… sometimes on a very tight budget or with a desire for something other than a cheap hotel, hostel or B&B. In fact, without couchsurfing as an option, I would never have travelled to some of the places I have been, denying my hard-won money to others in the economy (cafes, restaurants, etc.) who benefited from my presence. Limiting mindful travellers on reduced means – one of many prime markets for what Local Travel has to offer – to travel they don’t value also misses the future strength of these travellers, whose tastes will change and earning power will increase over time and push them into other, wise and less alternative hands. (Another perspective on this is offered by Vicky Baker in her post that Online accommodation networks will not be the death of B&Bs.)
An addition thought: Is couchsurfing safe? All companies survive on the strength of their brands, banking on the careful selection of network partners. If any brand is compromised by security, word gets out about it, especially in this day and age. This is as true in couchsurfing as it is with hotels. And I have not been able to identify anything that suggests either trade is more or less safe than the other.
NOTE: My views here are not those of the Local Travel Movement, but they are carefully considered. What are yours?