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Are couchsurfing networks legitimate local travel?

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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.”

My Thoughts
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?

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Discussion

28 Responses to “Are couchsurfing networks legitimate local travel?”

  1. Very interesting article on a community that I’m incredibly passionate about. I agree with your assessment!

    Posted by Andi | March 21, 2010, 9:01 pm
  2. A very interesting post. I started writing a response in this very box, but it got so wordy that I decided to do a linked post instead (http://goinglocaltravel.com/?p=850).

    Thanks for linking to one of my other posts. Personally, I don’t see why CSing can’t coexist alongside other forms of local travel.

    Posted by Vicky Baker | March 21, 2010, 10:20 pm
  3. Just posted this over on Vicky’s blog:

    I joined CSing while living in Laos and had some rather in-depth email conversations with some of the founders about some of these very doubts. In a place like Laos, where the tuk-tuk fare out to my house was often more expensive than a night at one of the cheaper hostels, ‘freeloaders’ were automatically excluded.

    I may be wrong, but my vision of CSing is an idea of give and take. One day I might be at your place while sometime later you may be at mine. This means that the people I stay with have the theoretical possibility of visiting the country I live in. Call it an elitist view, call it what you want, but there is some sort of balance there. Like the age old Bedouin code that has long been thrown off by jet setting tourists passing through. It used to be that you were taken in because some day it might be them…Can’t see a Yemeni Bedouin passing through anytime soon.

    This of course doesn’t mean that people without the means shouldn’t sign up, just that personally the economic gap and the impossibility of reciprocation would make me feel uncomfortable.

    Posted by Troy | March 21, 2010, 10:35 pm
  4. I hear a lot of talk about Couchsurfing being unsafe. And there are some horrible stories circulating around the Internet (http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2010/01/how-safe-is-couchsurfing/).

    In the last 2 years I’ve met more than 100 Couchsurfers, most of them very active and informed. I asked almost all of them if they know anybody personally being harmed by a host. None of them had. It seems to me most of these stories circulate outside of the CS community, and most people within feel quite safe with the right precautions, recommended by CS: http://www.couchsurfing.com/tips_safety.html

    Posted by Bart van Poll | March 22, 2010, 12:57 am
  5. Strikes me as a bit of an odd conundrum. Couchsurfing is no less a legitimate network than any other — in fact I’d venture many using CS would have a more “local” experience than those staying in the local B&B. It’s not about the cash that crosses palms — rather the interaction with, well, the locals!

    Posted by Stuart | March 22, 2010, 9:58 am
  6. I think it is a rather cynical view of CS to describe it as a drain on the local economy.

    As Troy says, yes it can be a reciprocal arrangement, which is great for making new friends (who are locals) and getting to know the country and its culture better. And of course, couchsurfers are not freeloaders, they are very grateful for a place to stay and friendsip thatthey help out.

    I love participating in CS (although I’m yet to use it myself). I’m happy to host anyone without expecting anything in return because I get to hear about their experiences and I know I’ve helped them out. So one day when I need someone, they’ll almost definitely help me because this is the spirit of the thing.

    Sorry for the long message

    Posted by Amy | March 22, 2010, 12:17 pm
  7. Very interesting. Having couchsurfed a little myself in the past, I would have to agree with Ethans assessment – couchsurfing is an important cog in the local travel wheel. Like many others, it got me to new people and places (for longer) than would otherwise have been possible, and opened my eyes to new ideas and experiences which only served to strengthen my commitment to local travel in all its forms. While I am unlikey to couch surf (much) anymore, the ethos and ideals survive, and hopefully that is to the long-term benefit of everyone – traveller and host…

    Posted by Alex | March 22, 2010, 12:21 pm
  8. On the Spotted by Locals blog, discussion is in full force too about this subject!

    http://www.spottedbylocals.com/couchsurfing-bad-for-locals#comments

    Posted by Bart van Poll | March 23, 2010, 3:25 am
  9. Interesting thoughts, here. I agree that people using couchsurfing type of networks for accommodation are lost for the local backpackers (budget minded, they hardly go to hotels). However, such networks also generate travel movement and make people want to travel to a place – for example to meet another member – which they would not have done without. The open source platform http://www.bewelcome.org shoes that quite well in its welcome tour: http://www.bewelcome.org/tour

    Posted by Florian | March 23, 2010, 9:33 am
  10. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for your comments. They, as well as others in other spaces, have given voice to a number of reasons for supporting couchsurfing and other forms of alternative accommodation that encourage strong local connection.

    Speaking of other spaces, I encourage you to read the posts AND comments elsewhere:
    * Vicky’s at Going Local Travel – http://goinglocaltravel.com/?p=850
    * Bart’s at Spotted by Locals – http://www.spottedbylocals.com/couchsurfing-bad-for-locals
    * more from me on the whl.travel blog at http://www.whl.travel/blog/2010/03/23/opinion-keep-the-doors-open-to-open-door-home-accommodation-networks/

    @Troy, I really like the notion of give-and-take that is so integral to the couchsurfing experience. I see it as more than agreeing to play host after having been a guest. The balance is important in every isolated experience. Many (but certainly not all) tourists in traditional hotels are, arguably, often more takers than givers (the give is mostly through money spent), but a traveller on a couch, in a homestay or any other alternative local lodging is obliged to give much more than money. The visit is the exchange of culture and values that is so vital to local travel.

    @Stuart, you’ve said it more simply than I have. In hotels, some people retreat. I know this because I do. The room becomes a safe (and sometimes disappointing) cocoon. I get so much more when I am in a space that obliges interaction.

    @Alex, this for me too is a key element. Some of my travels in Europe would not have been possible if I hadn’t had an affordable way to see it. In some ways I can credit my decade-long stay there with my earliest local-travel experiences.

    Keep the good thoughts (for and against!) coming.

    Posted by Ethan Gelber | March 23, 2010, 10:50 am
  11. …then there is the beeeg picture: These CSers go home to become our best word-of-mouth ambassadors, often advertising positive views on South Africa for free against a huge flow of negative news.

    Posted by Alwyn | March 23, 2010, 10:57 am
  12. I feel rather like an anomaly here. Must be my line of work (working with foreign volunteers), the place I live (in an Indian village) and the ideas I have (too long too far out in a tropical county).

    But this is how I see it, from my perspective in a developing country such as India:

    ‘Getting to see the world like a local’ has a pretty different experience in story for you if you want to have that experience in for example an Indian village. And I can tell you – from experience – that it really changes the way you look at the world. At yourself, to start with!

    Local Travel is – at least as far as we at AMAIDI work with the concept – not at all about traveling, its more about ‘being’, more in particular ‘being with the other who is so different from what you think you are’. The place, the food etc. It’s truly transforming.

    Now I don’t think that CS will ever get ground in Indian villages. Heck, they don’t HAVE a couch to start with! But hospitality and a village life to share, yes, that’s lying ready for you. And, I may add, when you’d like to go into it, I’ll help you at that too.

    So, again from where I stand, I don’t feel the burden of CS in a good or bad sense. But I see options that represent truly gratifying experiences. Where – additionally – economic activities and social exchange do help a village community to not only know another man’s culture, but reap the benefit of having him in the village. Using their house. Eating from their plates. En herding their cattle. And – yet – paying for it all. Now THAT is what I call: responsible tourism. Locally.

    I will leave the couch to you again. Happily.

    Greetings from India,

    Camille
    CEO AMAIDI Group
    AMAIDI Volunteering in India http://www.amaidi.org
    AMAIDI Foundation
    http://amaidifoundation.ning.com

    Posted by Camille | March 24, 2010, 8:29 am
  13. I believe couch surfing is one of the best gateways to local travel and local experiences. It allows you to cut through the initial “touristic fog” that many travelers cannot seem to get through. It’s like going to a club and waiting in line versus walking up to the bouncer who let’s you in for free, and introduces you to all the right people. I am not saying that I want to be sitting at the VIP table, but somewhere in between is the sweet spot. When I travel, I love to stay with and/or meet up with friends of friends who live in the destination, and it has changed how I travel forever.

    Posted by Daniel Rosenberg | April 2, 2010, 7:31 pm
  14. The only ones who miss out on couchsurfers’ money are the local hostels and hotels, and I imagine they’d be quite vocally against the concept (a bit like camping grounds that lobby their local councils to ban free camping within a 20km radius of their town). But CSers end up spending their money elsewhere — on local eateries, bars, shops and markets that their hosts recommend. It all evens out.

    Posted by Rob van Driesum | April 7, 2010, 8:57 am
  15. I am not trying to rock the boat on this Real Travel issue but trying to bring some other realism into the dialogue:

    If hitchhikers could afford to hire a new BMW, or pay for other means of transport, would they still be hitchhiking on the side of the road in the rain?…I doubt it.

    I note that couchsurfing and this gendre of accommodation is supported by very noble causes, but let’s be frank, no amount of justification (no denying, all fine in their own right) will alter the fact that in the end it’s more a matter of economic necessity (discounting the locations where there is no option). Maybe my term “Sheer avarice” was a bit dramatic…”Sheer economics” would be more accurate.

    If instead of sleeping on a couch you could be sleeping in a queen size bed in a beautifully appointed air conditioned private room & private bathroom (complimentary toiletries off course) with panoramic views from your 15 th floor suite of a service friendly (all local staff) 4 star hotel with swimming pool & gym on the 20th floor. Naturally, with satellite TV, DVD library, wireless internet axxess, mini bar, 24hr room service all for free and off course you had the restaurant & bar at your service.

    If you had the choice between the lounge room couch and the hotel suite at the same price would you chose the couch?…somehow I doubt it.

    My views might sound heretic to some but let’s face it, to most travellers, sleeping in someone else’s home when travelling is out of the question. If I or my friends cannot afford to travel with basic comfort we don’t, until we save up and can afford it and stay in proper accommodation (and have resonable funds to spend in the destination).

    Travel is not a birth right. It is another life experience that one must pay for, as to the price paid for that experience is entirely up the individual. This does not make me less a “Real Travel” person (just applying a different rationale), but neither does sleeping on peoples couches or backpacking. Let us not lose sight that real travel has nothing to do with how little or how much you spend in the destination.

    There are many other aspects of travel such as the natural beauty and the historical value of a destination that constitutes Real Travel over interaction with local people, which seems to be so far expressed as the dominant factor determining Real Travel. Remove the architectural and historic value from many destinations such as Paris, Rome, and Angkor to name a few from the travel equation and they would not be high priority travel destinations. In this scenario, travelers in these destinations are not there to interact with the locals as much as other reasons. Interaction is a side benefit (depending on the destination, as for some destinations you prefer to forget the locals).

    Maybe it’s just my imagination, but there seems to be a growing elitism creeping into the debate that somehow the term “Real Travel” means travelling on a tight budget.

    Cheers,
    John

    Posted by John | April 8, 2010, 6:37 am
  16. John,
    Your last paragraph sums it up for me.

    Todays Backpacker (hosteller/camper) may be tomorrow’s Private Jet renter.

    In another era I have thoroughly enjoyed hostels, campsites, barns and the odd couch (Tuktoyuktuk comes to mind) and even today I prefer to be away from towns and cities (Winnebago comes to mind)….but I also have enjoyed parking my Ferrari at a 5 star hotel in Verona…..sometimes the budget is important in life….sometimes it is not so…
    If anybody has a couch on the River Test for a poor downtrodden flyfisher….please call…

    Posted by Nidalap | April 13, 2010, 8:25 pm
  17. I know I’m late to the discussion but thought I’d add my opinion:

    I have been Couchsurfing for over two years now, all over the world. For me, CS is not just a couch to sleep on. In fact, I use the website more for networking, meeting locals, and experiencing a different side of every city I visit.

    I have made friends all over the world, that share my love of travel and cultural exchange as much as I do. Its like having instant connections, immediate friends even in a strange and new environment.

    When I travel to cities around the world now, I end up putting more money in to the types of places that really need it. The local restaurants, the local events.

    I don’t think that CS is for everyone. I think it takes a particular type of person to be comfortable with the situation. I have never experienced a bad situation in my time on the site. I have learned however that there are certain types of people who will never feel OK with this kind of exchange. The community takes care of others though and if you utilize all of the tools and your common sense, you will no doubt have an excellent experience.

    Posted by Paige | April 28, 2010, 9:48 pm
  18. Couch Surfing PRO/CON ?? For my husband and I , both semi retired and on a very fixed budget it is a blessing to be able to go to many new places and experience many new people…young old rich poor….in exchange the Couch Surfers we have hosted (MANY) has been the most rewarding and FUN thing we have done in ages….it keeps us up to date on the ideas and simple joy of the ideals of todays younger generation….Have we ever felt “unsafe” absolutely never….we ck em out, talk before hand ect. we ourselves have been in others homes….and if we did feel uncomfortable we would state it so and move on….we laso live rurally and ask our CSers to do what is done in Hostels, a chore on the land if they would like to help us out, it works to our advantage and theirs to get some good country livin. I for one love to cook BIG, its not something I expect when surfing BUT to see the looks of delight on their faces when I cook a huge chicken dinner, priceless, I also appreciate when they provide a meal, 1 Korean couple brought fixins for a Korean meal, Yummy…Also, we like to take people around to LOCAL business and encourage them to experience what we have to offer in the way of arts and crafts, local farmers markets and restaurants that are not “chains”….so we do give back to our area….come visit, we are Ron and Libby Chapman on the CS site for Columbus Ohio aand the Rural CS site as we are in the hocking Hills of Ohio…

    Posted by Elizabeth Chapman | May 10, 2010, 5:24 pm
  19. I would venture to guess that the comments in the original article against Couchsurfing above are from people who have no experience couchsurfing.

    I’ve traveled extensively (to over 50 countries on all continents) and stayed in pretty much every “accommodation” imaginable from the mosquito infested concrete floor of a rural bus station in Africa, hostels virtually everywhere, a homestay while studying at a language school in Guatemala, couchsurfing, B&Bs in New Zealand, a holiday apartment in Buenos Aires to a 5 star hotel in New York City.

    I have met many people who CS with plenty of resources to stay in a proper hotel. To be honest, depending on the situation, I would rather sleep on someone’s couch than the queen size bed, full amenities, room service, etc. You just don’t get the same experience. When you “couchsurf”, the place you stay varies greatly – it doesn’t really have to be a couch. I’ve had everything from a straw mat over concrete with a cold bucket shower across the street (in Xi’an, China) to my own private guest room with queen bed, A/C, hot shower, laundry, satellite TV, kitchen, etc. (in Delhi, India) – often being given the keys to a place when the host leaves, letting you have the place to yourself (of course within limits and respecting their home).

    Why/when do I CS? Sure, budget comes into play and I wouldn’t have been able to go as many places as I have or for as long. However, I do it because I love meeting the people that host me (or that I’ve hosted) – hearing what their lives are like, getting an insight that would be near impossible staying at any hostel/B&B/hotel. They also can give the best advice you’ll ever get about the place you’re visiting. While there are times when one visits a place primarily for the “place” (architecture, monuments, nature, etc) there are other segments of people that visit a place for the unique culture and people that inhabit the place. It just depends what you’re goals are, how much time you have, etc.

    Why/when do I not CS? One drawback to CSing vs., say, staying in a hostel is that you don’t meet other travelers in the same way – sure you can and will still meet them sightseeing, at a restaurant/bar or taking part in the same activity but it’s not the same. Perhaps one of these travelers met in a hostel are going the same way and often can become a travel buddy. Sometimes a CS host will take you around but not always and by not staying in a hostel you might not get the same opportunity to meet someone to go around with. Other reasons are perhaps you’re just passing through, don’t have a lot of time or just want to be free of any social obligations/interactions with a CS host. In those cases you can opt for your own private room in a regular accommodation.

    Lastly, one aspect of CSing that hasn’t really been mentioned is that often the people participating aren’t even on it to host – they just are available to meet for “coffee or a drink”. When I’m not CSing (or even when I am and my host is busy), I’ve met up with these locals who’ve given me valuable advice, shown me around or just had unforgettable experiences in general… sometimes I didn’t even get to meet them face to face but our exchange was valuable for the information and hospitality shown towards a stranger. One time, while living in Panama City with my own apartment, I contacted the local CSers and had an instant group of friends – many of which I am now a lifelong friend.

    Essentially that is what couchsurfing is all about: meeting a total stranger – either staying with them, having them stay with you or just meeting up for a “coffee or a drink”. One side is not necessarily benefiting more than the other. It is a symbiotic relationship where you learn from the other person and exchange ideas, values and experiences. Both participants come away from the interaction richer – with greater understanding and empathy than they had before.

    Posted by Yuri | June 5, 2010, 9:24 pm
  20. Couch surfing an interesting debate. My initial thoughts are that perhaps we have to consider the larger picture that couch surfing provides an avenue and means to an end for many travellers on a shoestring budget. Yes admittedly the hotel and lodges in the destination do of course lose out on bed night revenue and of course operating a travel company this could take away income from me, but the fact remains more tourists will reach our destination, returning home with stories of their experiences. As I am sure they will embark on some tour or activity during their stay the word of mouth feedback will benefit the destination in the long run. I would also imagine that the type of traveller using couch surfing would also be the type of person who would relish the idea of meeting locals and interacting as much as possible, it’s often the shoestring traveller that gets down to grass roots and although I miss out on a little cash I see a purpose and a benefit to couch surfing.

    Posted by Charlotte Moroney | August 21, 2010, 5:36 pm
  21. I think it’s really hard to say.

    Posted by Columbus Jobs | December 20, 2010, 9:50 pm
  22. No in-depth response from my side, but:

    I have a 40:1 host:surf ratio on Couchsurfing. The people I’ve hosted were able to travel only because of couchsurfing and despite the prohibitively expensive norwegian hostels.

    And what kind of crazy capitalist idea is it to suppress communities of kindness and sharing??

    Posted by simon | February 14, 2011, 3:02 pm
  23. Tourism is much more than just sleeping in a hotel. Why should hotels be the subjuct of benefitting from the tourists. No-one goes to a sight, for example a small city in India, for the hotel. No, it’s much more than that.

    Appearantly, and this is most of the time the case, a western tourist prefers a wide known hotel brand more than just a vaguely local Inn.

    And to you John, it is not just that big hotel companies applaud for the local Inns or small hotels to have business. They want to see development in areas so that when the demand for tourism for hotels in that area starts to be promising, the big hotel companies start another a their many hotels in that area to suck up all that business. And leave the locals empty handed again.

    It’s pure business.

    Posted by Stuart | June 16, 2011, 10:19 pm
  24. Hi Guys
    I just started hosting couch surfers and it has been a blast. In the one month I have met people from Sweden Denmark New Zealand and evven a freak from Berlin!
    before this life was not as much fun on a weekday night so from the hosting perspective its all good. I do charge a small fee to cover utility costs and end up findgin that most upgrade and stay in the rooms we have a available which are now all full too…

    Posted by Dimitris Stayakzis | February 8, 2013, 1:57 am

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