Con­nect­ing the dots for an au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence

THE SWITCHED-ON TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Adventure - DAVID CAR­ROLL

TEN years ago, Mar­cel K moved to Amed, in the north­east of Bali, to work with a lo­cal scuba dive op­er­a­tor tak­ing tourists to some of the is­land’s best un­der­wa­ter at­trac­tions. To­day, he ecorts vis­i­tors on a very dif­fer­ent kind of tour; mostly it’s about rub­bish.

Mar­cel guides trav­ellers through the dry riverbeds, one of the is­land’s poorer ar­eas, to col­lect plas­tic waste, as well as or­ganic ma­te­rial the lo­cals can use in a new com­post pro­ject de­signed to im­prove crop yields.

The six-hour tour may not be the most ex­cit­ing ac­tiv­ity in Bali, but it’s po­ten­tially one of the most re­ward­ing. Plus it’s not all hard work; guests also visit a sa­cred banyan tree and re­ceive lessons on bam­boo weav­ing from lo­cal chil­dren. Mar­cel’s Plas­tic and Com­post Pro­ject ($ 27 a per­son) is avail­able through Sin­ga­pore-based Indi­escapes, a web­site launched in April by Min See­toh and Heidi Shum. The com­pany has so far com­piled about 60 ex­pe­ri­ences in In­done­sia, Thai­land and Viet­nam, all de­signed to help ‘‘nat­u­ral ex­plor­ers’’ see a dif­fer­ent side of pop­u­lar Asian des­ti­na­tions. Clients can, for in­stance, learn how rice pa­per is made in Ho Chi Minh City; share a meal with a

INDI­ESCAPES.COM Ba­li­nese fam­ily; and ex­pe­ri­ence a day as a Bud­dhist in Phuket.

Indi­escapes is just one of the many web­sites that have popped up over the past few years to con­nect trav­ellers with in­di­vid­u­als of­fer­ing ‘‘au­then­tic’’ lo­cal ex­pe­ri­ences. Ex­am­ples in­clude Sidetour, Trip­bod and Vayable.

In a sense, th­ese com­pa­nies are try­ing to re­cre­ate the kind of ser­vices pro­vided by web-based ven­tures such as Airbnb, which al­lows lo­cals to rent their homes to trav­ellers, and Liq­uidS­pace, which con­nects busi­ness travel- lers with avail­able workspaces. Usu­ally the sites are run by peo­ple who seem gen­uinely in­ter­ested in con­nect­ing cu­ri­ous trav­ellers with in­trepid lo­cals. But so far there has been no dom­i­nant player, with only a cou­ple at­tract­ing in­vestors and many — such as MyGui­die and RAVN — dis­ap­pear­ing al­most as soon as they ar­rive.

In some cases, it’s clear would-be en­trepreneurs have un­der­es­ti­mated the time and re­sources re­quired to build a suc­cess­ful on­line busi­ness. Many of the sites also rely solely for in­come on a mod­est com­mis­sion on in­ex­pen­sive tours. It’s also pos­si­ble that sites have strug­gled to gain trac­tion sim­ply be­cause there aren’t enough trav­ellers will­ing to spend time with self-pro­claimed lo­cal ex­perts.

Indi­escapes’ See­toh be­lieves it’s just a mat­ter of tim­ing. ‘‘I think there are enough peo­ple out there; I’ve met a lot of them through­out my ad­ven­tures,’’ she says. ‘‘We just have to find them and they have to find us.’’

If you are keen to try some­thing dif- fer­ent, look closely at how well a com­pany chooses its prod­ucts. There are sites that sim­ply ag­gre­gate ev­ery off­beat tour on the web, while oth­ers fo­cus on spe­cific re­gions and try to build more se­lect port­fo­lios of ex­pe­ri­ences.

Plenty of sites also seem happy to ac­cept any­one as an am­a­teur guide and then let vis­i­tors rely on user re­views to vet the ad­vice, tours and ex­pe­ri­ences pro­vided. Oth­ers take the process more se­ri­ously. ‘‘We are look­ing for things not eas­ily avail­able and that bring a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive,’’ See­toh says. ‘‘That means we want hosts who are pas­sion­ate and in­spir­ing, so we talk to them . . . and we in­ves­ti­gate their past cus­tomers.’’

Fi­nally, make sure you have or­gan­ised good travel in­sur­ance, be­cause it’s sel­dom clear if lo­cal guides have their own, and in re­gions such as Asia it’s highly un­likely. indi­escapes.com sidetour.com trip­bod.com vayable.com

The im­mense bows and root sys­tem of the sa­cred banyan tree

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