Connecting the dots for an authentic experience
THE SWITCHED-ON TOURIST
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