What more can p2p offer tourism?

The woman who taught me most about how p2p can revolutionise travel has never had a computer. Or heard of wiki and open source. The idea of Collaborative Consumption might excite her, but probably not as much as getting electricity or running water. Jeremy Smith shares his personal experiences with the other side of p2p travel.

Building tourism from the ground up

We met a few years ago, while I was researching a book on responsible and ethical tourism around the world. I was staying with my wife at Bulungula, a remote backpackers lodge on South Africa’s Wild Coast. A guy called Dave Martin had founded the lodge to enable the local community to find ways of earning money that didn’t rely on the men going off for months at a time to work in the mines.

Dave was committed to avoid the pitfalls he had seen elsewhere. Nonetheless he didn’t want to present himself as an outside expert telling the locals what to do. Rather he wanted them to come to him with their ideas, which he would enable, using the lodge as a bridge between them, their ideas, and the backpackers.

One day one of the women approached Dave, and said she wondered if guests would be interested to learn what the typical day of a Xhosa woman was like. Dave put up a poster in the central restaurant, which is how we discovered and booked the experience one evening.

When we woke up that morning it was pouring with rain.”Do you think we could cancel?” I asked my wife, with a mix of guilt and hope. “Certainly not,” came her reply. “We’re here to experience how her life really is. This is it.’

P2p travel

Bulungula, photo taken by Jeremy Smith

And so, for the following few hours, we got a close up into the realities of a rural Xhosa woman’s life. We went with her down to the river, collecting firewood, balancing it on our heads and stumbling home. We fetched water. We made mud bricks for her new hut, her laughing as I recoiled at having to line the brick mould with a mixture of diluted cow shit, using my bare hands to rub it around. And we sat in her hut, and thanks to my wife’s fluent Afrikaans, talked with her about her life, and ours.

This was always Dave’s point.

Through collaboration with the tourists, she was discovering and creating a form of tourism that she wanted to develop, on her terms.

She asked us what we thought about the various parts of her ‘tour’. She asked if we had any ideas for what she might add. And – as we played with her son and drank chicory coffee, we told her who we were, what brought us to this part of the world.

And, once the rain had lifted, we were able to sit outside and admire the incredible view out over the cliffs, estuary and empty white sand beach that stretches as far as the eye can see. I told her how beautiful I thought the view was. “I wouldn’t know, she replied.”I’ve never seen anywhere else”.

It’s peer to peer, but not as we know it

This experience is very different to the sort of tourism people think of when normally discussing p2p. Sites like Airbnb and Couchsurfing appeal predominantly to travellers who have seen so many places ‘else’. I once stayed in an apartment in New York for 90$ a night. I got free wifi, use of the kitchen, and – as my host was a local who also ran warehouse parties – his recommendations of where had ideas for where to go out you would rarely get from front desk at the Hilton.

P2p tourism – an idea that must mature

Furthermore, when people talk of p2p tourism, they are thinking mostly of companies whose work has been enabled by the growth of the internet. Last week on Twitter @fredmcclimans asked “What’s unique about travel that allows social/p2p to disrupt it’s business model?”

I think there are a few answers. Sure the tourism experience is particularly suited to the dynamics of trusted recommendations and to the ever-growing power of locative search. And of course it can be cheaper. But I believe the two main reasons are to do with the quality of product, and the quality of information.

p2p travel

Deep water diving in the Maldives, photo taken by Jeremy Smith

Staying in unique flats and houses found through p2p offers an opportunity for more unique experiences than anything a hotel can ever offer. And just as with the recommendations of my airbnb landlord in New York, the quality of knowledge you gain from real locals – be they hosts, greeters from organisations like Tripbod (which connects travellers with local volunteer guides), or the anonymous but trusted crowd – will always beat that offered by a travel company rep, an agency hire on reception, or a guide book printed several years before.

The power player in p2p travel knowledge is Tripadvisor. I am always amazed that so many traditional travel companies see Tripadvisor as an unalloyed negative, and are terrified of it, blaming it for all manner of ills, simply because they get the odd dubious negative review. As a result they ignore it, or don’t reply to the genuine customers leaving bad reviews, or if they do they respond aggressively, or spam the positive reviews with cut and paste platitudes.

Instead they should be seeing at as free research into what their customers think of them, an opportunity to engage with potential guests, and a chance to market themselves transparently and for free. Tripadvisor could provide the basis of them working with their customers to create better products, but instead, they dismiss it because of a few erroneous comments.

Compare this head-in-the-sand approach to Airbnb. When I booked in New York, my first host cancelled. So Airbnb wrote to me, apologising, suggesting 5 other similar places to stay at the same price in the same area, and giving me a $50 discount voucher. End result: my perception of Airbnb went up, and I become a de facto ambassador for them, telling this story to many people since.

It will be very interesting to see what happens with Airbnb’s purchase in December 2012 of location based p2p travel knowledge provider LocalMind. For

I believe the real opportunity for p2p to develop more sustainable and rewarding travel experiences comes when it is used not just to trade finished products or swap information about them, but by sharing our knowledge to build products together.

Co-creating your holidays with your hosts

In some small pockets – like Bulungula above – this is what we are beginning to see: forms of tourism that put such collaborative production at the centre of the experience. And it’s worth emphasising that many of these are offered by companies and individuals for whom the internet is not a significant option.

The village of Ban Talae Nok on the coast of Thailand was devastated by the Tsunami of 2004. A school full of children was washed from the beach. Half the village were killed. Years later there is still a boat 12 feet up a tree half a mile inland.

P2P travel & tourism

Talae Nok Thailand, photo taken by Jeremy Smith

But with the assistance of American social entrepreneur Bodhi Garret, over the last few years the village has been getting back on its feet. Through the community company they have set up – Andaman Discoveries – they are developing collaborative tourism products. Guests who come to the village stay with families in their homes. When we were there we passed the time with them replanting mangrove forests, helping in village batik workshops, learning to cook traditional dishes, playing with the children and sharing fish barbecues with our hosts on the beach.

We spent an afternoon in the craft centre, not simply buying ‘local handicrafts’, but instead collaborating with the women, making our own soap, polishing coconut shells to serve as soap dishes, and providing suggestions on what we as tourists might expect, while learning from them their skills, and what they wanted to offer. This isn’t just ‘voluntourism’* – where tourists pay to go and build schools and help in orphanages.

The product we were co-creating with the villagers were the elements of the tourism experience they were developing to sustain themselves into the future. In essence we were sample customers, brought in to help with product development at an early stage.

(*In fact, tourism aid has gone p2p too. Click on Pack for a Purpose to see whether the lodge you are going to stay in could need anything – from footballs to school books – and then stick what you can in your rucksack)

Building a new tourism from the bottom up

Nor is this model exclusive to grassroots tourism.

At the Banyan Tree’s luxury resort of Angsana Velavaru in the Maldives guests are invited to not just marvel at the coral reefs, but to get engaged in helping preserve them. The resort has sunk artificial reef skeletons into the water, and together with your guide you dive down to ‘plant’ coral saplings across the artificial reefs using little lumps of cement putty and baby coral shoots. Then you clear crown of thorns starfish into your bags. And those guests that clear the most won free drinks and dinners at the hotel.

The owners of Elephant Hills in Thailand were concerned that the traditional Thai holiday pursuit of elephant riding was demeaning for the elephants, dull for the mahoots, and of little value to the tourists. So they created a sanctuary for abused and neglected elephants. And then invited guests to come and stay in their luxury safari camp – with a difference. Rather than ride the elephants for an hour or so around a preordained circuit, guests spend the day with the mahoots, helping in their tasks, from planting the fields with their food to feeding the elephants and washing them head to very large toe.

In all these examples,

I believe we are seeing the birth of a new, more equitable and more engaged form of tourism.

And the launch this week of Wikipedia’s travel wiki – ‘Wikivoyages’ – will only accelerate p2p travel’s move from niche alternative to mainstream. Already the old model (“pay us and we will show you the strange foreigners”) has less and less relevance. On the other hand, peer-to-peer is the perfect model for the ever-growing numbers of us wanting the chance to “share knowledge and co-create experiences that are more rewarding for us all.”

Guest post written by Jeremy Smith.

Jeremy is a writer and consultant specialising in the environment, tourism and sustainable business. Former editor of the Ecologist magazine, Jeremy co-authored ‘Clean Breaks – 500 New Ways to See the world’ with Richard Hammond.

All photos taken by Jeremy Smith during his travels