There's a lot to be said for lounging around

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


The travel trend of spending a night on a stranger's couch for free has exploded in popularity across Asia, particularly in mainland China.

In Beijing and Shanghai, the number of people willing to welcome people on off the road is taking off, according to a US-based website that links hosts with intrepid travellers.

The phenomenon, known as 'couchsurfing', is particularly popular with backpackers and is made possible through, which was founded in 2003 and now has more than four million members.

Casey Fenton, a 34-year-old American who came up with the idea when he was a backpacker, says Asia is one of the fastest-growing regions.

Five years ago, had just 2,000 members from mainland China, Fenton said from the site's headquarters in San Francisco.

This figure jumped to 37,000 by 2010, and last year the mainland had 60,000 members.

Four months ago, the website was translated into Chinese. There are now more than 100,000 members on the mainland, putting Beijing (34th) and Shanghai (46th) in the top 100 regions on the site.

Hong Kong has 6,500 members, of whom about 1,000 provide accommodation, up from 2,500 in 2010.

Fenton, who still occasionally lays his head on a strange couch, said travellers going to the mainland had a high success rate, with one in two getting a positive response.

He said the rape of a 29-year-old Hong Kong woman by a host in Leeds in 2009 prompted the site to improve its vetting.

Fenton said the woman still couchsurfs and his team had been in contact with her to provide support.

The man was jailed for 10 years.

Next Saturday, Hong Kong members will celebrate international couchsurfing day with a picnic in Admiralty.

English teacher Harriet Chow, 30, has had 50 'surfers' in her North Point flat since she became a host about a year ago.

The Hongkonger said most local Chinese people did not understand what she was doing. 'They think there's something wrong with me,' she joked. 'In Chinese culture, it's almost impossible to allow a stranger in your home, even more impossible to give them your keys.'

Having guests from all over the world stay means she can travel vicariously through them, she said. She now has Loryda Erasmus, a South African woman, surfing on her red couch.

She has also gained a housemate - Matt Owen, who came to Hong Kong as a couchsurfer for three weeks but decided to stay and teach and be a magician.

An avid traveller, Chow said one unique experience had been sharing a cave with a Bedouin in Jordan.

Other sites that offer similar connections in Hong Kong include AirBnb, but guests pay the hosts, and Servas, which started after the second world war to promote world peace and has a strict membership process.