Three apps and websites that offer travellers a local experience, and make sure money you spend benefits people on the ground
Platforms that cut out the travel industry middleman and connect you with service providers not only add value to your holiday by helping you meet local people, but ensure they share in the profits from tourism
Did your last once-in-a-lifetime trip benefit anyone that lives wherever it was you went? Mass tourism has become a curse to local communities in some cities, but a flurry of new sharing economy apps and online platforms are trying to make tourist activities more profitable for local people.
Booking locally – whether it be a short walking tour, a meet-up or a two-week itinerary – can bring you benefits, too. As well as meeting many travellers’ desire for authentic experiences and micro-adventures, it gives them the chance to meet local people. It can also make travel cheaper by circumventing the accepted practice of foreign travel agents taking generous commissions.
“We grew tired of overseas travel agents taking 60 per cent to 100 per cent commission on top of what we earn on tourism here in Africa,” Dr Jessika Nilsson, an anthropologist and CEO at Safarisource, one of the new sharing economy services, says.
“We want to make travel inclusive, keep the revenue within Africa, and make sure our continent profits optimally from tourism,” she says. Safarisource is a way of establishing a direct link between travellers and the people who would in any case be guiding them and taking care of their needs on their tours and safaris.
It works both ways; the trend will only take off if locals offering tours and activities stop marketing themselves to travel agents and instead go direct to travellers. While some of these apps and websites are more impressive than others, the success of Airbnb – a clear inspiration for many of them – proves that online platforms have the potential to become global movements.
These are three of the platforms travellers can use:
While most apps that encourage a local dimension to trips are focused on micro experiences, this is one that wants to change the structure of how some international travel is booked. A travel tech start-up from Tanzania led by Nilsson and a Maasai tribal chief with 15 years’ experience as a guide, Safarisource is a network of tour operators in 24 African countries, including safari favourites Tanzania, Botswana, Kenya, Zambia and Namibia.
Its starting point was travel agents’ practice of outsourcing everything to a local tour operator. Its founders reasoned there was a way to put travellers and local tour operators in touch and cut out the middleman, making it cheaper for travellers and allowing local people to keep more of the revenue from tourism.
The app is very easy to use, and for each experience (from an inexpensive three-day homestay with the Maasai to a luxury “five-day Kenyan splendour” tour) there is much more detail than your typical global travel agent offers. Even if you are the kind of traveller who likes to tailor-make your trips and know exactly what you're going to be doing, Safarisource is worth checking out.
Want to avoid international chain hotels and restaurants when travelling? This app is focused on helping travellers find authentic places to stay, local restaurants to eat in, and activities that benefit local communities. The way it does it is very simple; presenting a global map with clickable attractions in those categories, with all recommendations crowdsourced from users of the app.
It still has plenty of room to grow: during our review it was France (where the app was originated), Italy, Portugal, Vietnam and Cambodia that had by far the most listings. There is also not enough detail about why places are included, with descriptions such as “short supply chains” and “rural accommodation” rather vague, and the dedicated pages for each place mostly lacking in user reviews. However, it's a good starting point if you're travelling in the countries currently included.
Much like social dining app EatWith, this distinctly Airbnb-style app includes food tours run by local people, but also quirky walking tours and other guided experiences. Examples include “The Only Authentic Cu Chi Tunnels Tour With a Local” in Ho Chi Minh City, “Gordon Ramsay’s Favourite Thai Food Tour” in Bangkok, and “Magical Harry Potter Walking Tour With a True Fan” in London.
For each tour there are extensive descriptions, detailed itineraries, photos and plenty of reviews, and everything can be booked and arranged via the app. What makes this different to EatWith is that for each experience you get a choice of hosts; each provides a short video introduction, and you can even start an online chat with them.
WithLocals offers more than 1,200 experiences in 50 cities in 22 countries, but it lacks a map of the world with its activities plotted, which would avoid the inevitable disappointment of searching for a destination that is not yet covered.