Is Couchsurfing bad for local travel?
Well, this is a new conundrum.
Sort of. Couchsurfing has, of course, always had it’s critics. And so it should. There is no ‘perfect’ way to travel. Everything has pros and cons. And I’ve always been keen to tackle those belonging to couchsurfing.
A very interesting blog over at the new Local Travel Movement site caught my eye today. Writer Ethan Gelber has picked up on some comments suggesting that couchsurfing sites do not fit in with the ‘local travel’ idea.
Actually, these critics highlighted some valid issues. In short, it boiled down to two main problems – “How can living cheaply off the locals be good for the locals?” and “Couchsurfing practices will only deprive the local accommodation providers of revenue”.
Here are my thoughts:
- Whether a CSing experience is deemed a two-way cultural exchange or ‘freeloading’ depends on the individuals involved. There is such a thing as ‘responsible couchsurfing’. Here are my suggestions on how to be respectful to your host.
- I don’t believe couchsurfing is a threat to the hotel industry. The main site – Couchsurfing.com – may have 1.5m members but the number of people actually using Couchsurfing as their exclusive mode of travel is much, much, much smaller. A lot of people also mix up the occasional couch stay with stops in hotels or hostels.
- Groups and forums are a major part of Couchsurfing.com. They encourage cross-cultural meetings, not free accommodation. You can use the site without ever staying on a single couch.
- As the Local Travel Movement blog points out, a couchsurfer may spend a lot longer in a place than if they were paying for accommodation. During this time they will still be spending money in restaurants and other local business. Perhaps this will be in places that don’t usually see much tourism money. Perhaps they’ll be treating their host to some meals out too.
- And let’s look at the long term. Many couchsurfers are young. They get a love for travelling now; then they go back when they are older (maybe even with partners or family) and they stay in nice, locally run hotels. These are the type of travellers who are often more likely to build a relationship with the places they visit. And it very unlikely that they will go back and stay in five-star all-inclusives owned by huge multinationals.
- Looking at the wider picture again, couchsurfing can break down that awful them-and-us mentality that some travellers still have. Backpackers (some, not all) can end up ganging up together, not even intentionally, and sharing stories about “how the locals are” when they probably haven’t got to know anyone outside of the hostel crowd.
- There is an assumption that CSing is about the rich travellers exploiting the poor locals. What about those who find the only way they can afford to go to Europe is if they can find a local host? I know people who have only been able to afford London because of couchsurfing sites. Londoners didn’t suffer when someone stayed with me.
- But what about those hosts that will never be able to afford long-distance travel? I’ve found people host for a lot of different reasons, such as practising English or wanting to break down stereotypes they feel foreigners have about their homeland. Ultimately, as no money is changing hands, they could back out at any time if they felt exploited.
Well, there are my thoughts. Admittedly, they are rather idealistic, but they do show the potential of the concept and why I feel it shouldn’t be written off. At the same time, my fear is that, as Couchsurfing grows, more ‘bad apples’ could be introduced. I once met a couchsurfer who had a really disrespectful attitude to their host. I’m sure she wasn’t the only one out there. I’ve also been disappointed with the Couchsurfing.com’s ability to move with the times and address criticism. The site has been fairly static in terms of development when it should be leading the way. Recently, I’ve seen more interesting things going on at newcomer Tripping.com, which has plans to build on couchsurfing.com’s rudimentary security system and even offer a 24-hour helpline for members.
Couchsurfing is far from perfect. I’m not leaping to its defense with 100% conviction that this the only way to travel. Far from it. I just wanted to present the other side and some of my findings. It just shouldn’t be the only mode of local travel. Nothing should.
Anyway, it’s great to see this debate raised and good to see LocalTravelMovement.com keeping an open mind.