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Tea Leaves

Pandemic hits 'couchsurfing' travel bug

Decline of social hospitality platforms takes spontaneity out of tourism in developing Asia

The author, second from right, and photographer wife Kit Yeng Chan, right, enjoy a pasta meal they prepared for their Couchsurfing hosts in Guwahati, Assam, India, in 2018. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

In a world of COVID-19 travel bans, border closures and lockdowns it is hard to imagine a return to free movement between countries and recovery for the vast world of travel and vacation websites. When the Singapore-based online booking portal Agoda slashed 1,500 jobs in Asia in May, cutting its workforce by 25%, nobody was surprised.

Beyond big business, though, the pandemic has also changed something I would not have thought possible in an interconnected world: the future of social hospitality travel platforms like Couchsurfing.

For travelers like me, the free-hospitality search engine and its claimed community of 14 million hosts and travelers in 200,000 cities across the world has been a beacon of hope, comfort and inspiration for more than a decade. Amongst hundreds of other meaningful encounters, it was at a Couchsurfing event on her native Penang island in Malaysia that I met my wife, photographer Kit Yeng, in 2008.

Such is Couchsurfing's pulling power that it's popular even among armchair travelers, who use the platform to find local meet-and-greet events, mingling with "real life travelers" passing through their regions. Launched in 2004 in California, it works on the basis of "serendipitous hospitality," like an Airbnb with no fees, allowing users to contact hosts in destination cities and towns. Sharing experiences with hosts, and sleeping on their beds, sofas or floors, visitors experience a form of travel that is local, spontaneous and authentic.

But the coronavirus has changed all that, prompting Couchsurfing to erect a $2.39 a month paywall for members in developed countries -- and blocking those who decline to pay. The company says the charge is a "last resort" to avoid closure as a result of a financial crisis caused by COVID-19. The fee itself is not the issue for the Couchsurfing community. But there is widespread anger that thousands of member profiles and their public data -- including mine, with more than 230 references from hosts and others I interacted with in 50-plus countries over a decade -- were blocked overnight with no explanation.

"It's not about the small yearly fee, which for most users equals buying a few cups of coffee," says Farrukh Mustafa, a volunteer Couchsurfing ambassador and event organizer in Pakistan. "Blocking access to user profiles and asking for money without informing them was somewhat unethical and unjustified."

Before the pandemic, Couchsurfing and other social hospitality websites resonated strongly in developing Central and South Asian countries like Pakistan, helping to connect disadvantaged locals with new ideas introduced by Western tourists.

In war-torn Afghanistan, the Couchsurfing database has more than 1,000 hosts registered in Kabul alone. And even Taliban sympathizers have been known to offer Couchsurfing hospitality to adventurous visitors. A Canadian traveler told the New York Times in 2018 that his host in Helmand was a retired insurgent who introduced him to some of his Taliban friends.

Before the coronavirus halted the reopening of Pakistan's fragile travel industry, members of the local Couchsurfing community like Farrukh helped foreign travelers more than even commercial guides. In Lahore, Usman Ghani hosted more than 100 foreigners -- including us -- for meals and conversations as part of his "Mission Positive Pakistan" program -- an attempt to convince the world that Pakistan is friendly, and not a nest of terrorists.

Couchsurfing faces plenty of competition from smaller social hospitality websites. Hospitality Club, launched in Germany in 2000, claims 792,000 members and also uses a profile-based interface supported by user references, as does BeWelcome, the third largest with 125,500 users. Behind them are others such as Warmshowers, dedicated to hosting and helping touring cyclists.

None have so far imposed fees, and Trustroots, a U.K.-based nonprofit social travel organization, says it would "never" set up a paywall for its 44,000 members. "If Trustroots is to collect funding from its community it would be via voluntary donations," says co-founder Mikael Korpela.

The bigger question for social travel organizations is what traveling will look like in the future, adds Korpela. "I would imagine people being able to travel only across specific-country borders, or needing to carry a certificate that they have already healed from the virus and are thus immune," he says.

Screening measures may also be applied by hosts to keep their families safe from the potential dangers posed by infected travelers. Such concerns are certainly justified but seem at odds with the spontaneous hospitality and positive interaction that characterized social hospitality in the past.

Before COVID-19, websites like Couchsurfing were helping to create a support network in parts of Asia excluded from the contemporary tourism boom. Moving forward, showing up at a host's home with facemasks, hand sanitizers and certificates -- even if you can get there -- seems unlikely to have the same effect. That's because in social hospitality, the app itself is just the first step; sharing space, time and meals must now be seriously reimagined to fit the distancing rules of the "new normal".

Marco Ferrarese is a Malaysia-based writer and author, including of guidebooks on Southeast Asia, India and Latin America.

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