The Sharp Turn from Tourist to Traveller

By Timothy Choy

November 2022 FEATURE
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HAVE YOU SEEN bus-loads of tourists disembarking at places where you, as a local, wouldn’t personally patronise? It usually has some tell-tale signs: an obscure chocolate shop, a hawker centre locals avoid, and the giveaway - bus-friendly parking. As someone who is keen on travelling, I find the established tourism industry an artificial experience. More distasteful is the idea of locals establishing a system to prey on tourists.

I get it, though, the utilitarian value that tourism as an industry offers.

“We don’t want to worry about our luggage and we can’t walk as much as you!” my parents quipped at my insistence on planning their Europe itinerary in conjunction with my graduation in London. So, on a bus we went – five countries, seven days. The summary of my trip included obscure chocolate shops in Brussels, rubbery escargot in Paris and bland schnitzel in Düsseldorf. True enough, I didn’t have to worry about my luggage and the bus would pull up right at the doorstep of destinations.

I’ve always held that travelling is a privilege. In this regard, travelling carries with it a weightiness, a responsibility almost, on the traveller to do right by a place—to depart, having built a shared experience with those who call that destination home. I’m not alone in this. The rise of digital platforms that have disrupted the tourism industry is illustrative of a shift in finding deeper meaning to travel, built upon a shared, more authentic experience. A shift from tourist to traveller. One an arm’s length visitor, the other a natural nomad.

A Temporary Home

One digital platform that understands this shift well is Airbnb, an online booking site focused on short-term homestays and experiences. “For many people, travel is a way of life. For many, the lines between travel and living are increasingly blurring,” says Amanpreet Bajaj, Airbnb’s General Manager for Southeast Asia, India, Hong Kong and Taiwan. One might even argue that Airbnb enabled this shift.

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Whatever one’s opinion of Airbnb, one cannot disagree that they got it right when it comes to understanding the present-day traveller. This is telling from Amanpreet’s idea that Airbnb’s goal is to “show travellers a world of possibilities and encourage them to look further afield, step off the beaten path and support communities who may have missed out on the benefits of tourism in the past.” Indeed, Airbnb has and is delivering on this, and with 300 million bookings on the platform in 2021 to show for it.[1]

The recent pandemic has also triggered a rise in remote work, an instrumental push to mainstream the nomadic lifestyle. What hippies and backpackers were to the representation of the nomadic lifestyle is now increasingly exchanged for families of professional remote workers. Accordingly, Airbnb reports that globally, long-term stays of over 28 days continue to comprise their fastest-growing category by trip length, more than double from 2019.[2]

This growing group of travellers can now choose between conventional accommodation options or residential properties. Hotels, on the other hand, are misaligned to their need for a “temporary home”, meaning a residential living abode without the commitment of an annual rental agreement. Short-term rental accommodations (STRA), largely enabled by the likes of Airbnb, meet the demands of this market segment almost perfectly.

A Local Connect

The more significant counterpart to this conversation is the role of hosts as an entry point to a local experience. More than just providing accommodation, hosts often become an on-demand local connect who helps travellers navigate, especially in new places. Hosts are there to answer questions pertaining to food recommendations around the area and how to get around using public transportation, to frantic emergencies like “My car got clamped by the city council. Please help!” A local connection allows domestic and international travellers to experience more authentic encounters in the particular destination. This gets more necessary in places like Penang, which has deep heritage and culture to explore that are not obvious at first sight.

“We will try to recommend and also encourage our guests to join in the local community. We are proud to introduce hawker centres in George Town and many of the artsy activities going on,” says Joan, an Airbnb host of a heritage-styled home here.[3]

An authentic experience of Penang, however, is a matter of perspective. For hiking-Harry, it is conquering Penang Hill – by a different route every time, of course. Drinking-Dan insists on hidden bars, shopping-Sharon on indie pop-up boutiques and nerdy-Nelson on historic architecture. I personally feel that an authentic Penang experience is to witness a table of elderly Chinese, Malay and Indian uncles engaged in horse betting at a shabby kopitiam, conversing in Hokkien!

Staying true to their understanding of who a traveller is, Airbnb has extended its platform to connect travellers with hosts who are enthusiastic about sharing their version of Penang. “Many of these travellers (guest arrivals in Airbnb listings) are choosing to participate in an Airbnb Experience as part of their trip, and using Airbnb Experience to explore the cities in which they live,” says Amanpreet.

He explains that Airbnb Experience “immerses travellers in local communities around the world by offering one-of-a-kind activities, handcrafted and led by local experts. They aim to go beyond typical tours or classes by immersing guests in each host’s unique world.”

All-too-familiar Disruption

Perhaps the emergence of the nomadic lifestyle embodied by the modern-day traveller is yet another expression of man’s cardinal longing for a sense of connection - to a place, to an experience, to a person. Digital technology has allowed platforms to appear – and as in other areas of modern life, they enable and they disrupt at the same time.

In this case, while enabling travellers to gain more authentic local experiences, digital technology once again disrupts the space of incumbent players in tourism – and increasingly, in real estate space as well.[4]  As with disruptions in general, managing it calls for prudence from all involved. A heavy hand risks stifling innovation which leads to irrelevance over time. On the contrary, left unchecked, disruption poses society-wide risks that can affect the welfare of locals permanently – more often than not, the poor and middle-income demography.

One thing is for sure. As a keen traveller, digital innovation has opened the world to me. I now tend to wonder: How did people travel without the internet in the past? Unimaginable.

Footnotes:

[1] https://www.businessofapps.com/data/airbnb-statistics/

[2] Interview by Author with Airbnb

[3] Interview by Author

[4] https://www.nst.com.my/property/2022/05/794109/penang-plans-regulate-short-term-rentals-homestays

Timothy Choy

is a visiting researcher at Penang Institute and a guest writer for Penang Monthly.


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