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CouchSurfing - more than a cheap way of travelling ?!

CouchSurfing - more than a cheap way of travelling ?!
Author: Anja Lehmann
1 Commentries
In present times, the media-orientated ‚network society' is connecting worldwide, creating communities around numerous imaginable topics - one of them is tourism. Tourism mingles people across the globe and brings them together; so does CouchSurfing - connecting people on a virtual base, but with the intention to generate real encounters around the world. CouchSurfing, an online platform being organised like a social network and generally free of charge, opens alternative ways of hospitality, in which „open mindedness and honesty act as the currency". The main purpose of the presented project is to give people an opportunity to offer and ask for spare places to sleep, usually a couch, within the private housing of the host. Secondly, the platform is used in order to arrange various group meetings and a diversity of other gatherings around the globe.

The project CouchSurfing aims at "creating a better world" by enhancing social and cultural exchanges among a vast diversity of cultures in order to broaden mental, social and cultural borders. In contrast to mass or group tourism, communication and interaction can take place far more intensively which can be regarded as a positive and supporting precondition for an intercultural understanding. Interculturalism explicitly describes an encounter and interaction of two or more people from different cultural backgrounds. Intercultural contact, like in the case of Couchsurfing, is a possibility to support understanding, appreciation and peace through tourism. Moreover, intercultural contacts can lead to a number of other positive consequences, such as reciprocal appreciation, understanding, tolerance, respect, the reduction of ethnical prejudices, stereotypes and racist tension as well as intercultural learning.

However, as nothing is free of mistakes, CouchSurfing does include few concerns about issues, such as language barriers, prejudices and stereotypes. As guests usually stay for only a couple of days, there is only a limited chance of in-depth communication and interaction between host and guest. Moreover, if the interaction is only based on economic interests, guests tend to behave more superficially and do not really dip into the lives of their guests or other local residents, which can lead to a consolidation of stereotypes and prejudices. Only participating in a community like CouchSurfing just by being 'online' does not necessarily lead to successful intercultural understanding, but requires an active initiative and engagement from both, hosts and guests, as well as several characteristics. By mentioning open-mindedness, tolerance and an interest towards other people as the most essential character traits, it becomes obvious, that CouchSurfing is not automatically a form of travelling for everyone.

Apart from positive characteristics, there are also unaccepted behaviours of people participating in the online community, for example 'freeloaders', who are described to exploit lodging facilities and people's kindness for the purpose of cheap travelling, whilst not offering a space for other CouchSurfing members. Unfortunately there are also people misusing the online platform as a dating service or even for the purpose of criminal actions. A dramatic incident within the very peaceful history of CouchSurfing was a rape of an Asian woman, while staying in Leeds at the place of a Moroccan man, during a trip through Europe in 2009.

In order to avoid such incidents, CouchSurfing offers additional features serving in order to build trust within the community. The first important step in becoming a serious member is the creation of an own, conscientiously completed profile with pictures, including information about one's life philosophy, hobbies and interests, preferably former CouchSurfing experiences as well as a description of the spare place being offered to other members. Moreover, positive references are a result of successful surfs and encounters with other couch surfers and the 'key' of firstly building trust and secondly being appreciated as a reliable member in order to create further connections. Other safety features are 'vouching', a system functioning as a guaranty for guests and hosts being trustable, and a verification system, proving the fact that a member really lives at the stated address.

In sum, CouchSurfing is different from numerous other social networks, as it does not only connect people across the globe on a virtual basis, but rather intends to reinforce international and intercultural encounters in the real world. The project is set up against a world of selfishness, introvert behaviour and narrow-mindedness, being supported by numerous volunteers and ambassadors all around the world and making millions of participants trust in and rely on strangers. All the members are taking an active role in order to create regional, national, international and even global communities for the purpose of authentic tourism experiences, personal intercultural encounters and communication in order to broaden their intellectual horizon, breaking stereotypes and to create an intercultural understanding. CouchSurfing presents an alternative form of tourism, serving the quest for individualism and distinguishing oneself from commercial mass tourism through travel experiences being as unique as the people participating in that virtual based, but real practised type of tourism.

Useful References

Gnevosa, S. (2011) Phenomenon of Couchsurfing as alternative tourism. [Online] Master Management des Industries du Tourisme et de l'Hotellerie. Université de Toulouse. Available from: http://blogs.univ-tlse2.fr/memoirescetia/files/2011/10/

Latja, P. (2010) Creative Travel: Study of Tourism from a socio-cultural point of view - The Case of Couchsurfing.[Online] Department of Sociology and Social Psychology. International School of Social Sciences. University of Tampere. Available from: http://tutkielmat.uta.fi/pdf/gradu04576.pdf

Skog, C. (2012) CouchSurfing - a choice for travellers. [Online] Degree Program in Tourism. Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences. Available from: http://publications.theseus.fi/handle/10024/39018
Commentary: CouchSurfing - more than a cheap way of travelling ?!
Author: Milla Haverinen
I found Lehmann's discussion paper on CouchSurfing very interesting, as I wanted to write about this subject too. Unfortunately, I couldn't find enough resources and this paper proved that I did not look up the information on the right places. I am also a part of CouchSurfing society and tried CouchSurfing last year, which is also why I found this paper interesting.

It is true that CouchSurfing is generating real encounters around the world. It is a great invention which gives tourism a whole new dimension, as Lehmann is suggesting. For me, it was surprising to know that CouchSurfers also organise various group meetings. The idea of CouchSurfing is nicely described and the paper has a nice flow.
I'd also like to point out the people who take part in CouchSurfing society, are normally people who are genuinely interested in other cultures and getting to know the each other, the hosts and guests. According to my own experience and to my friends' experiences, CouchSurfing requires a lot of trust but it also gives a lot which supports the statement "requires an active initiative and engagement from, hosts and guests, as well as several characteristics. By mentioning open-mindedness, tolerance and an interest towards other people as the most essential character traits, it becomes obvious, that CouchSurfing is not automatically a form of travelling for everyone." As Lehmann, points out, there are some negative issues concerning the concept and as rape in Leeds is mentioned, I started to wonder, how much criminal activity is occurring in the CouchSurfing society? Or how many users misuse the website as a dating service? In addition, as the popularity of the website is growing, how does it affect or does it have effect on the business in hotel industry? These are interesting questions to consider.

The paper sums up nicely the purpose and the essence of CouchSurfing. It sure is more than a cheap way of travelling. It is all about getting to know other cultures, new people, even making friends and experiencing new things that basic hotel rooms could never offer.