More Chinese open homes to couchsurfing community

More Chinese open homes to couchsurfing community

Su Xiaofang from Fujian province cannot afford to travel the world so she is making the world come to her-by hosting couchsurfers from overseas.

The 27-year-old, who works and lives in Shanghai, is an active member of couchsurfing.com, the largest hospitality organisation for travelers to find free accommodation and meet new people of all races and creeds.

"I don't have enough money to globe-trot but now I don't have to because so many people, from America to Russia, sleep on my couch," said Su, who started hosting strangers in early 2012.

Inspired by her first experience of couchsurfing in Moscow, she came back to Shanghai and rented an apartment in the city with her sister.

In the past two years, she has hosted over 100 people from about 40 countries, as well as one cat and a rabbit.

"It has allowed me to befriend a shocking range of people-two scientists from the Czech Republic, two French street performers, a British practitioner of tai chi, a Russian cyclist-and I didn't even have to leave home," she said.

The couchsurfing website was launched in the United States in 2004. It now has over six million members from more than 100,000 cities. Most of its registered members are aged 20 to 30.

"Couchsurfing is definitely the best choice for low-budget travelers," said Tilman Resch, a 24-year-old postgraduate student from Germany who spent six nights on Su's sofa.

"From the moment I landed in China, I spent just 1,600 yuan (S$258) on my recent 10-day trip to Beijing and Shanghai-and 1,100 yuan of that went on train tickets."

In China, the culture of couchsurfing is growing as more young people seek adventure on a shoestring.

Li Xuanran from Zhengzhou, Henan province, decided to take a gap year so she could couchsurf her way along China's prosperous east coast.

"I wanted to prove to myself that I was independent and ready to face any challenges society will throw at me," she said.

One of her hosts was 26-year-old Gu Wenxuan, who works as an agent for punk bands in Shanghai. He receives dozens of requests from Chinese applicants each day and said he has seen interest spike in the last two years.

"I don't do it to make friends. I already have enough of those," he said. "I just want to lend a hand to fellow travelers and those in need."

For veteran couchsurfers like Ryan Trefethen of Los Angeles, it serves as a shortcut to free local tour guides.

One of his hosts in Chengdu, Sichuan province, showed him her favourite restaurants, from hot pot eateries tucked away in small alleys to street stalls serving spicy hot dogs.

"I was bored of staying at hotels and eating McDonald's every day," said the 41-year-old freelance technician. "During my trips I want to eat street food down by the corner like a local."

He spends half the year globe-trotting and has already slept in over 3,000 hotels around the world, he said. He recently spent over 10 days in China as a sound technician supporting the world tour of Greek musician Yanni.

"I don't use Facebook anymore, which is like peeping at other people's personal lives without being a part of it," he said.

"I prefer couchsurfing as I love to be the only white guy who turns up at hidden spots with my fellow local surfers."

Airbnb, another hospitality service that originated in the US, is gaining popularity in China and around the world.

Positioned between midbudget hotels and couchsurfing, the website offers short-term rentals at reasonable prices so travelers can enjoy a home-from-home experience.

"In the last four years I've stayed in apartments in European countries, mostly. I think it's a value-added experience," said a Shanghai woman in her 30s who gave her name as Amy.

Together with her husband and another couple, she offers five apartments for travelers to book on Airbnb. She said they are usually rented out for five or six days each week on average.

She charges her guests 500 yuan a night, plus a one-time fee of 100 yuan for housekeeping, for a one-bedroom apartment near the city's former French Concession. Her other apartments go for different prices and can each accommodate four to six people.

She and her husband pay 8,000 yuan per month to rent the French Concession flat but can earn double this in a busy month. They forked out 80,000 yuan to redecorate it, she said.

"I don't plan on making a fortune or lots of new friends but it's nice to get a bit of both," she said.

She said the two forms of vacationing attract different demographics.

"Couchsurfers are young singles looking for free stays and excitement, while those who choose Airbnb have a higher travel budget. They may come with the family and they usually want more privacy and cozier conditions," she said.

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