Homing in on travel

SINGAPORE - Dutch brothers Marijn and Willem Maas have visited Singapore before, and know there is much more to it beyond the usual tourist spots such as the casinos, Sentosa or Orchard Road.

"Book a tour with a travel agency and they will take you to the touristy places and you leave without really getting to know the people or the place," says Marijn, 34.

Seeing a potential in creating a more personalised experience for travellers, the brothers started Withlocals last May. The online marketplace where travellers can directly book home dinners, tours and activities with locals in Asia went live last December. "For example, through Withlocals, a host in Singapore can take a visitor to the wet market, or even to visit a school for disabled children if he wishes," says Marijn.

Not only do travellers get to see how locals live, but hosts can make some money from it too. "Travel agencies usually charge a price, and in the end only a small percentage of the amount finally goes to the tour guide," says Willem, 32, who has experienced this first-hand, while travelling around Asia. "Withlocals instead connects travellers directly with local guides, and this helps to create a sustainable income for the guides."

Having travelled to Asia several times before, the brothers decided to start with this region first. To date, the travel platform has been opened for home restaurants, tours and activities in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Nepal, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Thailand and Vietnam have the most number of hosts. "We're focused on South-east Asia because this area is very fast growing in the travel industry, and the culture can vary quite widely between countries," says Marijn.

On the website, travellers can pick from three categories: Eat, Tours and Activities.

In Singapore, travellers can join a host at home for some home-cooked chilli crabs, visit the best sunset and sunrise photography spots, go cycling in Pulau Ubin, or even join a two-hour long parkour training session.

"Singapore's hawker food is good, but what can make a holiday even more memorable is dining in the home of a local. Besides, you would not be able to book such activities through a travel agency," says Marijn. "Often, it could be just one or two persons in that activity, so travellers are really getting a personalised tour, and not some mass-market one."

Hosts get to set the price, and Withlocals charges a 20 per cent fee on top of the host's price, which helps offset the cost of running the site.

Even before the website started running three months ago, about 10,000 people have applied to become hosts, but the brothers are careful about who joins the community. They now have about 400 hosts across the different countries. "We usually do a check on applicants, such as looking through their Facebook accounts to find out more about them," says Marijn. "But, of course, that isn't enough."

The company relies on its network of ambassadors to suss out potential hosts. "The ambassadors are people we know, or friends of friends, and sometimes we get in touch with professional photographers to be ambassadors," says Marijn. Ambassadors not only meet potential hosts, but also partake in the suggested activities and also sample the food menu. "They are also the ones who take professional shots of the food, the hosts and the activities," says Marijn. "This is very important to us, as we want travellers to know exactly what they will be getting."

Most of the travellers who are using the service are from Europe and the United States. "Ten years ago, it was common for travellers to want to stay in five-star hotels, but these days, travellers don't want an all-inclusive travel package, they want to be able to connect with the local community."

The brothers aim to have 10,000 home restaurants in three years across Asia. Apart from the current seven countries, they want to extend their reach to other parts of Asia, such as China. "That will be a huge market. We want to bring Withlocals to South America and Europe too," says Marijn.

taysc@sph.com.sg


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