When still a student I learnt about the world through definitions. What is culture? Culture: The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. That’s just one of the many definitions proposed by scholars.
Those who like to travel see this definition at work. The world’s different cultures draw the more receptive travelers to learn about and appreciate these behavior patterns, beliefs, institutions, etc. in order to enrich themselves with knowledge and a deeper understanding.
I believe businesses operating in the tourism industry are familiar with this notion. We know, however, that plenty of them don’t cater to travelers who wish to understand other cultures through genuine experiences. On the other hand, a lot of tourists merely want to see interesting objects, take photos, and say that they’ve been here and there. The industry provides them with the vehicles to move around, accommodations to stay, and restaurants to eat. Whether or not locals, the main stakeholders of a culture, provide the tourists with things to learn and appreciate is not necessarily the main concern.
It all depends on one’s traveling preferences, you may say. But what if the industry has been designed in such a way for so long that culture now takes a back seat to profit? It does sound clichéd, because it’s true.
Each day delicious meals are created at homes, and tourists simply walk past them on their way to a standard touristic restaurant. How amazing would it be to make tourists take a left-turn and knock on a local’s front door? This experience will be cheaper than in a restaurant, but will have a huge impact for the local family, and potentially much more rewarding for the tourist. This isn’t restricted to only food. A local can be an expert at navigating a traditional boat, giving a fruit carving workshop, or simply know his or her way around an area’s wonderful yet less-known corners.
The tourism industry can be redesigned around these examples, with locals taking the lead. Some have thought about it, including those behind a travel company called WithLocals. Having learnt its empowering concept and goals, BEKABULUH is set to support it.
WithLocals connects travelers directly with local individuals and/or communities, and they are currently implementing this concept in Indonesia. Two of the basic principles behind their work are: “Everybody is good at something” and “Nobody knows a place and a community more than a local.” Combine these two with technology and offer it to enthusiastic travelers. The results will be unique, real local experiences that an “all-inclusive” holiday package may not be able to provide. In fact, by removing the intermediary travel agencies from the process of connecting travelers to locals, more opportunities can be created for the locals themselves.
Planning to realize the concept in Bali and Yogyakarta before moving on to Sumatra, West Nusa Tenggara, and Papua, the company is looking for locals who speak good English and can set up their profiles on the WithLocals website in September through October this year. Those who have signed up are also expected to design their own programs — allowing them to involve more people from their community — and set their own price for their services. Those from Bali and Yogyakarya who have signed up are proposing activities such as making their favorite home dishes for travelers; giving a Balinese Astrology course; giving a workshop on how to make offerings; inviting travelers to teach English to villagers; and giving tours around local markets or rice fields. The options are basically limitless.
Letting a local community introduce their culture in their own way is an empowerment in itself. But more than that, the concept proposed by WithLocals also allows locals to improve their economy. As guardians or stakeholders of cultures, locals are ideally the guardians of nature as well. In most examples, local cultures forbid people from spoiling natural resources. As you may notice, it is the tourism industry itself that has slowly changed the people, rendering them careless about nature and, in turn, their true cultures.
Handing the steering wheel of tourism to locals can gradually bring many of them back to responsible, sustainable practices, as they should finally see that nature makes up a big part of their tourism-based economic activities. Hopefully, this would also bring the people back into most of the local policy-making processes that have impacts, big or small, on their livelihoods and their well-being in general.