Online booking platforms can be an opportunity for small players in tourism to secure broad market access. They make it easy for their offers to be found and the standardised products can be booked instantly and without complications. We have asked a few service providers about their experiences and opinions and found that many small players, especially community based tourism initiatives, do not or hardly use mainstream platforms, for various reasons. However, some of them have found alternatives that may take better account of their concerns.
In the Platform Jungle
By Cyprien Semushi, Lobelia Tours & Travel Agency (Kigali, Rwanda)
“Lobelia Tours & Travel Agency is a local tour operator offering tours in the greater East Africa region (Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, and Uganda). I used to work with Viator, which today belongs to trip advisor. But I stopped because of the high commission fees. It was very difficult to compete with other local tour operators. Then I worked with TourRadar, Touristlink, BeMyGuest, and many others, but managing all of those was hard, so I gave up. Now I am working mainly on referrals by guests.
Being present on these platforms attracted wealthy tourists who don’t have time. The price needs to be higher on these platforms as I had to add the 15 to 21 percent commission the platforms charged me. But I did not have to prepare individual quotes for guests each time they send us an inquiry.
I am currently in the middle of revamping our business. The classic packages where the tourists used to come and spend hours or days in nature studying biodiversity are significantly losing momentum. The modern tourists are interested in encounters with local communities. They want to learn from them and get inspired by them. In marketing, I will for management purposes focus on a few platforms only, including some that target the Chinese millennials.”
A Model of Solidarity
By Brigida Salgado, Flor de Café Farm (Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brazil)
“I live on a farm and am part of a cooperative working in organic agriculture. Many years ago, we started to receive people through WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). It benefited both sides because tourists came, worked and stayed for free. During the period I was more actively involved, I must have received 50 to 80 young people from all over the world. The programme was about learning about agriculture, daily living, eating what we eat, doing the things we do. First we would get in touch and exchange emails. I used to ask why the person wanted to know a farm in Brazil to see if it was the right profile. This conversation beforehand was very important. I made good friends from that experience.
I stopped participating in WWOOF when I realized that many people just wanted a place to stay and did not have much commitment. The goal is to reconcile work and leisure travel. But they did not do the work part.
We also had a long drought, so the farm was for a long time without agricultural activity. But today I work a lot with tourists. Here there is a very traditional festival, the feast of St. John. During that time I receive people in my house. I do not charge them; I always ask how they can collaborate, knowing that they will be using electricity. I, in turn, need help to clean, to wash the bedding, to prepare lunch.”
More Independence for Small Players
By Gautier Amoussou, Eco-Benin (Calavi, Benin)
“Benin Ecotourism Concern (Eco-Benin) is a non-governmental organization created in 1999 for the promotion of ecotourism and local development projects. We have 12 initiatives of community-based ecotourism operating in Benin and they received about 4500 visitors per year. We are not using mainstream booking platforms a lot. We tried Airbnb, but it is not working. I think we do not have the same market. We are using our own website and social media, and we are in partnership with some travel agencies in Europe. We have our own catalogue and attend fairs in Belgium and France, and we are also using Vaolo, a booking platform promoted by Village Monde, an NGO from Canada (see interview with Charles Mony).
In Benin many villagers now have Internet. The accommodation providers are already trained in housekeeping, services, guiding, cooking, etc. They are in the process of certification. In a few months, we will train local communities to manage reservations from guests by giving them tablets and internet access. The initiative is supported by Canadian development cooperation.
We have been coordinating reservations for ten years for communities, but now we want them to do it themselves and take more responsibility. Travellers will be booking directly with them. At the same time, we will continue selling our packages. They will receive more visitors, but Eco-Benin has put a mechanism in place to control overtourism. We are giving trainings every year on how to deliver services sustainably and we limited the number of rooms in the villages less than 15 rooms.
Cooperation, Not Competition
By Sreejith Nair, Kabani (Kozhikode, Kerala, India)
“The recent 'flood of the century' has devastated lives and livelihoods in most parts of Kerala. Destruction of all kinds of crops has put the life line of our villages under threat. The challenge now is to revive the economy of Kerala which heavily depends on tourism and associated activities. Our community based tourism network used to take tourism as a source of additional revenue, with farming being their mainstay. It takes time and a lot of resources to resume their way of life. We are trying our best to restart the community based tourism programmes to bridge over this lean phase.
Each individual unit and the whole network follow a referral system, in which those who experienced the programme refer it to their family and friends. This ensures quality guests who appreciate village life experiences. We rely on a centralized booking system managed by Kabani Community Tourism and Services and follow the same tariff across the homestay network. It does not vary depending on the season or destination.
As we are not sure about consistent and transparent operations through the largely monopolistic online booking platforms, we do not use their services for our homestay network. The local communities are confident about the quality of service they can offer. They do not have to get into any unwanted competition and tariff cuts by using an online platform. For us, the concept of community tourism is to promote cooperation and cross promotion instead of unhealthy competition.”