December 23, 2008 / 9:00 AM / 10 years ago

Asia couchsurfers travel cheap, face culture clash

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - It’s great for soaking up the sights on a shoestring budget, but as some Asians have found, “couchsurfing,” or staying at a stranger’s home, can be a culturally jarring experience, especially if you reciprocate.

The recent economic downturn has given a boost to Couchsurfing, a global online network that allows its members to request a place to stay from fellow “surfers” and to get a taste of the local culture while sharing their own.

But for some Asians from traditional families, the experience is sometimes uncomfortable and inviting strangers back home is not always easy.

Juana Jumat, a Muslim from Singapore, was offered a breakfast unlike any other during a recent holiday to Germany.

“My hosts fed me breakfast with their local beer at 8.30 in the morning and I told them I can’t drink, but the host’s mum told me “you are in the Bavarian Alps and you should drink,”” said Jumat of a recent “couchsurfing” experience.

And when the time came for her to play host, Jumat had to persuade her conservative mother of the benefits.

“Initially my mum was like, why are you hosting people whom you do not know and simply asking them to come to our house?” said Jumat, who has since hosted 50 couchsurfers, mostly from Germany and Australia.

Couchsurfing started in 1999 when its American founder, Casey Fenton, spammed over 1,500 students for a place to stay after purchasing a cheap ticket to Iceland. After the trip, Fenton decided he would never pay for accommodation again.

The organisation now has some 835,000 members, over 3,600 from Singapore. Two thousand Singaporeans joined the network this year, double the number in 2007, and the growth is likely to continue in Asia, despite possible culture clashes.

Thai couchsurfer Ratirose Supaporn feels that Asians are more reserved than Westerners, who she said tended to be more comfortable around strangers. Supaporn also said Thais fear their neighbours might gossip about a possible relationship if they spot a foreigner staying with a local.

“I have (foreign) friends who walk around the house with just their panties on and if any of my friends visit me while the foreign guest is in, they will ask me what happened,” she said.

For some Japanese, the responsibility and hospitality that comes with taking care of guests may act as a deterrent.

“When my friend stayed over at my house, my mum was feeling stressed because she thought she would have to cook her meals and wash her clothes. My mum even sewed a hole on my friend’s trousers when she saw it,” said couchsurfer Ayami Kobayashi.

But despite all these reservations, couchsurfing is set to grow in Asia, and globally, as the worst economic downturn in a generation sets in, the network’s co-founder said.

“We believe that couchsurfing tends to benefit in a challenged economy,” said Couchsurfing co-founder Daniel Hoffer.

Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Miral Fahmy

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