From humble beginnings TravelLocal is starting to take mainstream tourism by storm, Travel Begins at 40 talks with its co-founder Huw Owen about the company and why local tourism is an important part of responsible tourism.

What do you see TravelLocal, or local tourism, as meaning?

TravelLocal is all about engaging with a destination – getting to know the people who live there and becoming immersed in the culture. We embody this, putting customers in direct contact with local companies so that they can share their knowledge and expertise. This means that they get better value and a more authentic experience while also ensuring a fairer deal for the people on the ground.

What cuts TravelLocal out from competitors in the market?

The main thing that sets us apart from the rest of the travel industry is our focus on local expertise. The majority of our clients are well travelled and keen to engage with the culture of the destination they’re visiting rather than simply touring the main sites. Our platform allows them to get in direct contact with a local company, hand picked and tested by us, to create their own bespoke tour. This level of knowledge and granular detail simply cannot be accessed on the international market, it can only be found by going straight to the people who know the country best – the locals.

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Huw (left) with TravelLocal co-founder Tom Stapleton

Why now? Is there a general movement towards ethical and local tourism?

Without a doubt there is. According to the 2017 ABTA travel trend survey, 70% of travellers want to contribute to the local economy during their trip and this is something that we have always advocated. When shopping through traditional tour operators, it is hard to know where the money goes and how much of it sits with the middleman. I think it is because of this uncertainty, and an increasing focus on making sure that tourism does good on the ground, that people are reaching out to companies like ours.

The most vital things for us when choosing a new partner are creativity, reliability and passion.

How do your local partners really benefit from your business model?

For many years, the flow of international tourism has been directed against locally owned companies. I used to run TravelLocal’s partner company in Cambodia and it was so difficult for us to reach customers because we were in direct competition with huge multinational tour operators. It was hard for people to find us and, if they came to us through a tour operator, we would find ourselves sidelined in the communications. Through our business model, the local companies are brought back to the forefront and offered the recognition they deserve. More of the customer’s money ends up in the destination which helps these companies to flourish – employing more people and encouraging others to engage with the tourism industry. We aim to level the playing field by giving our partners the opportunity to share their knowledge and prove to customers why it is always best to buy local.

Local Travel
Hiking in Armenia, just one of the local travel options TravelLocal can provide customers

How do you choose your local partners?

The most vital things for us when choosing a new partner are creativity, reliability and passion. We are drawn to companies who are offering exciting itineraries and putting a spin on their destination’s average tourist highlights, all while offering exceptional customer service. It is also essential that they are locally owned, registered in the destination and are experienced in providing high quality holiday experiences. We check all their reviews, get in touch with previous clients and put their communication strategies to the test to make sure that they share our ethos of putting the customer first.

I think that there is now an opportunity to build a more sustainable future. Buying directly with a local company is one of the best ways to do this

I read somewhere that you and your partners are driving the revolution – how are you doing that?

There is a strong feeling amongst the TravelLocal network that the industry is undergoing a sort of generational change. A few years ago it was top down expertise delivered by a high-end tour operator – and prices to match. Now it’s being led by both technology – platforms like ours rather than bricks and mortar shops – and by our local partners and their exceptional local knowledge. Those two things combined are exceptionally disruptive. More broadly – this is a terrible cliche but it’s true – our customers are also driving this. We get amazing reviews which we are very proud of and we are passionate about quality. Customers can perceive that, and coupled with the buy local ethos they have something they’re prepared to shout about. We get many bookings simply from word of mouth recommendations. We are also getting bookings from many countries around the world – that excites all of us. It shows that the movement we’re driving has a global impact.

local tourism
Local tourism customers can get to know, and support, their hosts, such as Nepal’s earthquake sufferers.

How is the customer experience on the ground changing?

Good question – the answer from us would be “a lot”. But the answer elsewhere in the more mainstream bits of the industry is that it’s inching forwards. We use technology to improve it, but at the moment the customer experience on the ground is in the hands of our expert local partners. It is they who finally have an outlet for their creativity and innovations. I vividly remember working for one of the big international tour operators in the UK and we dictated the experience, and ignored more unusual or niche experiences that were being suggested by locals in the destination. Now, we have the chance to turn that on its head – if you’re a great local travel company, passionate and creative about your destination, you can speak to a global marketplace directly on TravelLocal.

I think more broadly we see many changes driven by customers of all ages around niche interests. I have a strong memory when I first moved to Cambodia of all these thousands of travellers coming to Phnom Penh and seeing the city in a certain “classic” way, and I just thought “what a waste of everyone’s time”. There was a Phnom Penh they were not being shown that was much more layered and interesting – a great view from a well chosen rooftop bar, the rambling old colonial school where the Khmer Rouge were educated, or a quiet temple that only locals knew about. The biggest mistake that we could see was that big international tour operators underestimated their own clients – they thought it was all about ticking off the top five things in a city, then moving on. But travellers these days are much more sophisticated than that. They also ignored modern history – you had to find niche operators to really get to grips with that. We could see as clear as day that if given the option to really delve into recent events people were very keen to do so.

Do some research into the destination and try to get creative with the itinerary rather than following the average tourist itinerary.

How is technology shaping the future of travel?

Online commerce has become a mainstay of our economy and, in recent years, people have become more and more inclined to shop for travel on the internet. It is tough to gain consumer trust online but once it’s gained it can be a very powerful tool for reaching large numbers of potential clients. It is thanks to technology that we are able to place our local partners at the forefront of the transaction, allowing customers to communicate directly with them through our messaging system. The internet helps us to make connections across the world and I think that this is something that will continue to grow in the travel industry – people are able to reach far further in an online world.

What is the future of ethical and luxury travel?

I think that we are moving into an era which calls for a partnership between traveller and destination. We have seen a backlash in recent years against careless tourism and we are seeing that more and more of our clients are keen to travel in a respectful way. It’s about getting to the heart of a destination while also travelling responsibly and, to put it plainly, doing the right thing. I think that there is now an opportunity to build a more sustainable future. Buying directly with a local company is one of the best ways to do this – the destination is their home, the iconic sites are part of their cultural heritage and they are better placed than anyone to bring ethical luxury travel to the forefront.

Supporting local tourism is just one way that you can engage with responsible tourism, read Mike Haynes on, What is the Best Responsible Tourism Model for Myanmar?

Are you a member of a local tourism network?

TravelLocal is part of the Ethical Tour Operator’s Group (Tourism Concern) and all of our partners are members of tourism associations in their destination.

Finally, what is your advice for travellers wishing to have a genuine local tourism experience – what should they look for and what should they avoid?

I think that my most important piece of advice would be to make sure that they don’t just do the most popular things. Do some research into the destination and try to get creative with the itinerary rather than following the average tourist itinerary. Of course, I would also say that booking with locals is the best way to ensure an authentic travel experience. They are keen to engage with their destination in a new way and relish the challenge of creating off the beaten track itineraries. Don’t be afraid to ask for more and make sure you leave home with an open mind – you never know where people’s suggestions may take you.