There are some sites that you occasionally dip into when planning a trip, then the are those that you treat like a bible. TravelFish.org is widely regarded as the quintessential resource for travellers looking to explore off the beaten path destinations in Southeast Asia.
We have loved this site since it launched. So Chris Noble, our General Manager, who has had more than a few (but not enough) beers with its founder, Stuart McDonald, took the time to delve into his past and peer a little bit into the future of travel in his region.
What compelled you to want to move from Australia and live in Southeast Asia?
It was accidental. I did a round the world trip in 1992-93 and had to pick a Southeast Asian country for the final stop -- India was my main focus -- and so I picked Thailand. I remember arriving late at night on a THAI flight from Kathmandu, being deposited on Khao San Road. The whole place blew my mind -- bright lights, big city! I spent the next few years travelling around the region, heading back to Australia every year for five or six months to cash up (thank you Franklins) before returning to explore more.
When did you meet your partner Samantha?
I met Samantha in 1997, and when we returned to the region towards the end of that year, we just never left. Now we've got a daughter who was born in Thailand and a son we had in Indonesia; the region is now definitely home for us.
You started Travelfish.org in 2004 with two aims, the first being to help travellers to Southeast Asia get the most out of their trips to the region. In the past nine years, have you noticed a change in what travellers are looking for when they visit the region?
People are trying to cover far more miles -- and countries -- than they used to, in the same amount of time (or less). Thanks to borders being easier to cross these days (Burma is the only real holdout in this regard) and the rise of low cost airlines, people tend to spend less time in each country, but see more countries in the same trip.
When I first started travelling to Thailand the norm was to enter on a two-month tourist visa and extend it for a month, giving you three months in Thailand. Laos and Cambodia were difficult or unsafe to travel in at the time. Today, people want to see Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in a single three-month trip (or less).
Are travellers still as adventurous as they were a decade ago?
Sadly, many out of the way guesthouses across the north and northeast of Thailand that used to be very popular with travellers have now closed or slid badly downhill as visitor numbers have dropped. We hear from travellers saying they're looking for the "lesser travelled" roads; but honestly we tend not to see too much real evidence of that on the ground. There are no shortage of destinations across the region utterly devoid of tourists -- if anything travellers are getting a bit lazy.
Traveller paradox? Want more off the beaten path, but can't be arsed travelling there? What do you think is driving this traveller lethargy?
If travellers want to get off the beaten trail (and Southeast Asia has a very heavily trodden one) you have to pay the piper, and make the effort to experience it.
At the same time, in an unusual approach to maintaining relevancy, some guidebooks are cutting back their coverage. Take one guide to Indonesia as an example -- the new edition (816 pages long) is a full 100 pages shorter than the previous one. How'd that happen? There's more to see in Indonesia than ever before. Sure, it's expensive and time-consuming to cover places not many people will go -- but we reckon that's the whole point of a guide and why we make an effort to get as far off that track as we can.
Of course the true adventurer doesn't need us, nor a guidebook.
Are you seeing an increase in regional travel?
There's been a jump in short trips made by domestic travellers and expatriates -- Singaporeans going to Bali for a weekend, Malaysians to Saigon and so on. I think this has been a great development -- seeing travellers from other Southeast Asian countries in the guesthouse -- and it certainly gives travellers looking for a more local experience an avenue to "look up a local" as they'll be hanging out in the hostel with people from a city they'll be visiting in a few weeks. Obviously travellers using sites like BeWelcome and Couchsurfing are also tapping into this vein.
The second aim of TravelFish.org was to help off-the-radar places gain exposure. How have you gone about working with local destinations to help them achieve this?
We don't work with DMOs or other organisations in the tourism scene -- we prefer to find stuff ourselves and just write about it on Travelfish.org. I enjoy travelling to places a little off the radar and if I think the place is good and warrants attention from others, we'll write about it. It's up to travellers to dig up the information themselves.
When it comes to local operators, where do you tend to focus your research and writing?
Something in particular we like to focus on is the family-run businesses that have no online presence at all -- it's great to find guesthouses who really have little experience and profile them to say, "This is a great place to stay." I'd like to think at some stage over the last nine years we've sent some business to some of these people.
We're currently working on a report that will be translated into local languages to give suggestions to small guesthouse owners on how to improve their offerings to travellers. It contains 250 simple ideas for improvements and we hope it sets off some lightbulbs in small guesthouses across the region.
Which regions have really been at the forefront of tourism development in Southest Asia and what changes, be it socio-economic or technological, have driven this development?
Thailand has done extremely well, onwards and upwards ever since their earth-shatteringly successful Amazing Thailand campaign. OTAs like Agoda
have then built their business on the back of Thailand's success and I think they've really changed how many people travel. The properties, especially the midmarket cookie-cutter style joints, can't really afford not to be a partner as for many travellers if you're not on Agoda or Booking, you simply don't exist.
Are there particular areas that have ridden a tourism boom and then quickly found out that this massive influx has had detrimental effects to the local community and way of life?
Vang Vieng is the poster child for this dilemma. This small village in Laos had three places to stay when I first visited in the early 1990s; this ballooned into around 100 guesthouses over the next 15 years and the place developed a party scene where the beautiful river was lined with bars aimed at getting people wasted. People started dying, more each year. To their credit, the Lao government shut down the scene late in 2012 and are trying to reinvent Vang Vieng as an ecotourism destination -- arguably what it should have been in the first place.
Unfortunately, when it comes to tourism, a destination usually has to take the good with the bad -- you can't pick your parents, nor your tourists -- and not everyone likes the untouched paradise as it is. You'll see this most obviously in Thailand's islands, where, with a couple of notable exceptions, the islands are largely interchangeable and have lost much of their original individual appeal -- they used to be slightly different from one another. The problems (overdevelopment, pollution etc) get repeated over and over.
You're a passionate advocate of travelling off the beaten path and having a more local experience. Is there a definition for local travel and can you truly understand a culture without living there for an extended period of time?
It's a difficult thing to quantify. Is a local experience sitting on a chicken bus? Is it eating at a local restaurant or playing checkers with a tuk tuk driver? For me, much of it revolves around food -- and drink (to a lesser extent) -- as you don't need to stop at a place many times to be "local" -- they'll know what you want, ask after your kids and so on. This is perhaps one of the reasons why I enjoy some of the regional food blogs so much -- they often have a heavy focus on the local because food is the easiest way to sit down with a few of them.
I don't think you can truly understand a culture without being a part of it, and yes by that I mean living it, eating it, speaking it and -- most importantly -- being accepted by it. What is far easier for casual visitors is to get a true look into a foreign culture -- and obviously interacting with locals is great way to do this. These locals may be official tourist guides or just some guy you meet at a noodle shop, but they're all able to give you an inside view to some facet of their culture -- it's up to you to put the energy you need into making these connections.
As Travelfish.org approaches its 10th anniversary, the traditional travel guide industry is facing significant challenges as it tries to reinvent itself and compete in a saturated market online. Is there room for a niche site like your own? Will you be around for your 20th?
I think there are big advantages to being small -- especially when you know the region well. We've seen considerable growth over the last couple of years and now have a team of about 18 contributing writers on board. They are all based in the region, living it daily. While some competitors are retreating to desk updates -- or no updates at all -- we've taken the opposite approach and are constantly expanding and deepening our coverage. At the same time we're trying new means to get information into readers' hands - our iBook platform for example.