Neelam Tiwari, an educational consultant in Kathmandu, is going home to Biratnagar in eastern Nepal for the Hindu festival Dashain. She's excited about seeing her family. At the same time, she's excited to be sharing the experience with friends from France and Belgium whom she met while couchsurfing,
"They wanted to know more about our culture," the 23-year-old told Khabar South Asia. "So, I'm planning to take them with me to my home and celebrate Dashain together."
Couchsurfing, the new worldwide phenomenon in travel and tourism, has taken hold in Nepal – especially among young people. Through the website www.couchsurfing.org, travelers wishing to travel inexpensively seek out people in a country they want to visit who are willing to host them or show them around. They host other people in return.
The site's focus is on growing its global community of friendship, travel and shared experiences, with no money exchanged. It lists more than 4.8 million couchsurfers in nearly 200 countries. More than 872 people in Nepal offer couchsurfing services.
For a country like Nepal, which cannot afford to invest huge amounts of money promoting itself to the international tourism market, couchsurfing has larger implications.
"A majority of tourists visiting Nepal come to know about us through word-of-mouth advertising," Sunil Sharma, Research Manager of Nepal Tourism Board, told Khabar. "Since couchsurfing is about connecting travelers around the world, it can be an effective way to attract more tourists to Nepal."
The government's tourism promotion document "Tourism Marketing Strategy for Nepal 2005-2020," even recognises word of mouth as the most effective means to promote tourism in Nepal.
Global friends in a global economy
Student Sanjay Sharma (no relation) first opened his home to international visitors in 2010 after a cousin studying in Germany requested that he take in a friend who was visiting Nepal. Sanjay, who is 20, has already hosted 17 visitors from nine countries.
"It's a better and less expensive form of traveling, and the best way to learn about the country you are visiting," Sanjay told Khabar. "Friends you make through couchsurfing not only make your travel less expensive, but also give you opportunities to get insight into the local people and their culture," he said.
"As a host, I have also learned a lot from them and have made good friends from so many countries around the world."
Couchsurfer Robin Krah, a 22-year-old student from Germany, is enjoying the chance to explore local people and culture – and the savings allows him to stay longer in Nepal.
Krah said he normally would spend around $45 nightly traveling as a conventional tourist. "But I'm staying at a friend's place whom I met through couchsurfing as a guest, and saving the accommodation expenses," he said.
"I've been learning much more about the local culture than I would have ever been able to as a conventional tourist. I'm planning to spend six weeks in Nepal."
The growing popularity of couchsurfing has encouraged some people to try to squeeze some money out of it. After being hosted for a few days, some tourists are offered various activity packages, like rafting and trekking, with inflated charges, which they feel obliged to accept.
"These people are blemishing the culture of couchsurfing by turning it into another means of making money and it is very sad," Sanjay said.
Sunil Sharma of the Tourism Board, however, views this as a minor nuisance.
"Incidents like these are likely to occur when the majority of the people offering couchsurfing are one way or the other related to the tourism industry. But as the concept gets more popular, I'm sure people with genuine interest in couchsurfing will prevail," he said.
"The hospitality of Nepalese people is very well-known among tourists. We can count on their reputation."