With 52 primary languages, over 1,000 dialects, and 27 currencies, Asia is a potpourri of different cultures, races, and economic environments. While many entrepreneurs find the diversity daunting, online travel startups thrive on it.
Such cultural vibrance positions Asia as an attractive destination for travelers of all stripes, seeking anything from conventional resort stays to meticulously planned city tours to off-the-beaten-track wildlife escapades. This explains the Asia tourism industry’s massive size — which is slated to reach USD 357B by this year, a 64 percent increase from 2009.
While industry competition is brutal, a number of trends are converging to unearth a variation on the conventional travel experience.
Platforms like Vayable, Voyagin, Sidetour, and Singapore-based Indiescapes cater to different sort of traveler: Those who dislike commercialized tours and are seeking something more authentic and in-tune with the locals. Call it travel for millennials.
Several technological trends account for the rise of these platforms: Budget airlines have lowered the cost of flight, causing the average traveler’s tastes to become more sophisticated — while visiting Disneyland in Tokyo may be fun the first time around, there’s a lot more that the city can offer besides the usual tourist traps.
Information on travel destinations has also become easier to find, due to a wide variety of websites that aggregate tips on places of interest and accommodations.
Among online travel services, Indiescapes and other such platforms are a fairly new concept. Web-enabled indie travel is a close cousin of short-term rental sites like Airbnb, which lets micro-entrepreneurs offer services to others without all the usual administrative and management costs.
But whereas Airbnb lists properties, Indiescapes sells off-the-beaten-track travel experiences hosted by locals, such as a Bali village stay where travelers can learn about local customs and traditions, as well as excursions to the slums of Bangkok to see a side of the city not advertised on billboards.
Founded by Zhi Min Seetoh and Heidi Shum, the site was launched in April this year and lists 91 experiences contained in cities within Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. The company has received seed funding from ACE Startups, a Singapore government co-funding scheme.
Min was formerly a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group and did a three-month stint as the managing director of Home24.sg, a now-defunct Rocket Internet venture. Heidi, meanwhile, worked in the banking sector.
Avid travelers themselves, Min and Heidi were often asked for recommendations by friends even before they decided to turn their expertise and passion into a startup.
Min, in particular, prefers to understand a culture and its people in-depth in her travels, which has led her to stay several years abroad in the United States and Argentina. It’s this educational and “life-changing” aspect of immersive travel that she wants to bring to the masses.
She shared about staying with a family in Argentina, where she witnessed how they lived passionately for their beliefs though they don’t have a lot of money, and how environmentally-conscious they were by eating organically, taking care of the surroundings, and consumed prudently.
“What I took home from my experience was worth more than the usual souvenirs,” she said.
While sites like Indiescapes are not difficult to replicate, such businesses typically rise and fall on execution, namely, the ability to source for unique, high-quality travel experiences and bring them to the right target audience.
Indiescapes and Japan’s Voyagin are certainly slower off the starting blocks compared to their Western counterparts and lack access to the demand side. However, they do possess local knowledge that is key in staking out a leading position in Asia by amassing inventory on the supply side.
This early in the game, it’s a level playing field.