'Step Up Travel' Delivers Authentic Cultural Exchange

by Ian MacKenzie Feb 16, 2007

Riding a motorbike in Battambang

In an industry where most tourist dollars are hoarded by multinational chains, Step Up Travel aims to turn the tide.

Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city, but you wouldn’t know it walking the rain-soaked streets like I did in the spring of 2006. There were the swarms of motorbikes and noodle street vendors of course, just like every other Southeast Asian city – but it lacked the frenetic pace.

It made me realize how many tourists settle for the bland, package tours that are cost efficient, but utterly sterilized.

It was here my girlfriend and I met “Tin-Tin”, the most memorable guide of our entire trip. He pulled up with the buzz of his motorbike, clad in a white t-shirt and helmet, and took us out for a day exploring the region’s countryside and ancient Buddhist temples.

Tin-Tin liked to talk. He obviously knew a great deal of his country’s history, culture, and traditions, having lived here all his life.

He also knew first-hand the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge, and the genocide that wiped out most of his own family. Over lunch in the shade of a tree, he explained how he was forced to work for no money and little food, and how it felt to exist in a country traumatized by war.

Without a doubt, we were entirely grateful to him for sharing his story, along with the beauty of his city, through the eyes of an actual resident. It made me realize how many tourists settle for the bland, package tours that are cost efficient, but utterly sterilized.

My girlfriend and I pledged to spread the word about Tin-Tin to anyone we met that was heading in the direction of Battambang. My hope is that we sent him some new business. If only there had been an easier way to spread the word about quality local guides.

A Lack Of Opportunity

On their spring break from medical school, in the largest, most chaotic public hospital in Rio de Janeiro, Trip Sweeney and J. Scott Zimmerman met for the first time.

Their first all-nighter together was working to place over 200 sutures in the leg of a 15 year old girl who had been involved in a motorcycle accident. As they worked, the girl told Trip and J. Scott of her accident, where she was going, where she had been. They listened as she described her family, her loved ones, her fears, and her insecurities.

Reflecting on that encounter, Scott recalls,

“Throughout our time in the hospital, tending to patients gave us exposure not only to their lives but also to the health and ailments of a culture outside the hospital. Socio-economic issues were in the wounds and pathologies of patients. Knife wounds spoke of violence, bullet holes of drug trade and class war, and many pathologies were, in part, due to lack of opportunity and poverty.”

It was outside the hospital that Trip and Scott discussed these issues, while sharing their appreciation for Rio de Janeiro and Brazilian culture. With that appreciation came their resolve to contribute to the community around them.

Responsible Travel Meets Web 2.0

Step Up Travel Classifieds18 months later, Step Up Travel Classifieds was born. On the surface, the site is a travel directory that allows local small enterprises and individuals to publish ads for their own unique cultural services. But dig a little deeper, and you realize the significance that the idea really represents.

Here’s how it works: anyone can post an ad, which remains on the site for a year. The Step Up algorithm prioritizes local, small businesses and individuals, and those listings where other travelers have left feedback.

Says co-founder Trip, “By using Step Up Travel Classifieds and connecting directly with locals, travelers are able to learn of more obscure and fascinating activities, while also helping redirect money away from the commercial tourism industry and toward the people who make their culture what it is.”

These local services are wildly varied – a quick peruse will reveal everything from Teotitlan Carpet Making lessons in Mexico, to apartment rentals in South Africa, and of course, local guides promising an authentic view of their cities.

I have little doubt Tin-Tin from Cambodia would have loved the ability to post a free ad announcing his services to the world. (And I would have been only too happy to recommend him to others).

A Network of Socially Minded Travelers

Having traveled throughout a few impoverished countries over the past couple years, it’s easy to see how the tourist industry is dominated largely by multinational chains or foreign interests, who funnel most of their money away from the local population.

A website that allows visitors to connect directly with actual residents should result in a new way of traveling, where culture is experienced through permission, rather than coercion.

It will be very interesting to see how Step Up Travel progresses into the future, and I hope their site marks a new dawning for socially conscious cultural exchange that permeates into the rest of the industry.

What do you think of the value of having travel classifieds to promote local business?

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