In 3 years of travel, I’m come across a lot of cool social enterprise ideas.
From community-based ecotourism (CBET) in Eastern Cambodia, to families in northern Israel opening their farms to share their knowledge and traditions, to studying at a language school benefiting at-risk kids in Brazil, a main focus of my travels has been finding socially responsible tourist opportunities that benefit the local community.
But I’ve never stumbled across such a large and organized travel-based social enterprise as Backstreet Academy. A peer to peer travel experience platform, the startup allows local people to sell activities and tours directly to travelers who are looking for a unique cultural experience. Money goes to the pockets of those that need it most (the community) rather than the middle man, as too often happens in developing countries. I know in Rio de Janeiro, many of the English language tours are appallingly overpriced, watered down, and sometimes even offensive (such as some favela tours run by outsiders who treat the community members more like zoo animals than with the respect and dignity humans deserve).
While I was sad to learn that Backstreet Academy isn’t in Brazil yet, I’m happy to tell you Southeast Asia travelers that there are over 200 activities in over more than 20 cities – and growing. I’ll be back on the continent in 2017, and I’m already taking notes on the experiences I want to book (like the wooden stamp workshop or calligraphy in Hanoi, kitemaking in Kathmandu, and Lao wine making in Luang Prabang)!
Five Questions for the Airbnb of Experiences
How does it work?
Backstreet Academy connects travelers looking for authentic experiences to locals sharing traditions and culture, via an Airbnb-esque peer to peer platform. Any local can create an experience, list it on the academy, and guests can book directly from them. Even potential hosts who can’t speak English can create tours as they are matched up with local translators.
What is the price breakdown?
The host receives 50-60% of this price, the translators receive 10-20%, transport operators take 10-15%, and Backstreet Academy receives 10-15% for operating costs.
Who are the Backstreet Academy founders?
Anil has five years of experience working at Vale as an analyst/economist in the research and strategy department for the Asia Pacific region. During this time, he had the opportunity to do short stints in Brazil and Japan. Anil gave it all up to pursue his dream of a travel social enterprise enabling him to create social impact and enjoy his passion of travel at the same time.
Out of college with an information systems major from Singapore Management University, Akash was looking to work on travel, particularly using technology to enable travelers to get to a place and experience the best a city has to offer. He takes huge inspiration from Airbnb like platforms where locals and travelers are connected seamlessly.
Personally hating package tours, Jamon is always looking for better ways to travel and connect with locals, especially in places where language is a problem. He got inspired to create Backstreet Academy while traveling through Myanmar and seeing how hard the artists have to work to access the tourist market. He wrote a guest article on the mass customization of travel about this.
The founders started Backstreet Academy with a threefold purpose: to learn, to create a positive social impact, and to better connect with locals while traveling even with language differences.
How can hosts from poor areas participate?
Even without access to the internet, banks, and no knowledge of English, a would-be host can still participate. Backstreet Academy has a sophisticated call center system for bookings, and also a community translator system.
Hosts collect the payment from the guests at the end of the activity, which removes the need for a financial system and also any delay in payment – extremely important for people living on very limited means.
This innovative system opens up the very closed tourism market, creating the most authentic experience possible with hosts who would otherwise be unable to participate in the tourism industry.
How do you find hosts, and make sure the experiences are good?
Backstreet Academy does ground research in small towns and villages, meeting with villagers and local business owners (with the assistance of a translator), and asking for recommendations. According to the founders, “One leads to another and occasionally you find an entire village of masters who have been practicing their craft for centuries, then you know you’ve struck gold!”
Over 97% of the reviews on Backstreet Academy experiences are 4 stars or above! The results speak for themselves.
Just another reminder that it is totally possible to do well for yourself, while doing great for the world.
And now one for you – What do you think of Backstreet Academy? Would you ever try a social enterprise-style travel experience?
I mentioned Airbnb earlier. If you’d like to give it a shot, you can use this link here and get a $32 credit towards your first stay!