Couchfish: Taking A Long Term View

Couchfish: Taking A Long Term View

A conclusion of sorts ... finally

So here we are, at the conclusion of my series on “Rethinking Travel.” I have more half-written posts, which I’ll drop in over the coming weeks and months, but I wanted to tie this off for now. I know paying subscribers would like me to get back to the itinerary posts—they will recommence this coming Tuesday. Before anything else though, a quick thank you to you all for reading and/or listening!

For many of the posts in the series, I’ve looked outside. I’ve looked at what is happening in the real world—then tried to tie it back to both my own—and academic—thinking on the topic. But what does it all mean? There’s not much point writing over 20,000 words on a topic and then acting on none of them.

Where we’re headed. Tourist information booth, Sihanoukville. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

With this in mind, in conclusion I’m looking at each post in the series, and detailing a change I will put in place. In some cases it will be my personal actions, in others, how Travelfish operates, others still, both.

In each, I’m making concrete, measurable goals. Aside from doing nothing, there’s no one correct approach, and I’ll revisit my changes a year from now. Why? To see what worked and what didn’t, what was unrealistic and what was too easy.

Let’s see how it pans out.

Sustainable Tourism

I’ve touched on the lack of holistic sustainability certification—the sector is a mess of pyramids and bullshit. As the last thing we need is another scheme, I’m going back to my gut and the duck test—which I learned today harks back to 1738!

“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck.”

If a place strikes me as not being future-looking, I’ll not stay there, and I’ll remove it from Travelfish. I’ve already started the removals, but with thousands of places listed, this will take a while. Not staying in such places will be easier!

What will this mean for readers? For starters it will mean far fewer places to stay will be listed than currently. For those that remain, it would be fair to consider them, in the least, to be moving in the right direction. Plenty of context will come into play in the decision making here, and to a large part the approach will be similar to that of EXO Travel.

Responsible Travel

In this case, I’m all about my stomach—and anyone who knows me will know this one isn’t a hard one for me. When I’m on the road, I’m going to eat local—by that I mean street food and local-fare restaurants. Yeah I know, going to Vietnam and eating only bowls—the horror! I’m allowing myself one “imported meal,” meaning a cuisine not from the country, a week. I don’t drink, so imported alcohols are not an issue, but I will miss those gooey French cheeses.

Boiled down for readers, this means more local food and fewer Irish Pubs.

Pro-Poor Tourism

Here it is all about where I sleep. It can be hard to determine who owns a hotel—especially at the mid- and above bracket—but I’m going to try. The easiest approach is to stick to homestays—the joints with grandma watching soap on the foyer TV. This won’t always work, but save the OTAs deciding to cough up this info, it is the best approach I can think of. Talking of the OTAs, I’m going to book direct whenever sensible.

Oh Koh Rong. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

For readers, expect swaths of the interchangeable “cookie cutter” concrete box hotels to vanish. The affiliate relationship with Agoda will remain, so a bazillion other hotels will be but a click away. Likewise while the luxury end has never been a focus for Travelfish, going forward this will be even less of a priority.

Slow Travel

Ok, I’ll confess as a travel writer, this one at first struck me as hard. A typical trip for me in the past would involve being on the move on a near continual basis. After all, a day on the road is a day away from the family—and doggo! The more I thought about it though, the more I realised it wasn’t such a big deal.

Drawing on the “do as I say not as I do” file, who am I to sit here and tell you to slow down when most couldn’t keep up with my pace? If I was to spend three days in a place rather than one, I’m better positioned to find out more reasons to linger. In allowing time, I make time—for you. So, my rule here is if I sleep in the town, I’m there for at least three days (two nights). Yes, even Sihanoukville.

Readers should expect more information based around a theme of “stay another day.” I’ve long written that every town is worth a night, well, I’m doubling that.


Oh boy. What to do with this one. I’m approaching this from two directions.

First let’s cover domestic flying. My rule is, if I can get to the destination in under 48 hours on the ground, no flying. As far as mainland Southeast Asia goes, this rules out almost all direct domestic flights. In practice this would allow me some domestic flying in Indonesia (where I live), but 48 hours cuts out the egregious flights.

Not all aircraft are equal. Ratna Hotel, Yogyakarta. Photo: Sally Arnold.

On international flights, I’m taking a different approach. For every 1,000 km flown, I have to wait a week before getting on a flight again. So, as an example, according to The Google, the flight from Bali to Ho Chi Minh City is 2,373 km. As I’m going there in January, it means I have to stay there at least two weeks. The thousand kilometres equals a week is arbitrary, but it felt like a good starting point. Side-note, for my return from Vietnam, I’m thinking of doing it overland—could be fun.

For readers, rewrites of the transport sections are coming. These will reorganise the sections to place ground transport ahead of air. This is the tiniest of changes, but every bit counts. We’ll also devote more coverage looking at why ground transport is preferable. Any itineraries with domestic flights will be rewritten and re-timed to remove them.

Tour Companies

Aside from a few outlying cases that I can count on one hand, I will only use majority local-owned tour companies. As with the accommodation section above, this can be tricky to determine, but my goal is to try as best I can. When I say “local owned” I mean by a national of that country.

On the site, activities won’t be deleted wholesale, but there will be a focus on local-owned.

Money Matters

Ensuring that as much of my money stays local ties in with many of the above points. When you start thinking about this stuff, it is funny how often they’re all inter-related. If staying in local-owned homestays, eating at local restaurants, and using local guides, much of the money is by default staying local. I guess no more Prada handbags as gifts though.

On Travelfish, no listings for Prada outlets sorry.

Community Based Tourism

While we already profile some of the better known ones on Travelfish, I’m going to work to expand this. My goal is to find and try at least two schemes that fit the bill on each trip.

For readers, for once this will mean more coverage rather than less.

Travel Writing

Much of the above will tie in to how I’ll be doing my research and writing moving forward. This in turn will reflect onto the coverage you’ll read on Travelfish. Destination intros will include new coverage on how to visit in a responsible manner. In the coming weeks I’ll be adding a “Travel better” section to the site. It will hold all the posts in this series—and more. Other changes I mentioned in the piece on travel writing, so I’m not rehashing them here.

In Conclusion

The above marks the biggest single series of changes I’ve made to Travelfish—ever. It also takes place over a period where the site is ahhhh somewhat financially challenged lol. So, don’t expect all the above to happen overnight. Rather, this will be a slow iterative process.

There’s a whole new world through that door—yes, and a bloody jet-ski. Koh Rong. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I have my first research trip since the start of the pandemic this coming January, to Huế in Vietnam. While I’m there in part to present at a conference, I also plan to use the trip as a sandpit for some of the above changes. To figure out what is practical and what isn’t. My view is, you’re better to start with the impractical and wind it back rather than start out with easy.

For readers, I hope Travelfish will remain a useful resource for travel in the region. More than that though, I want to see it become a learning resource for how we all can travel better. Only in doing that will we be able to deliver on the true promise of travel—and leave a world worth travelling for the generations to come.

Other episodes in the Rethinking Tourism series:

  1. National Chocolate Milk Day (World Tourism Day)

  2. Nice Tourism (Sustainable Tourism)

  3. The Benevolent Lie (Responsible Tourism)

  4. The Year Is 2006. The Town Is Luang Prabang (Pro-poor Tourism)

  5. Zoom in to the Red Plastic Chairs (Slow Travel)

  6. The Petro-bourgeoisie (Flying, carbon etcetera)

  7. Reality Check (Tour companies)

  8. Follow the Money (Money matters)

  9. Foundations Matter (Community Based Tourism)

  10. The Writing On The Wall (Travel writing)

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The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.