Understanding niche accommodation in tourism: the case of Couchsurfing hosts
The tourism industry is regarded as one of the fastest growing sectors of the South African economy and is estimated to employ a third of the total population in South Africa directly or indirectly. The tourism industry consists of transport, food and beverage, accommodation and entertainment. The accommodation sector is a subsector of the hospitality sector which consists of accommodation and food and beverage sector. The accommodation sector plays a vital role in tourism as it provides short-term stays for travellers. The traditional accommodation sector is quite expensive and considered inauthentic by some travellers hence the emergence of an online hospitality exchange known as Couchsurfing. It is therefore important to examine Couchsurfing to ascertain its role in tourism activities and the economy. Couchsurfing connects like-minded individuals for the provision of free accommodation and other activities such as events. Although a relatively new platform, Couchsurfing has been studied extensively in a Western and Asian perspective. Therefore, this study focuses on the South African host perspective in comparison to international hosts. The interaction on this platform is between strangers therefore South Africa, being known as the crime capital of the world makes examining Couchsurfing important to ascertain why people take the risk despite the high crime rate. Questions therefore arise: Firstly, who are the people (Couchsurfing hosts) who temporarily allow visitors (couchsurfers) into their homes and why? Secondly, what do hosts expect in return? How do South African hosts compare to international hosts? Do South Africans share an interest in authentic experiences? Lastly, how do hosts approach safety issues? This study was based on these questions. The goal of this dissertation was to analyse Couchsurfing as niche accommodation in tourism from the hosts' perspective. Four objectives were formulated to achieve the goal of the study. The first objective was to carry out a literature review of the accommodation sector in tourism so as to provide an overview of this sector to date. The information contained in the review provides a discussion of how the accommodation sector fits into tourism, as well as the history of the sector, different types of accommodation establishments and the changing trends of the sector. Lastly, the review reveals how Couchsurfing forms part of the accommodation sector. The second objective was to review Couchsurfing as a niche for accommodation in tourism. This provides a background to the platform and an understanding of the different aspects involved in the operations of Couchsurfing. This review also provides some of the motivations of hosts' participation in Couchsurfing. he third objective was to determine Couchsurfing hosts' motives for hosting strangers at no fee as well as to conduct a comparison between South African hosts and international hosts. Safety measures, reasons for account verification and determining if Couchsurfing has improved hosts understanding of other cultures was also examined as part of this objective. This was done so as to develop strategies to popularise Couchsurfing using the motives identified as well as determine safety measures used by hosts, if any. To attain this information, an online questionnaire was designed in Google Forms and distributed to hosts on the Couchsurfing website as well as international Couchsurfing groups on Facebook. A total of 624 usable responses were obtained, divided between South African hosts (n=197) and international hosts (n=427). The data captured in Google Forms was transferred into Microsoft Excel and analysed through IBM Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS v.25.0). The results of the analysis were presented in four parts. Firstly, the combined descriptive socio-demographic and behavioural profiles were shown. Secondly, comparisons were made between the socio-demographic and behavioural profiles of South African and international Couchsurfing hosts. Thirdly, an Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA) was performed to reduce the number of statements in the Likert scale that measured why couchsurfers are hosted by Couchsurfer hosts. Fourthly, independent sample tests (t-test) and cross tabulation analyses were presented to reveal differences in hosting behaviour between South African and international hosts. The EFA revealed three factors as motives for hosting strangers at no fee. These were socialising, reciprocity and kindness. The most important motivation was socialising, revealing that, for the host, participation in Couchsurfing is about meeting and interacting with new people, which in turn facilitates cultural exchange. A comparison of the hosts with regard to socio-demographic and behavioural characteristics was conducted through t-tests and cross tabulation analyses. The analysis revealed small differences between the hosts with regard to years of hosting couchsurfers, and number of times Couchsurfer hosts had been hosted. International hosts have been hosting couchsurfers longer than South African hosts and have hosted couchsurfers more times than South African hosts. Cross tabulation analyses revealed a very weak relationship between country of residence and socio-demographic variables such as level of education. The final objective was to draw conclusions and make recommendations with regard to the study. Contributions of the study are also discussed in this chapter. This study makes a significant contribution to literature by providing a South African perspective of Couchsurfing as well as the safety measures hosts use when engaging in this virtual community. This study also reveals that accommodation provision is not the only way to participate in Couchsurfing but activities such as 'tour guiding' and attending events to interact with other hosts and couchsurfers as well. It is strongly recommended that the site managers better market the importance of the verification safety feature because most hosts do not regard it as important or necessary. This study can, in future, be used to develop a framework for the improved management and marketing of this hospitality network.