Editorial: Off your couch... and on to someone else's
Most people love holidays; not everyone can afford the sort they want. Herein lies a major part of the appeal in swapping homes, the trend in holidaymaking highlighted on the front of yesterday's Nelson Mail. Although it has been around for 50 years in an organised form and probably for much longer informally, this way of taking a break is gaining momentum and if there are those in the accommodation industry who don't like it, they will have to lump it.
Why? Because there are several reasons to applaud the growth of this movement. In a pragmatic sense, it fits into the overall tourism scene in the same way as couch-surfing, which says "you can come and spend a few nights on my couch if I can do the same on yours". Money doesn't change hands but the hospitality you show is a down payment on a similar welcome when you arrive in Nelson, Lancashire, Nelson, Ontario or any of the thousands of places around the world where couch surfing has got going.
There is a greater degree of formality in the HomeLink way of holidaying, with a membership fee and a list of reasonably stringent conditions, but at the end of the paperwork - or web-work - comes a private home with a car, all at no other cost than what it takes to get you there. There's a high degree of trust involved but with proper attention to insurance and the vetting of the people who will exchange their home and vehicle for yours, this is a novel and much more affordable way to take a trip than the norm.
If New Zealand's future lies in ever more tourism - and that's not something to be blindly accepted as desirable - it makes sense to encourage this way of doing it in the same way that we welcome high-end lodge users at the top of the scale and backpackers at the bottom.
All classes of visitor contribute to our economy and as backpacker studies have shown, people who spend less on accommodation have more for entertainment and adventure. Campervan hirers are another case in point. Anyone who has been in a motor camp on a tourism route and seen how it magically fills up with these plug-in arrivals at the end of the day can confirm what a contribution they are making.
So the economic benefits are persuasive, and angst among accommodation providers, while natural enough, is surely just a sign that businesses of all kinds must be nimble-footed to negotiate the rapid changes wrought by the ease of internet use. But New Zealanders are not yet so mercenary as to judge everything in business terms.
Surely the most compelling argument in favour of swapping homes with people from overseas or for that matter, from another part of the country, is that it can make the difference between going away on holiday or staying home, or extend a trip that would otherwise be short. There is a long history of Kiwi hospitality at holiday time, of one family letting another park a caravan in their driveway or pitch a tent on the lawn. Swapping homes taps into the same way of thinking - and the trust it requires can only help to build better links between individuals, regions and nations.