In 2011, Sanne Meijboom had been working for years as an international business consultant, but the lifestyle had started to run its course, and she was wondering what to do next.
She was feeling "a little bit done with my job as business consultant, working for big companies, working hard and not really seeing the value."
“I wanted to do something I had a passion for and could earn money with, like more of a social enterprise, which on one hand is creating value and the other hand has the opportunity to have profit," explained Meijboom.
Meijboom, originally from the Netherlands, had just moved to Brazil, and her years of travel had taught her that the most memorable experiences were deep within the local culture.
"As I am a fervent traveler myself, I started to think 'OK, how do I experience that?'"
Her desire to turn her passion for travel into a socially conscious business started to take shape in the form of I Like Local (www.i-likelocal.com). It's a travel booking website dedicated to connecting travelers with authentic, local activities and creating those local interactions that Meijboom valued the most from her own trips.
In designing I Like Local, Meijboom sourced from what she had learned on her own journeys. Like most people, she had conducted research on the place she planned to visit, but in the back of her mind always was the worry that she might miss out on unique activities. And she realized that not everyone had time to do extensive research on a trip, so she wanted to make the site different from most travel booking sites by avoiding the easy-to-find tourist traps and instead facilitating local connections which bring a greater understanding of other cultures and people.
“It’s more like AirBnB, except the only difference is that it’s more for activities, accommodation and food, and only focused on emerging markets and developing countries where people need it more,” Meijboom said.
This online platform is free for participants (for the local vendors and the travelers), and Meijboom says the most popular activities on the site are usually related to food, with cooking classes and farm stays topping the list. Travelers will also find home stays, volunteer opportunities and small tours that tie in cultural experiences. Currently I Like Local is focused on Asia (Meijboom is now based in Hong Kong), but she plans to expand the site to Africa and South America. Because of the personal touch, every experience is a little different, and for Meijboom, that's part of the charm.
Meijboom tells the story of a cooking class in Bali that leaves a lasting impression on participants. Travelers say they learn how to cook authentic Balinese cuisine, but what they also share in their feedback is how they enjoyed learning the philosophy behind Balinese cooking and learning about the local people teaching the class.
“It is a double win—not only the experience at that moment but learning something for back home,” she said.
Her site's users tend to gravitate toward those experiences that touch their hearts, like visits to the Ayo Mandiri Foundation, an Indonesian foundation that operates a massage center for disabled people, particularly those who are blind or deaf. The center teaches the disabled how to give massages to others, learning techniques that will help them shape a future. Travelers get the same experience; a three-hour course teaches them the same massage techniques that Ayo Mandiri is sharing with the disabled, and on top of it, they receive a one-hour massage.
She also shares the story of Shamser, a Nepalese man from the small village of Gaunsahar who left his village to pursue his education. The village's close-knit community drew him back and today he has built a program which simultaneously improves his small community while also offering travelers the opportunities to volunteer as a teacher, to help build a school or work and live like a local as part of a farm stay at an agricultural project in nearby Lamjung.
What's most important about this kind of travel, said Meijboom, is that people take away life lessons and a greater appreciation for their own lives.
“I hear from travelers who visit them [in Gaunsahar] really say ‘Wow, this was such an inspiring person, it was really unique and pure and I felt so at ease,’ and those are the kind of stories I love to hear."
Gallery: The Experiences of I Like Local
Canoe through the stunning blue waters of Coron in this activity in the Philippines and interact with a local tribe, swim, snorkel and sleep under the stars. (©Al Linsangan)
Travelers view Cambodia's countryside on a bicycle tour. (Courtesy I Like Local)
The Cambodian bike tour includes exploring the countryside, learning about the locals and their conventional livelihoods, and learning how to make traditional items such as rice wine, rice paper and bamboo rice cakes. (Courtesy I Like Local)
Explore Thailand in this food experience where you will learn how to cook authentic Thai dishes. (Courtesy I Like Local)
Submerge yourself in a Mumbai Slum for half of a day. (Courtesy Dharavi Tour Guides)
This Mumbai slum tour brings you through one of India's largest slums, where you will see the daily life of the locals. (Courtesy Dharavi Tour Guides)
The Bali cooking class (mentioned above) includes visiting the local market to learn about local ingredients and spices, and then preparing Balinese dishes while discovering the stories behind these traditional meals. (Courtesy TravelTelly)