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Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012

What a trip: Social networks behind unusual tours


Social networking is helping to open up new horizons in Japan for strangers interested in unusual travel destinations.

News photo
Pachyderm practice: Two Japanese women ride an elephant in Laos in June so they can become recognized as qualified elephant riders. KYODO

This summer, Daiki Hino, a 20-year-old university student in Tokyo, fulfilled his dream of roughing it on a deserted island.

With 14 other people, mostly university students and including some women, he spent two nights in July on Kajiko, an islet in Japan's Seto Inland Sea that lacks electricity and gas.

"I didn't expect my tour plan would actually go ahead," Hino said.

To arrange the tour, Hino used Trippiece, an Internet service that allows people to share their travel ideas for free and invite like-minded people to join them.

On its website, Trippiece touts the potential for rare experiences, such as "playing with pink dolphins in the Amazon River, watching an aurora in Alaska and riding an elephant in Laos."

The Kajiko tour cost just ¥15,000 per person, and although Hino and his fellow travelers encountered some unexpected problems — they were unable to catch any fish to eat and the water pump malfunctioned — Hino said he enjoyed the experience.

"This site is useful for finding people interested in unique sightseeing experiences," Hino said. "I will continue proposing interesting tours that travel agencies would not think of."

The Trippiece service, which was launched in August 2011, presently has around 20,000 registered members who link up through Facebook.

Some 80 tours have so far been organized. One tour offered travelers the chance to make the highest bungee jump in Japan, while another took travelers to the countryside of Yamagata in search of "zashiki warashi," a childlike spirit of Japanese folklore.

There have also been overseas art tours and trips to gain first-hand experience in developing countries.

In addition to providing a meeting place for people eager for unorthodox travel experiences, Trippiece also acts as a middleman for travelers and travel agencies.

Trippiece receives a 10 percent commission from the agencies, which undertake the logistic arrangements, such as flights and hotel reservations.

Kenichi Shinohara, another university student in Tokyo, arranged a tour to Laos during which travelers received the training needed to become a qualified elephant rider.

The cost was roughly half that of an ordinary tour, Shinohara said.

Tours offered by travel agencies cost more in general, partly because they are priced to secure a certain profit margin, even if they attract only the bare minimum of participants.

Ian Ishida, president of the company that runs Trippiece, extolled the approach of respecting the initiative of travelers while limiting the role played by the travel agencies. "This is different from the usual concept of sending tourists on tours that agencies want to sell," he said.

Trippiece's approach has already begun to impact Japan's travel industry. In September, JTB Corp., the nation's largest travel agency, launched a social networking-based tour service in partnership with Trippiece.

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