Paul Melhus CEO of Tours By Locals, started his company to make a difference to both tourists and guides.
We start by talking of regenerative travel, and what it is. Paul tells us about how his company, follows this new trend for responsible, sustainable travel, and how it started at the Great Wall of China. We then talk of over-traveled areas, under-traveled areas, slow travel, off-season, and "flying less, staying longer."
We discuss national parks, eco-friendly ways of getting around, and travel trends for 2022.
The discussion ends with Paul's travel stories, including the strangest drink ever in the Yukon, swimming in the Arctic Ocean, visiting Druid sites in the Scottish Highlands, and a return to Rome.
Paul ends this varied episode with his favorite memory of all, about a surprising result from a dinner in Argentina.
Paul Melhus, CEO and co-founder of ToursByLocals, with offices on 4 continents, served over 1.5 million travelers, and currently provides meaningful work opportunities to 4,700 local guides around the world. Paul is Canadian and travel has been a constant in his life, whether he’s cold water swimming in the Arctic Ocean, or learning to speak Spanish in Buenos Aires.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.com. Please follow, rate and review this award-winning travel podcast!
And exciting news! Starting in 2022 -- we'll be dropping podcasts bi-weekly, on Tuesdays, and we'll be on YouTube every other week, starting mid- February, with travel clips/tips/trips.
*Transcript edited for clarity.
Lea Lane 0:04
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award winning travel writer, and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.
Lea Lane 0:23
We know of sustainable tourism which aims to counterbalance social and environmental impacts associated with travel. It's morphed into regenerative travel, or leaving a place better than you found it. Regenerative travel is the next big trend for conscious travelers. It tries to ensure that the benefits contributed by visitors outweigh the resources they consume. It's intentional tourism to create positive contributions to the quality of life.
Lea Lane 0:51
We'll discuss this new awareness and later talk about places in the world with our guest, Paul Melhus, CEO and co-founder of Tours by Locals, with offices on four continents serving over 1.5 million travelers, and currently providing meaningful work opportunities to 4700 local guides around the world. Paul is Canadian, and travel has been a constant in his life. Welcome to Places I Remember, Paul.
Paul Melhus 1:18
Thanks, Lea. Nice to be here.
Lea Lane 1:21
Well, what exactly is Tours by Locals? And how does it fit in with regenerative travel?
Paul Melhus 1:27
Tours by Locals is a platform that is designed to connect travelers and local tour guides, and we're trying to create a place where people can have a better experience than just seeing the site. So through the platform, our travelers will connect with a local guide, they'll take a look at, you know, the various tours that they offer, pick one that kind of tweaks their interest. And then through the platform, they can customize the experience. And basically, the platform is all for private tours. So you get to choose who you want to be with. It's not you with 40 other people on a big bus, it's typically three to four people is our average group size, and the tour guide. And we are in 193 countries around the world. So something like 1500 destinations, all of the usual suspects, you know, Rome, Paris to lots of smaller ones as well. You can go to the Faroe Islands, Whitehorse in the Yukon, you know, some of the smaller places that maybe don't come upon people's travel radar. And it is our goal actually to kind of offer private tours everywhere people travel. So we've still got a lot of work to do. I believe there's around 3500 destinations that we want to include on the platform, and we have a whole team that's dedicated to building out the number of tourists on the site.
Lea Lane 3:02
Great, you're thinking big, I like that. Now how did Tours by Locals start?
Paul Melhus 3:07
The initial idea for it was in the year 2006. My partner and I, Dave Vincent, who's actually the CTO of the company, were traveling to China. And we were in Beijing, it was the last day of our stay there. And we still hadn't seen the Great Wall. So figuring out how to do that was really important to us. If you've been to Beijing, you know that you can access the wall at a number of locations. The typical one for people is called Badaling. But it's like the Disney version of the Great Wall. It's been all fixed up. And, you know, there's the tour bus parking over here and the great hordes of travelers going to see it well.
Paul Melhus 3:53
You know, that really has zero interest for us. So we hired a guy to take us out to a place about two hours out of Beijing. And as we were walking to get onto the wall, we passed a group of, I guess, maybe 20 Chinese women, and two of them kind of came off after us. And, you know, while we're walking around, kind of just looking at the sights, they introduced themselves, and they actually spoke pretty good English. And we started up a conversation with them. And they, you know, wanted to offer us a kind of an impromptu tour of the Great Wall. They were actually farmers and they did this on the days when there was no farm work to do. So we had a really great experience with the two of them for a couple of hours.
Paul Melhus 4:42
But, you know, always there was this undercurrent of why are they doing this, you know, what's gonna happen at the end of it all. And indeed, when it's time for us to go to the airport, they brought out their cards and books and all the various tchotchkes that they tried to sell us and stuff we weren't really very interested in. But we bought a few things, I think it was like $15, you know, we had no money to speak of, because it was our last day and we got rid of it all.
Paul Melhus 5:14
So, on the plane, we started a conversation about how, you know, this could have been so much better experience both for us and for those two women who may have value to give us and we were interested in hearing their story, certainly, the information about the Great Wall, and the history was really interesting, but also learning something about their life and the kind of reality of what life was like for them as farmers and part-time tour guides.
Paul Melhus 5:42
So over the course of two years, we developed the concept for Tours by Locals, and by October of 2008, we were ready with the first iteration of the product. Of course, that was one month after Lehman Brothers crashed the world. So here we are, with our brand new platform, no guides, and optimism for the future. Anyways, as it turned out, the great recession was a real benefit to us, because we didn't have a lot of money to start the platform, it was all self financed. So, you know, if you have no guides, why would travelers come? And if you have no travelers, why would guides sign up? But when the world is crashing down around us, at least that was the headline of the time, was a really easy pitch to go out and sign up guides. And that's what we did for the first two years of our existence, then when travel started to heal, we were there, too, with a credible product offering. And basically, it's been a constant growth pattern ever since up until, well, I'm gonna say March of 2020 was when everything basically crashed again, and we're just digging our way out of it right now.
Lea Lane 6:59
Right. I'm sure you'll climb way back up in 2022. There is a great penchant for travel.
Paul Melhus 7:05
Oh, absolutely. Yeah, we're really starting to see it. We're super optimistic for for the future, because this idea of regenerative travel has been building for a long time. And, you know, I think the pandemic accelerates certain trends. And I think it will accelerate this one because people were never very interested in sitting in a bus with 50 other people, and they're going to be even less interested in it now.
Paul Melhus 7:34
So the idea of the small group, much less impact on the local environment, when you're going in a group of four or five people, as opposed to a group of 40 or 50 people. So just kind of built into the experiences is a lesser footprint in the idea of connecting with a local person, and the money flows directly into their pocket, as opposed to some tour operator that views the local person as a kind of source of costs, that they want to kind of grind it down, especially in developing countries, that's the area where I think that we have the biggest impact.
Paul Melhus 8:15
A lot of people participate in the travel industry kind of on the margins. You know, we have a guide of Agra, who before Tours by Locals, he would hang out at the entrance to the Taj Mahal, and try and get $10 tour with a whole bunch of other people from a Westerner. And now that he's on the platform Tours by Locals, they communicate with each other, he has a professional preference, all of the kind of mechanics of paying and connecting and sort of vetting of the individual are done by ourselves. And then basically, the guide shows up, they go off with their group, they have the experience, and then it's kind of like meeting a friend. So it's a much more ennobling experience, both for for the traveler and particularly for the local guy.
Lea Lane 9:10
Right, I know in many countries, many underdeveloped countries, when you go to a square or you walk near a tourist site, there'll be a whole bunch of people coming towards you and trying to be your guide. It's chaos.
Paul Melhus 9:24
Lea Lane 9:24
If you'd like to hire a guy, this makes it much more pleasant for all, as you said. There are some over traveled areas in this world. What makes a place over traveled and what are a few of these places, would you say?
Paul Melhus 9:37
Oh, well, certainly, it's probably much less of a problem right now than it used to be, unfortunately, but definitely just the sheer impact of too many people at one time. You know, Venice is a classic example of that. But you know, a lot of these smaller places like where the big cruise ship comes into port, 5000 people descend on the destination, and then then they all leave. That's a real problem. There is a tendency, or there will be a tendency, for that to kind of reappear as the world heals. And that's been one of the things that we've been working very hard on during the pandemic is to try and fill out some of the other destinations that are maybe close by but rather than going to Venice, why not go to Verona, you know. It's a super interesting place. People kind of avoid it, or it's not nearly as popular as Venice. But we've tried to get guides in some of those smaller destinations that are close by the the main places that everybody wants to go. So that we can offer a better experience in the smaller destinations,
Lea Lane 10:47
Right. I happened to write a piece for forbes.com, just about this. And some of the under traveled areas were based on data, where Cambodia --whereas Thailand and Vietnam are much more crowded popular with tourists -- Cambodia is less so. Uruguay was mentioned as one where people go to other countries nearby and have not gone enough. They have the facilities, but they're not using them as much. And a couple of the others, Albania, Jordan, the Seychelles and Macau, but there are many like that, where people are ready and the tours are ready. But the people aren't coming as much as they are to neighboring countries, as you said.
Paul Melhus 11:25
Yeah. Those are all destinations where we have have guides by the way.
Lea Lane 11:29
Of course, that's terrific. That's why you're here.
Paul Melhus 11:32
Lea Lane 11:32
Can you please give us some tips for making safe and sustainable travel plans as we travel more and more in the coming months?
Paul Melhus 11:40
Well, certainly, it's important to be aware of your destination and what's going on, because it can change fairly quickly. And so that's one of the benefits of connecting with a local guide, because they have the knowledge about what's actually happening on the ground. But I guess the biggest thing that we might like to suggest is maybe a slower travel. And you know, rather than just trying to hit five different destinations in a week, you know, spend the whole week in one place or for one or two. And then the other thing would be to travel in February, or rather, I should say whatever February happens to be for the place that you're going. So, you know, the off-season, like Barcelona, is awesome in February, the temperatures in the mid teens, I guess, which in centigrade is not too bad. It's sunny, it's beautiful, and there's nobody there. So you'll have the place to yourself. So I think that would be the best thing is to try and avoid the crowds. I mean, it's less crowded right now than it has been. Although I have to say, you know, our sales so far are up 639% over the same period last year.
Lea Lane 13:00
Oh my goodness.
Paul Melhus 13:04
So we certainly do have a lot of pent up demand. During the pandemic, of course, we saw a lot more people traveling to the national parks. We were trying to get people out of Yellowstone, and into some of the smaller places that are equally as interesting.
Lea Lane 13:25
We have an episode on that, so many wonderful parks. And they are, many of them, empty compared to the big ones.
Paul Melhus 13:33
Lea Lane 13:34
I would also add, maybe consider the most eco friendly way of getting to your chosen destination. For example, if you fly, you can sign up for a carbon reduction platform to help offset your flight's carbon footprint and donate to certified eco projects, just something to try to mitigate.
Paul Melhus 13:53
Yeah, definitely air travel is a big contributor to climate change. So if you can do that sort of thing, it's really excellent. But again, probably flying less, staying longer would be a really good thing to do.
Lea Lane 14:10
I think that's a win win because there's nothing lovelier than staying for a while and feeling a place and feeling the sense of place that you get when it's slow travel.
Paul Melhus 14:19
Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Lea Lane 14:21
Now, I know that you collect travel data. So tell us about 2022 travel trends. What are a few of them?
Paul Melhus 14:28
it's really changed a lot over 2020 and 2021. What we're really seeing is a return to Europe in 2021. The top destinations for us were places like Boston, Charleston, the National Parks, Hawaii, and our sales in those areas have remained consistent. But what's happened is that the usual Europe has really taken over, so our number one destination for 2022, based on bookings so far in this year. is Rome. And that's followed by Amsterdam, Athens, Paris, which Paris is a bit of a surprise.
Paul Melhus 15:14
Usually it's a toss up between, is it going to be Rome or Paris that is vying for the top spot. But now we've got people going to Amsterdam, maybe a little bit smaller destination, Athens. And then London, the Amalfi Coast, Lisbon. These are all European destinations that are super popular. But what we're seeing is that these bookings are for earlier in the year, not so much out into June and July and August, which is kind of the high travel season.
Lea Lane 15:49
They can't wait, they want to get there before the summer.
Paul Melhus 15:51
Yeah, well, and you know, it's what we encourage anyways, because we want people to go when nobody else is there.
Lea Lane 16:00
Yes, balance it out. Balance is the key to life.
Paul Melhus 16:03
Lea Lane 16:04
How about an increase in bookings across South America and Asia.
Paul Melhus 16:09
South America has started to pick up, not to the same extent as Europe. A lot of places have just recently opened up, like, for example, Argentina, and Uruguay just opened themselves for travel, starting in November. And I think, you know, even though people could book with the expectation that they would be able to travel a little bit later, they typically won't do that until the places actually open. They can do so because, you know, if if the cancellation policy is very flexible, so they would get a refund anyways, if they couldn't go. But we've started to see Ecuador, Buenos Aires, Mendoza pickup, and again, you mentioned Uruguay. So there's some people going to Punta del Este and, and Montevideo.
Lea Lane 16:58
Those are wonderful places to visit.
Paul Melhus 17:00
Yeah, it certainly is great if you want to get away from the cold of the North, that's the time to go.
Lea Lane 17:07
Absolutely. Now I know you've traveled the world, Paul. So let's share some travel stories, a few of your favorite places that you can think of that maybe have stories to share.
Paul Melhus 17:20
Well, of course, I already mentioned about the origin story of Tours by Locals. That was pretty life changing for me. I guess, being Canadian and growing up in the Canadian north, I've always had an affinity for the North. One of the things that I'd like to recommend to everybody is you should fly to Whitehorse in the Yukon, Canada's Yukon, rent an SUV, and then drive from there to Tuktoyaktuk, which is on the Arctic Ocean. It's about, I'm gonna say, 1300 kilometers. And of course, you want to take a little side trip to Dawson City. And you have to go to the Diamond Tooth Gertie's there, and the hotel, and taste the Sour Toe Cocktail.
Lea Lane 18:14
The Sour Toe Cocktail? Can you explain that one, please?
Paul Melhus 18:17
Oh, sure, yes. So basically, you know that it's cold in the north, and people do get frostbite. So, I don't know how this got started. But anyways, some guy donated his big toe that had gotten amputated because it had too bad of frostbite. And so they preserve it in salt at this hotel. And you go there and there's the toe captain is there. And basically you buy a shot of whiskey, he puts the toe into the whiskey and you have to drink it. And you know, the poem is, "Drink it fast. Drink it slow. Your lips must touch the gnarly toe."
Lea Lane 18:22
Never heard of that before!
Paul Melhus 18:59
Oh, it's really fun.
Lea Lane 19:00
How many times have you done that?
Paul Melhus 19:03
I've done it once. But you know, I'm like, you get a nice certificate. And I think I'm about number 80,000 of people that have done this experience.
Lea Lane 19:14
I'll take a pass on that one.
Paul Melhus 19:17
No, no, no, it's super fun. But you know, if you chew or swallow the toe, there's a $2,500 fine, because people have done that.
Lea Lane 19:26
Really? And it comes out at the end, I guess.
Paul Melhus 19:29
I imagine it does. Yeah.
Lea Lane 19:31
Oh my goodness.
Paul Melhus 19:32
So yeah. Anyways, that's a three day detour to Dawson City in the the gold mining center of the Yukon. And then drive on the Dempster Highway. It's fantastically beautiful. The engineers who designed the highway, I feel, must have been poets because they couldn't have picked a more picturesque route through the North and it's really, really worth it.
Lea Lane 19:59
Another one with another digit!
Paul Melhus 20:02
Yeah, exactly. So yeah. And then of course, when you get to Tuktoyaktuk, you really ought to go swimming in the Arctic Ocean.
Lea Lane 20:08
How cold is that?
Paul Melhus 20:10
Um, well, you know, saltwater doesn't freeze at zero. So the average surface temperature of the ocean there is about minus one degrees centigrade. So what would that be in Fahrenheit? About 30 degrees? Yeah, something like that. Yeah, you don't go for too long, but it's worth a quick dip.
Lea Lane 20:29
I like your trips, Paul!
Paul Melhus 20:32
So that's pretty memorable. Some of the other things that kind of come to mind would be going to the Highlands in Scotland. I think you've probably been there.
Lea Lane 20:43
Paul Melhus 20:44
And you know, it's kind of popular now, because of the Outlander series. That's based on real things. And it's pretty interesting to go to some of those old Druid standing stones and be there with a local guide and kind of experience what people thousands of years ago were creating for us to to enjoy today.
Lea Lane 21:09
No toes, too. I like this one.
Paul Melhus 21:10
No, no toes. No.
Lea Lane 21:11
Just darkly beautiful.
Paul Melhus 21:13
Lea Lane 21:14
How about somewhere else?
Paul Melhus 21:16
Well, when I'm just kind of recollecting some of my favorite destinations, memorable ones, I have to remember going to Rome a few years ago with my two sisters and kind of recreating a trip that I did with my parents probably 10 or 15 years previous to that. Walking around the Forum and spending an hour trying to find the that one place where my mother sat, because it was super hot in Rome at the time and a little alcove that she sat, and I have this picture of her. And so it was really nice to be able to discover that and share that with my two sisters.
Lea Lane 21:59
So that's a beautiful memory.
Paul Melhus 22:00
Lea Lane 22:02
That's what travel brings us.
Paul Melhus 22:04
Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Lea Lane 22:05
Amazing. Well, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. So Paul, please give us one of your very favorite travel memories to end.
Paul Melhus 22:14
Oh, sure. That would have to be our trip to Buenos Aires in 2012. We actually went down there to meet up with some of our guides. And there was one in particular, his name is Luciano, he gave us a tour of the city, which was awesome. He was one of our best tour guides in Buenos Aires. And then after we'd finished our tour, he invited us to go to dinner with him, which we did, he picked a fantastic restaurant. But over the course of the next few years, we corresponded with Luciano and had a need for somebody to look after our guides in South America. So we hired this tour guide as our sort of business development person for South America. And over the course of I guess about five years, he took increasingly more senior roles in in the company and he's now the president.
Lea Lane 23:15
He's the President the entire company?
Paul Melhus 23:17
Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Lea Lane 23:18
What a great dinner for him!
Paul Melhus 23:20
Yeah, worked out pretty well. That's the kind of thing that sometimes happens to you, when you get out and travel. You have these unexpected consequences, sometimes they're good, sometimes they're bad, but they're always memorable.
Lea Lane 23:39
Absolutely. You've got to get out and go to have them. And that's the great thing about travel. You never know. Thank you very much Paul Melhus, CEO and co-founder of Tours by Locals. We all need to be aware of our planet, and regenerative travel led by companies like yours is the way to go now and in the future. And I'm gonna remember your story of Whitehorse forever.
Paul Melhus 24:05
Well, thanks very much, Lea.
Lea Lane 24:13
Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and at bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going
Transcribed by https://otter.ai