People Who Meet People: Getting Acquainted in Sixteen Countries


WHAT I CALL meet-the-people programs bring tourists together with residents to spend time informally, without requiring them, as most international-friendship programs do, to stay in the residents’ homes. Such programs exist in Austria, the Bahamas, Grenada, India, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, the UK, and the USSR, and probably other countries as well. They are not necessarily something to build vacations around. It’s better to think of them as enhancements to trips you want to take anyway.

The idea of these programs puzzles some people, who can’t understand what’s in it either for tourists or for locals. In my experience as a tourist, it is all too easy to feel walled off from real life. You spend your days at tourist attractions, your nights at tourist hotels. The places you go to eat and drink are overrun with fellow tourists, who may be the only people you meet besides tourism-industry employees, such as hotel concierges and sightseeing guides. The concierges and guides, and the publications laid out in your hotel room, are full of information and advice, but little of it takes into account your needs and wants apart from those considered typical of tourists. You hear and see the word welcome frequently, but it begins to seem like nothing more than an invitation to open your wallet. Welcome to tourist hell!

If tourist heaven exists, I think, it is real life, but with the everyday responsibilities, cares, and unloveliness stripped away. And meet-the-people programs beckon tourists into this heaven—or so it seemed to me when I took part in the Bahamas’ People-To-People program recently. People-To-Pcople, which is run by the Bahamian Ministry of Tourism, is the most active program of its kind in the world. In 1987 it introduced almost 5,000 tourists—everyone from students on spring break or summer vacation to the spouses of people attending conferences—to 1,500 volunteers, on five Bahamian islands. It gives tea parties, at which tourists meet residents en masse, and it helps foreign couples who want to be married in the Bahamas, sometimes even providing witnesses. But mostly it matches tourists with residents for age, sex, and occupation or interests, introduces the people it has matched, and then lets them decide how to spend their time together. The program’s senior manager, Sylvia Cole, remembers one tourist who didn’t want to do anything but drive around and look at supermarkets. (This woman and her husband owned a chain of supermarkets back home.) At the time, Cole was not the senior manager but a volunteer—the volunteer who drove the woman around to look at supermarkets. Tourists pay nothing for People-To-People’s services; the local people volunteer their time and aren’t even reimbursed for any expenses they may incur.

In Nassau, on New Providence Island, I spent a wonderful evening with Richard and Sylvia Crawford, who were matched with me because they are both writers. Sylvia, the author of three cookbooks, made an impromptu dinner of pork chops and chicken, and we all sat on the terrace and talked until late. In Freeport, on Grand Bahama Island, I spent an evening with Carol Martinborough, who, like me, is a scuba diver. Carol prepared Bahamian specialties— cracked conch, pan-fried grouper—and told me all about dive sites. It’s parochial of me, I suppose, but I found it almost overwhelming to be invited into the homes of strangers and served homecooked meals.

What’s in it for the locals? “We collect interesting people, and we find none too many of them,” Richard Crawford said drolly. Carol Martinborough, who had moved to Freeport from Nassau a few years before, seemed a little sorry for people kicking around on an island where they didn’t know anyone. She was, besides, extremely hospitable by nature: her phone kept ringing, and half the time it was neighbors wanting to borrow some lime juice or offering to drop by later and polish off any leftovers she might have around. Larry Eisner, who is responsible for Friends Overseas, the program that operates in Scandinavia, speaks of its Scandinavian members as “gracious” and “friendly” but also attributes pragmatic motives to them. “They like to practice their English,” he told me. “They have an insatiable desire to learn about the States. And many of them want to make contacts for trips they might want to take in the States.”

EACH MEET-THE-PEOPLE program has its own story. In 1972 Eisner, a junior high school guidance counselor who lives in Forest Hills, New York, was inspired to start Friends Overseas by the good times he’d had making friends in Scandinavia on several trips there. He wrote to the student newspaper at the University of Stockholm, inviting anyone interested in meeting American tourists to send him a note, and was astonished to receive more than four hundred eager letters in the next three weeks. He had to scramble to find American tourists to match his correspondents up with. The publishers of Scandinavia on $25 a Day agreed to mention him in the next edition, and Friends Overseas was born. Eisner still runs it, as a hobby, though he has recruited volunteer coordinators (two schoolteachers and two college students) in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland. In 1987 the program brought together 1,700 American and Canadian individuals, couples, and families with some of its 5,000 Scandinavian individual, couple, and family volunteers. These days Posner is working on finding a coordinator in Iceland and extending the program there.

Good ideas, the common wisdom has it, occur to more than one person at a time. In 1970 Herb Hiller, the vicepresident of a cruise-ship line in Miami (now a free-lance writer in Coconut Grove), got around to taking his first cruise, in the Caribbean. “I was appalled at what the cruise director was telling the passengers about the people on the islands,”Hiller told me recently. “He was filling them full of fear. The purpose, of course, was to sell them optional excursions, which make a lot of money for the cruise line. When I got back, I went to the president of the line and said, We can do a lot better.”

Because the ship called at three ports in Jamaica, Hiller concentrated on developing programs there. His first innovation was to bring a Jamaican family aboard the ship each week to do what he calls a “show-and-tell about their lives. Then passengers were also given the chance to have lunch with a class of Jamaican schoolchildren and to take walks through town guided by Jamaican crew members. Soon after that Hiller left his job to serve as the executive director of the Caribbean Tourism Association, a position he held from 1971 to 1973. “Being with the Caribbean people closely—staying in their homes and in small local places—changed my life,”he says.

He became convinced that tourism was best for practically everybody involved when it relied as little as possible on imported resources and made creative use of local resources, including people, and he argued his case wherever he went. In one response to the challenge he posed, the Jamaica Tourist Board launched the Meet the People program, in 1973. Here, a Jamaican government entity began offering to do for tourists and Jamaicans what Larry Eisner was then beginning to do for tourists and Scandinavians. Meet the People has thrived, to the point that in 1987 it introduced three thousand tourists to some five hundred Jamaicans. And in 1975 the Bahamas’ Ministry of Tourism launched People-To-People. These programs “were never meant to be just one more thing for tourists to do,”Hiller says. “They were always meant to make tourism more satisfying for people on both ends of the equation.”

Not only do the programs have their own histories; they work in different ways. Some of them, including PeopleTo-People, Meet the People, Friends Overseas, and Meet the Israeli in His Home, match tourists and residents for compatibility (using staff brainpower and intuition, not computers), but others lack the resources to attempt this. Many of the programs leave it up to participants how they will spend their time together, but a few are less flexible, the program in the USSR being the prime example: you have tea or dinner in a local family’s home. Some programs are circumscribed geographically: the Indian one, for example, operates only in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, and Madras. Most programs operate in only one direction, though here the Austrian program is an exception, introducing Austrian tourists to Americans as well as the other way around. Sometimes you must apply to the program weeks or months in advance and perhaps also write ahead to your prospective hosts (this is how Friends Overseas works). Sometimes you can make arrangements for a visit only after you’ve arrived at your destination. And sometimes you have the option of doing either (as in People-ToPeople and Meet the People, though each of these programs will probably make a better match for you if you write ahead). Generally, in countries where English is not the first language, volunteers speak at least some English, and translators are not provided.

TWO OTHER, AMERICAN questions that come up about meet-the-people programs: Do they function as dating services? And how sale is it to take part in them? When I asked Sylvia Cole, the People-To-People manager, if she ever introduced single tourists to single residents of the opposite sex, she said, “That’s a no-no,”adding, “We would introduce a single woman to a woman or a couple, a man to a man or a couple.”Larry Eisner, perhaps uniquely, is willing to contemplate that members of his program might date. However, he gets exercised when people—“young guys,”he says, are the usual offenders—ask him for photographs of the Scandinavian members he has matched them with. “I say, there are no photographs in this organization. If you want to walk around town alone, you can do that. If you want someone to show you around, line. But we have no photographs, just people.”

As for safety, Carmita Miller, the manager of People-To-People in Freeport and Lucaya, told me, “All the volunteers are screened. They fill out applications and tell us where they live and where they work, so we know who they are. But most of them are personally known to program staff members."(Indeed, my hostess Sylvia Crawford attends the same church that Sylvia Cole does. And until she moved to Freeport, so did my hostess Carol Martinborough.) Much the same goes for Friends Overseas and other programs.

Your travel agent can probably provide you with a People-To-People or Meet the People application. If not, call or write any of the fourteen U.S. offices of the Ministry of Tourism of the Bahamas or any of the five U.S. offices of the Jamaica Tourist Board. National tourist board offices are probably the best source for information about the other programs, too, except Friends Overseas (send a long, self-addressed, stamped envelope to 68-04 Dartmouth Street, Forest Hills, New York 11375; there is a $25 fee if you decide to use its services), the Austrian program (write to Juliana Belcsak, President, Austro-American Council, 5 Russell Terrace, Montclair, New Jersey 07042), and the British program (send four international reply coupons to the International Friendship League, Hospitality Service, 4 Wilton Close, Taunton, Somerset TA1 4EZ, United Kingdom). National tourist board offices are typically found in large American cities, almost invariably including New York. Most can also provide information about home-stay programs that operate in their countries.

IN NASSAU, AT THE end of the evening, the Crawfords drove me back to my hotel. On the way they told a story about their street. For years it hadn’t had a name, a lack that they and other residents had regularly protested to the authorities. Finally, not long before my visit, a workman had shown up with a sign for each end of the street. The two bore different names. Anomalous as those signs were, I think, meet-the-people experiences as a stranger among friends are even more so. □