Tinder tourists: 'Quick sex app' replaces Lonely Planet as tool for travellers

Matthew Neale began swiping right on his smartphone a few days after arriving in Bangkok.

He was beginning a three-month solo journey through south-east Asia, and turned to the Tinder dating app to meet other travellers.

"I was just pretty much swiping on anyone," Mr Neale said. "I would swipe right. It means you're interested in them and potentially match with them and have a conversation."

But the 29-year-old truck driver did not waste time with idle chatter.

"The ones I did meet up with were generally that day or the following day," he said. "People tend not to hang around one place too long when they're travelling so it's got to generally happen pretty quickly."

Dating apps such as Tinder are associated with hook-ups, or casual sexual encounters. But for travellers such as Mr Neale – typically aged  18 to 35 – dating apps may be as useful as a Lonely Planet guide book was to their parents.

Mr Neale is one of 70 travellers from 23 countries who have shared their experiences of using the dating app while travelling with researchers from Western Sydney University.

Garth Lean, a lecturer in geography and urban studies, said the research, part of the TinDA Project examining travel in the digital age, was commenced in 2015 after his colleague Jenna Condie commented on the number of visitors to Sydney using Tinder.

Apps such as Couchsurfer, Travello and Backpackr are designed specifically for travellers. Other dating apps include Bumble and Happn, Grindr (for gay men) as well as Stitch (for people aged over 50).


But Dr Lean said Tinder was preferred because it was already on the smartphones of many young people, who were familiar with "performing Tinder". The app also has a feature that allows users to change their location to a destination they intend to visit.

'Quick sex app'?

Both researchers have also been Tinder tourists. Dr Lean, who initially thought of Tinder as a "quick sex app", opened an account to conduct research. Visiting Ethiopia, he had matches with two local women and a traveller.

"I suspected the two local women were prostitutes, but I befriended the Lithuanian woman and we continued to discuss our experiences in Ethiopia via Facebook," he said.

Dr Condie used Tinder as "a relatively new migrant to Sydney".

"It opened up new people (men, I'm straight), places and experiences," she said. "Because I was new in town, I didn't feel some of the pressures you might feel using Tinder in the place where a lot of people there know your history."

Dr Condie, who also used Tinder for research purposes in Nepal, said she discovered people on the dating app who were from her home town in Britain.

"I've made a few friends via Tinder, which can often be challenging because of the initial sexual connotations of the app," she said. "You might get on with someone and want to be friends but you've been 'girlfriend zoned' or your date is only interested in you as a hook-up."

The travellers surveyed by Dr Lean and Dr Condie did not use the dating app only to find sexual partners.

Meeting locals

"Quite a few participants explicitly stated that they were not interested in sex or hook-ups," Dr Lean said. "Some didn't even want to physically meet with people, they just wanted to chat and get information from locals.

"Locals are seemingly willing to give that information and meet under the guise of unofficial, unpaid 'tour guide services'," he added.

Not just for sex: Travellers are turning to Tinder to meet locals.

Not just for sex: Travellers are turning to Tinder to meet locals.

The first person Mr Neale met was a young Thai woman in Bangkok who took him to a night market frequented by locals.

"We just hung out and talked," he said. "She was interested in my story. I was interested in what she could tell me about their culture and what people her age do in the city."

Another TinDA Project participant, Vee Ung, went on a Tinder date in New York because she said: "I needed someone to print out my ticket so I could see the Statue of Liberty."

Ms Ung, 28, a finance worker, said she had positive experiences using Tinder while travelling solo across the US and Europe.

However, she found that men in the US subverted the supposed anonymity of the dating app by sending messages or commenting on posts to her Instagram account, which she linked to Tinder – a phenomenon New York Magazine called Tindstagramming.

'Swipe with care'

Dr Lean said Tinder presented travellers with opportunities for new social encounters, but time, the cost of phone data, safety and travelling companions were constraints.

"I think it's really important that everywhere we go, we swipe with care and attention to how hierarchies of race, class and nationality can be reproduced in digitally mediated spaces," Dr Condie added.

Managing the expectations of Tinder users who were seeking a hook-up could also be a challenge.

"While users may explicitly state that they're not interested in hook-ups ... users often report being solicited for sex," Dr Lean said. "This is much more commonly experienced by women than men."

As Lucie Robson, a 28-year-old medical student, put it: "If you say you're Australian and that you're only in town for a little while, then yeah, you get a lot of people just wanting to hook up."

Ms Robson said she found Tinder a good resource during a five-month solo trip to Canada and the US.

"Even if you don't find love, you still get to see things you might not get to see if you're in a hostel and only meeting other backpackers or just following your Lonely Planet guide," she said.

Lucie Robson found Tinder

Lucie Robson found Tinder "quite a good resource" during a five-month solo trip to Canada and the US. Photo: Daniel Munoz

But not every Tinder relationship is platonic. Mr Neale said he was intimate with one Tinder date "and the rest were like meeting normally".

"I kind of made an effort to not be on my phone," he said, "because it's just such a distraction and a waste of time, like you're missing out on what's going on in front of you."

The safety and security implications of meeting people from dating apps is often highlighted, especially since the death of New Zealand woman Warriena Wright during a Tinder date with Gold Coast carpet layer Gable Tostee in 2014.

A Tinder spokeswoman said users should make their intentions clear when travelling and follow its online safety tips such as informing friends and family of your plans and staying sober.

As Mr Neale put it: "There's no way knowing if you're talking to a sex offender."

Mr Neale said he believed a woman he met on Tinder in Vietnam was intent on robbing him.

His suspicions were aroused when she asked him to leave his hotel room to retrieve a bag from her motorbike: "I was like 'No, no. You can get out of my room now'. She wanted me to leave the room with her in it so she could go through my shit and steal my passport or whatever else."

But he did not believe the safety issues were different from meeting a stranger in a bar or nightclub.

"It may even be worse if you're drinking alcohol, they could spike your drink," he said.

This article How Tinder turned into the Lonely Planet for young travellers was originally published in Brisbane Times.