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Airbnb to Combat Overcrowding with New Office of Healthy Tourism

Near the core of Rio, Urca offers calm waters and phenomenal mountain views. | Image credit: Gustavo Otero Fotógrafo / Airbnb

With 4.85 million active listings, Airbnb commands the largest portfolio in the industry, larger than the top five biggest hotel companies combined. The company that put home sharing on the map recently shared some of its 2017 data and celebrated its diverse community of travellers from over 190 regions of origin. 38 million US travelers used Airbnb internationally and 31 million travelers stayed at an Airbnb listing in the US. But the platform’s popularity has not grown without surrounding conflict, with cities such as New York, Paris and Barcelona enacting laws to limit its use.

To combat overtourism, Airbnb has created a new Office of Healthy Tourism. The initiative is intended to expand Airbnb’s efforts to economically empower communities, drive travel to lesser-known places, and support environmentally-friendly travel habits.

“With travel and tourism growing faster than most of the rest of economy, it is critical that as many people as possible are benefiting – and right now not all tourism is created equal. To democratize the benefits of travel, Airbnb offers a healthy alternative to the mass travel that has plagued cities for decades,” said Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s Head of Global Policy. “Airbnb supports tourism that is local, authentic, diverse, inclusive and sustainable. Through the meaningful income earned by the mosaic that is our global community of hosts; our ability to promote tourism to places that need it the most; and the inherent sustainable benefits of hosting, Airbnb is providing the type of travel that is best for destinations, residents, and travelers alike.”

The company’s 2017 data demonstrates some of the economic benefits that the Office of Healthy Tourism is meant to encourage. Via a survey, Airbnb learned that 43% of hosting income is used to pay for regular household expenses and 6% of hosts used Airbnb income to start a new business. In the US, the typical host earned $7,296 renting out their space 43 nights a year. 42% of guest spending happens in the neighborhoods where guests stay, and 53% of guests spent the money they saved by using Airbnb at businesses in the cities or neighborhoods they visited. In terms of environmental benefits, 88% of hosts claimed to incorporate green practices into hosting, such as using green cleaning products, providing recycling, encouraging guests to use public transportation, or installing solar panels. 66% of guests said that the environmental benefits of home sharing were important in their choice of Airbnb.

How Airbnb can help share such benefits has been demonstrated through initiatives such as the Yoshino Cedar House, a listing opened by Airbnb co-founder and Chief Product Officer Joe Gebbia last year. The rural area near Kyoto and Osaka where the listing is located was slowly disappearing due to an aging population, low birth rate and an exodus of young people. Since the house opened, hundreds of guests from 32 countries have already been hosted, encouraging spending that has supported 70 jobs in the town. The company wants to support this kind of “rural regeneration” and help disappearing rural communities by driving tourism there, while easing the pressure of overcrowding on cities at the same time.

Other locations are being supported by Airbnb’s use of geotargeting to highlight locations and stimulate tourism as needed by a country’s government. The company’s Italian Villages project, for example, promotes more than 40 villages throughout Italy as tourism destinations. Similarly, they promoted tourism around family farms in rural France. “These destinations are facing economic challenges due to a lack of opportunity,” Lehane said. “But they are in incredible places, and we want to drive tourism to these small villages.”

Airbnb is also easing pressure on cities that host big events. For example, the World Economic Forum found that Rio de Janeiro would have needed to build 257 hotels to provide enough rooms to accommodate the surge of 2016 Summer Games attendees who stayed on Airbnb. For the most recent Winter Games in South Korea, 15,000 guests used Airbnb to attend the event — the equivalent of adding 7,500 hotel rooms  earning hosts in the region over $2.3 million collectively, adding money to the pockets of more local residents.

In another project to promote Healthy Tourism, Airbnb will partner with the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business to host the Africa Travel Summit in September 2018. The three-day summit will bring together some of the most innovative thinkers from across the continent to discuss how technology can help shape a more sustainable and inclusive tourism that empowers underserved communities in Africa. The summit will also focus on how to build a resilient tourism that can support places in times of resource scarcity.

The other big announcement was the creation of Airbnb’s new Tourism Advisory Board, which will be made up of travel industry leaders from around the world: David Scowsill, the former President and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council; Taleb Rifai, the former Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization; Rosette Rugamba, the former Director General of Rwanda Tourism; and the Hon. Bob Carr, the former Foreign Affairs Minister for Australia and former Premier of New South Wales.

“Travel is becoming more accessible as the world gets richer. One billion more people will be in the global middle class by 2030, and these new entrants will be looking to travel to enhance their horizons. The concentration of tourism in key locations is creating a threat to their future, by causing congestion, overcrowding, and a deteriorating quality of life for residents,” said Scowsill. “By bringing guests to new places, and putting more money in the hands of local residents, Airbnb has proven to be a pioneer. Spreading the tourists around each city and each country geographically is an important step to solving this overcrowding problem.”


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