Airbnb launches Office of Healthy Tourism to address home-sharing impact

To combat overtourism, Airbnb is promoting the road less traveled. Photo credit: Getty Images/littlehenrabi

What is “healthy tourism?” In a sharing economy, this is a necessary definition to establish, and one Airbnb is defining today. With 4.86 million listings, Airbnb commands the largest portfolio in the industry, larger than the top five biggest hotel companies combined (Marriott International is closest on its own at 1.26 million guestrooms). Now, the company that put home sharing on the map is directing travelers to unsung destinations in a bid to address concerns of overcrowding.

This week, Airbnb revealed a new initiative to make healthy use of the tourism growth the company has helped facilitate across the world. It created a new Office of Healthy Tourism to manage increasing numbers of visitors local economies are expected to welcome, and the organization initially will be tasked with driving tourism to rural destinations, refocusing attention from destinations facing concerns of overcrowding and onto areas in need of tourism spending.

Overcrowding is more of a concern in some destinations than one might expect. In figures released earlier this week, the company claimed 31 million travelers stayed at an Airbnb listing in the U.S. during 2017. On top of this, last year saw 38 million U.S. travelers use Airbnb internationally. The company celebrated these numbers, but they are also the source of conflicts with cities such as New York, Paris and Barcelona, all of which have enacted laws to curb the use of Airbnb.

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On a call announcing the creation of the Office of Healthy Tourism, Chris LeHane, Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, said that at the end of 2015 the company realized it was going to have to start to work with state and local governments, or risk fighting to keep the business within the confines of the law. This decision ultimately led to the creation of the new office, which will include a tourism advisory board. Members of the board are:

  • Rosette Rugamba, managing director of Songa Africa and Amakoro Lodge and former director general of Rwanda Tourism;
  • Taleb Rifai, former secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization;
  • Bob Carr, former foreign affairs minister for Australia and former premier of New South Wales; and
  • David Scowsill, former president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council, and CEO of Eon Reality, 
Travel and tourism continue to bolster the economy. Photo credit: Airbnb

Education Abroad

The goal of this board is to reduce Airbnb’s role in overtourism. To find the answer to this challenge, Airbnb went back to its roots to find inspiration. The company that made its name allowing travelers to “live like a local” is focusing on the local side of international tourism, while also focusing on the inclusive nature of a destination and its diversity. According to LeHane, Airbnb forecasts that by 2030 more than 60 percent of travels will originate from regions that are today considered “developing,” therefore the necessity of selling the local experience is greater than ever.

“We have an incredible board comprised of four individuals with impeccable credentials,” LeHane said. “The next chapter of this, as we continue to evolve, is to ultimately be seen as an ally to communities we can partner with.”

Airbnb also is sponsoring the Africa Travel Summit taking place in Cape Town, South Africa, this September. University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business is the Summit’s learning partner, and affiliate organizations include the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative, the World Bank Group and the United Nations World Travel Organization, and the focus of the conference will be on how technology can assist with tourism growth throughout Africa.

The company also is promoting what it calls “The Italian Villages” project. Airbnb is promoting and supporting more than 40 villages throughout Italy as tourism destinations, and LeHane said Airbnb also is using geotargeting to highlight locations and stimulate tourism as needed by a country’s government.

“We did so already in rural France to promote tourism around French family farms,” LeHane said. “These destinations are facing economic challenges due to a lack of opportunity. But they are in incredible places, and we want to drive tourism to these small villages.”

Airbnb is larger than the five largest hotel brands in the world combined. Photo credit: Airbnb

Building Bust

One of the last goals mentioned in the call, sustainability, may strike a nerve with hoteliers. Currently, 80 percent of Airbnb’s business takes place outside of the U.S. Airbnb wants to make use of its ever-evolving supply of listings to promote alternative stay options in times of tourism-related stress, even halting the development of hotels when possible.

For example, Airbnb estimates that there are roughly 100 million empty homes in China, Japan and the U.S. LeHane said the Office of Healthy Tourism will be investigating if any of these homes can be used to provide alternative accommodations, sparing the need for construction and reducing the amount of concrete and cement used in the development process.

“At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio [de Janeiro] we were able to avoid building 257 new hotels thanks to our listings, which would more than likely not have been used after the event,” LeHane said. “At the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, we prevented the construction of 46 new hotels, positively affecting the carbon footprint of that country.”

Even with a sustainability spin, and in destinations and circumstances that make sense, the end result is that hotels were not developed and that may not make Airbnb any friends in the hospitality sector. At the same time, overtourism and overcrowding existed before Airbnb, and it is the first company to create an office to address the concern. For LeHane, the effort is expected to pay off down the road.

“In the end, we benefit from long-term growth as a result of forming a collaborative, smart relationship with a city,” he said. “Berlin announced a law that is a benefit to home sharing, and we had a hand in that. The prior law had been incredibly restrictive. Japan and Vancouver [British Columbia] are also examples. All three are places that, in 2015, were concerned about overtourism. It took a lot of time rolling up our sleeves and looking at the problem to come to this solution.”