Airbnb, Blockchain, and the tourism reputation economy

Airbnb, Blockchain, and the tourism reputation economy

Three recent stories about Airbnb’s future growth hold considerable interest for anyone concerned about the impact of such technology upon tourism and how the industry might develop along more responsible lines.

Last week the home sharing platform announced that it is going to enable the neighbours of its rental properties to contribute reviews. Starting in Japan, but undoubtedly soon to expand elsewhere this means that the reputation profile that is built up of accommodation providers and the travellers who stay in their properties will not only be generated by one another, but by the wider community as well. For those working for a more responsible tourism that makes greater effort to factor in its impact on destinations, this is a notable development.

Airbnb is also reported to be working on expanding the range of services it offers out beyond accommodation. Known within the company as ‘Magical Trips’, it will soon offer services and experiences to its guests such as “meals prepared by personal chefs, restaurant reservations, art gallery tours, and bicycle rentals.”

There’s not much information yet on how this might develop, but as Airbnb doesn’t own any properties, I assume it isn’t looking to own any experiences either. However, taken with the first story about neighbours reviewing how I behave as a tourist, and how this will have an impact upon my chance of future bookings, I would expect that such reputation measurement functionality will appear here too.

If you run a bike tour, you’ll be able to see what sort of reviews your potential client has received elsewhere on their holidays. And you’ll be able contribute your own reviews back into the Airbnb database too. Increasingly your profile as a ‘responsible tourist’ will be made up of a patchwork of how respectful you were to the neighbours, whether you were decent to local waiters and other staff, how sensitively you responded to a local tour. Your response to that thought probably depends on how dystopian your views of technology and surveillance are.

Where might it all lead? In a further interview earlier this month, Airbnb’s co-founder and CTO Nathan Blecharczyk was asked about his company’s interest in Blockchain. Best known for its use in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, Blockchain is an encoded public ledger that maintains a continuously-growing list of data records that each refer to previous items on this list. Many see it as a holy grail for the development of online trust. Blecharczyk replied: “We’re looking for all different kinds of signals to tell us whether someone is reputable, and I could certainly see some of these more novel types of signals being plugged into our engine.”

It’s not just the likes of Airbnb that are exploring Blockchain’s potential. Last year the Greek Island of Agistri began an experiment with a blockchain enabled cryptocurrency called Drachmae that would enable tourists and travel businesses to circumvent the collapse of Greece’s traditional economy and continue to transact with confidence while on the island. The story suggests a way for regional destinations to insulate themselves against any economic shocks that might befall the countries of which they are part.

Responsible tourism has generally had an uneasy relationship with technological development, which is often seen as disempowering and detaching us from the world around. However if – and it is still a big early days if – the likes of blockchain and the growing ‘reputation economy’ deliver on the promises they are making – it may one day become its new best friend.

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Jeremy Smith is the editor of sustainable tourism news site Travindy.com. His new book, Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism - is published this December by CABI. As well as writing a fortnightly blog for WTM's responsible tourism website, he works with responsible and sustainable travel businesses, developing their communications, brands, marketing and digital & social media strategy. He is co-author of Rough Guides' only guidebook dedicated to responsible tourism, Clean Breaks - 500 New Ways to See the World. Before that he was editor of The Ecologist, the world's longest-running environmental magazine. His own website is www.jmcsmith.co.uk

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