Will Airbnb and the sharing economy hurt or help responsible tourism?

Airbnb gives travellers seeking authentic sides of destinations the chance to discover (and stay in) real residential districts and homes
Airbnb gives travellers seeking authentic sides of destinations the chance to discover (and stay in) real residential districts and homes

A few years ago I visited around 200 ecolodges, homestays, community run guests houses etc around the world as part of my research for a book on the best in sustainable tourism. As a result of my experiences, I knew I would always seek out these places for my own holidays. Not just because of their ethics, but because I had a much better time. I met more inspiring people, got closer to wildlife, stayed in more remarkable places.

Over the last two months I have been exploring what has happened since then. I have stayed in a couple of inns, several caravans parks and campsites, a city centre hotel and six airbnb flats, as I have written about recently. When I first stayed in an airbnb, four years ago in New York, it was because there was no affordable hotel where I wanted to go. Such has been the development of the service – and my experiences with it – that my attitude to it has now flipped. I now look first for an airbnb, and only if I can’t find anywhere do I look for a guesthouse or lodge.

Why? So much of what inspired me about responsible tourism I get from airbnb. I stay in real places, not tourist ghettos, which connects me to food markets, independent shops and cafes the residents use. I enjoy the interactions with my hosts. But in addition, I get as much space as if I was staying in the presidential suite, but for the price of a budget room at a backpackers. And I love having a kitchen so that I can cook using local ingredients.

What concerns me, however, as someone eager to see the development of responsible tourism, is that I reckon I am fairly typical of the sort of person who seeks our responsible hotels and ecolodges. I doubt the change in my travel patterns are uncommon. So if independent travellers like me are shifting in significant numbers to staying in airbnbs, what effect does that have on responsible hotels and lodges? And how should they respond?

With most of its operations conducted online, airbnb can never offer the sort of intense, human interactions a learned guide like Josh, an indigenous Austrlian from Koomal Dreaming provides
With most of its operations conducted online, airbnb can never offer the sort of intense, human interactions a learned guide like Josh, an indigenous Austrlian from Koomal Dreaming provides

If the answer is to drop prices in an attempt to match airbnb, then this race to the bottom is going to cause problems for staff, communities and projects that rely on that income, and for the hotels’ ability to provide an experience that attracts tourists like me in the first place. If, on the other hand, the aim is not to match airbnb, but to differentiate from it, then I think there’s a chance these responsible lodges can prosper alongside.

I compare this to music, another of my loves. The massive growth of free, downloadable music has not killed off the record industry. Nor have efforts to fight digital music in court had any impact. In the UK vinyl is seeing sales like never before. Successful producers have not tried to compete on price and convenience with MP3. They have made their records better quality. Designed more collectable covers. Included additional extras. Everywhere possible they have improved the offer in ways the MP3 can never do.

It seems to me that if responsible tourism follows this model of focussing on promoting what it offers that the sharing economy can’t – rather than attempting to beat airbnb at its own game, or by challenging its emerging model on legal grounds – then there is room for both formats to succeed.

I would be keen to hear from responsible accommodation providers in areas where they now compete with airbnb rentals, to know if my assumption is correct. Have their occupancy rates been hit? How are they responding? 

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Jeremy Smith is the editor of sustainable tourism news site Travindy.com. Author of recently published Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018). 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. Travindy - https://www.travindy.com Latest book - cabi.org/bookshop/book/9781786394194


  1. Don Braden says:

    You have described the original and ideal model of Airbnb. The challenge for the traditional accommodation sector is in the areas where it has frayed around the edge of that original model. In particular where owners of properties break condominium declarations or rental programs agreements and put their unit up for short term rentals. A simple solution would be for Airbnb to accept no listings without a declaration from the owner that no other agreements governing the use of the unit are broken by a listing on Airbnb. As you note, most Airbnbers are looking for units off the beaten track and the offering of apartments in condos or units in tourism complexes doesn’t meet that demand. I will leave aside all the property tax, income tax and safety issues as they relate to all aspects of the sharing economy.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Staying in Airbnb flats or any short-term-rental flats is not always responsible tourism. Staying in someone’s spare room or their primary residence whilst they themselves are on holiday is OK. Most Airbnb where I live is not like this. Huge numbers of flats are dedicated to the tourism industry, which is changing the character of downtown because there is hardly any accommodation available to actually live in. The rental market is absolutely brutal because most landlords prefer to rent short-term to tourists because they can make a lot more money, so steadily the city centre is becoming a tourist ghetto where it wasn’t before. I DREAD the ‘cool genuine tourists’ like yourself starting to spread out and ruin other areas of the city. Staying in a hotel or registered legal guesthouse has FAR less impact on the communities and neighbourhoods you are actually visiting. I think a responsible and ethical tourist should be extremely careful about Airbnb and make sure the owners are actually the full-time residents of the flat. Otherwise you are stealing accommodation from local people who desperately need it. Cities are for the people who live there, tourists are visitors and should behave with respect.

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