It has been an interesting week for issues around sustainable travel.

The mainstream media has picked up on two trends: airlines are under pressure for their carbon offsetting strategies and the Netherlands Board of Tourism has decided to stop promoting its popular destinations because of the overwhelming influx of tourists.

Meanwhile, in Igualada, a small town near Barcelona, Airbnb held its first New Destinations Summit – an event about building sustainable tourism in locations with few hotels.

Airbnb launched its Office of Healthy Tourism last year with the goal of driving travel to lesser-known places.

Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s senior vice president of global policy and communications, says it goes back to a “lightbulb” moment during the Great American Eclipse, which traveled across rural destinations in the United States in 2017.

While, as Lehane points out, this was a “one-time-only” event, Airbnb realized the power of the platform in terms of bringing on tens of thousands of hosts to cater for the influx of visitors and ensuring a return to the local communities.

He says the next phase of this is helping house visitors to college football games across the country, adding that while technology is often held up as benefiting the few, this is using it to “drive economics across the heartland of the U.S.”

Fast-forward almost two years and Airbnb has been working with Igualada on a Healthy Tourism Lab, with workshops and training on creating a sustainable future for the region.

Lehane says the company has spent time in the region to “source and develop” hosts in about 120 places and has so far generated more than €1.5 million in economic activity that, he claims, remains in the region.

He says: “It’s a partnership to facilitate and support the concept of healthy travel and tourism. It’s about how a country can think about how it uses its natural resources and getting the maximum ROI for the local community.”

The company has participated in a series of initiatives in areas of Africa, China, France and Italy where it has used content on the Airbnb platform and data to help promote destinations.

Tech for all

There are four areas where the company uses the platform and technology to address some of the issues around boosting travel to these lesser-known destinations.

Lehane says: “Any tech platform out there, given some of the challenges that exist in world today, does need to play a responsible role in terms of the impact they are having on society and the larger world.”

Data is the first area, with Lehane adding that the company probably has more insights on travel and tourism trends than anyone else, which in turn can provide cities and communities with a picture of their tourism economy.

Second is the ability to use the platform to highlight and promote places.

In late-2018, Airbnb launched a “19 destinations to visit in 2019” list, many of which were not traditional destinations.

The platform was already seeing increased interest in terms of searches and inclusion on wishlists for these destinations.

A third area where the company claims it plays a role is with sourcing hosts and/or travelers into destinations or communities.

And, finally, Lehane says Airbnb is being used to support major events with existing structure that is perhaps under-utilized.

Recent data released by Airbnb reveals that 64% of its guest respondents believe home-sharing is better for the environment.

Lehane points to destinations such as Spain which have empty homes that can enable communities to compete for events without increasing their carbon footprint.

Balancing act

While all these elements present Airbnb in a positive light in the drive towards a sustainable tourism future, there are still many dissenters.

The city of Barcelona itself makes for an interesting case study, where a backlash from residents led to Airbnb meeting with city officials to work out a way forward.

In Barcelona and other cities, the company has introduced initiatives in recent years around collecting taxes, reminding visitors to behave responsibly and making it easier to report those deemed to be breaching local laws.

Tourism and capitalism still seem to be mentioned in the same breath, which is perhaps why Airbnb is promoting its Igualada initiative.

Lehane says Airbnb removed properties in certain areas of the city from the platform to demonstrate that it takes the issues seriously. It also helped to drive visitors to other parts of the city that often went unnoticed.

Perhaps, these sorts of initiatives will help the company build “credibility” going forward in Spain as well as other destinations.

At the very least, Airbnb will hope that it gets some praise for at least doing something.

The Bottom Line: 

AirBnb takes responsible travel seriously. After the example of the US 2017 solar eclipse, the company has been working hard to promote tourism in locations otherwise unexplored by the market. The initiative promotes local events such as college football games, in order to spread the hosting opportunity to local families, and “share the love” of travel-based income across a more equal scale. In Igualada, Spain, AirBnb even held its New Destinations Summit, a conference that explores this concept further, and provides training and workshops for the creation of a sustainable and responsible, local destination travel model. 

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Author: Shannon Cantor