Airbnb is a home-sharing platform based in San Francisco, United States. Photo by: Open Grid Scheduler

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — Airbnb is betting on emerging markets as it charts an expansion strategy that looks at how the home-sharing company can help boost sustainable tourism and community development.

On Wednesday at the Global Conference on Jobs and Inclusive Growth: Partnerships for Sustainable Tourism, Airbnb launched a new report and roadmap for advancing sustainable tourism through home sharing. The report looks at several cases studies of partnerships that Airbnb has piloted in the past few years to help get new homeowners onto the platform and train local communities.

Airbnb expects that by 2030, 400 million Airbnb guests will have stayed in developing countries and that there will be more than 28 million hosts.

“We believe our platform has enormous potential to support households in emerging economies by helping to cover the costs of household expenses, education and entrepreneurship,” Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s global head of policy, said in the report.  

Airbnb views its model as a way to democratize tourism, both by allowing more people in communities that are tourist destinations to benefit, and for some by reducing the costs so that vacations become a possibility, Lehane told Devex in an interview. In doing so, the model can also serve as a tool for sustainable economic development, he said, adding that home-sharing platforms, such as Airbnb, can help keep more tourism dollars in communities.

It’s a narrative that responds to those who criticize mainstream tourism models that rely on significant foreign investments, and where little of the profit reaches the surrounding — often struggling — community. By contrast, Airbnb says their model sees hosts keeping up to 97 percent of the list price of their home or room, while guests spend 50 percent of their vacation dollars in the neighborhoods where they stay, according to the report.

As a result of the evolving tourism trends, developing countries are experiencing some of the highest growth rates in the sector, and increasingly travelers want more local experiences. Airbnb is aiming to focus on underserved populations in developing countries that could potentially be hosts, but lack internet access or economic opportunities that might allow them to capitalize on a growing tourist demand.

To that end, Airbnb has launched several partnerships aimed at training homeowners, particularly women, to list their properties on the platform, which will both give the platform more coverage, often into areas where there are few hotels, and give them economic opportunities that they may not have otherwise accessed.

In South Africa, Airbnb has worked with nongovernmental organization partners, including Ikhaya Le Langa NPC, to help train women in townships to get their properties listed on Airbnb and link to other tourism businesses to help market their properties. That partnership has proven successful and in 2018 will expand to nine townships in South Africa and in 2019 will be expanded to other African countries, Lehane said. Airbnb also plans to host an African tourism summit in the summer of 2018.  

Earlier this week, the company also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Indian Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship’s National Skill Development Corporation and the Tourism and Hospitality Sector Skill Council to “create an accredited skill development module for hospitality entrepreneurs offering homestay facilities, unique accommodations and local experiences,” according to a press release. That builds on work it has done with the Self Employed Women’s Association, a 2 million-member trade union of rural women in India to help them list their homes on Airbnb.

Airbnb is investing because they see it as the future of tourism, but also because while some 75 percent of the world has access to mobile technology, there is still a gap between more and less developed countries and “it is incumbent” on platforms such as Airbnb to “step in and play a responsible role, partnering with NGOs and governments,” Lehane said.

Airbnb has made its mistakes, he said, but they are working to address them. The company released a policy tool chest about a year ago through which it committed to sharing data with governments, paying community taxes, and putting in place policies that address issues of each particular community.

Airbnb has created an online registration system so governments can access data, and in some cases, Airbnb has set up voluntary collection agreements where the government allows Airbnb to collect taxes on its behalf. It is working individually with a number of countries in an effort to both educate them and create regulatory environments that work for its product.

An emerging model is that governments are distinguishing between amateurs who list their homes and those who have commercial rental properties, including those listed on the Airbnb platform, and creating separate regulatory processes. Philadelphia in the U.S. was the first city to adopt that type of model, but each city is difference. In San Francisco, for example, the city only allows one listing per individual in a property where they actually live, and Airbnb created a system to help verify and track that.

Editor’s note: The Jamaica Tourist Board facilitated Devex's travel and logistics for this reporting. However, Devex maintains full editorial control of the content.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.