Archive | August, 2015

Fifty Shades of Green or why Airbnb missed an opportunity

Conscious Travel and Airbnb got some interesting exposure in this article published in the Sustainable City Network.: Hotel or Home-Share: Which is Greener? Despite the consistent misspelling of my name, mentions in such august company are always welcome! In keeping with the journalist preference for controversy, the author did her best to suggest that there is a real difference of opinion between two “experts” (in this case, Rachel Dodds and myself) who happen, in real life, to consider themselves kindred spirits. I was sent a series of questions as result of a post written three years ago 10 Reasons why Airbnb is an Awesome Travel Enterprise.

It’s good that tourism is getting more coverage in mainstream media these days- even if much of it is negative – because we’re going to have to either elevate the debate or deepen our thinking if our approach to sustainability is to have any effect and be taken seriously.

The press release on the subject issued by Airbnb listed several fatuous statistics that may fill out the copy but prove very little and tend to raise more questions than they answer. So if I were Airbnb I’d be questioning the utility of the study. Here are three examples (italics derived from the Airbnb release):

  • In one year alone, Airbnb guests in North America saved the equivalent of 270 Olympic-sized pools of water whereas European guests in homes in Europe saved the equivalent of 1,100 Olympic-sized pools. Does this mean that Europeans define the size of an Olympic pool differently or that guests in Europe bathe less often in homes versus hotels than Americans, or that the plumbing in European hotels (as opposed to homes) is that much more wasteful (thanks, presumably, to Europe’s ancient and leaky infrastructure)???
  • Proof offered for the statement that Airbnb hosts tend to engage in sustainable practices is the fact that nearly 83% of North American hosts and 79% of European hosts own at least one energy efficient appliance in their property and 89% of American hosts recycle at least one item type at their property compared to 94% of Europeans!! After 40 years of the “three R’s message” we’d be in real trouble if this were not the case! Nevertheless, these data do little to explain why Airbnb offers a “Greener” solution than hotels.
  • Apparently “less than half of Airbnb hosts” (but we’ve no idea how less) provide single-use toiletry products for their guests, also reducing waste per stay. I presume the inference is that all hotels provide such items and all their guests use them. Many guests steal them thereby saving a purchase after they get home – what does that prove?
source: Inhabit.com

source: Inhabit.com

Significantly perhaps, no mention was made of the fact that Airbnb guest would be less likely to get their towels laundered as frequently as in a hotel whether they wanted them or not.

The article and the press release confirm the persistent feeling I have that this level of discussion suggests we are literally fiddling (with data) while Rome (the planet) burns and floating homes drift down the Thames.

The growth in international tourism is exceeding even the most optimistic of UNWTO forecasts and the continued expansion of a global middle class, particularly in Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and parts of Africa, is fuelling what I have called a ‘tsunami of demand”. In 2012, the number of international trips involving an overnight stay reached 1.2 billion while a number, estimated at between five and eight times that, travel within national borders. At a 4.0% annual growth rate, that volume will have doubled by 2030 – no wonder the natives of Venice, Dubrovnkik, Barcelona and Berlin are getting restless and even an editor at the Guardian is expressing concern – see, here.

The UK’s  Prime Minister, David Cameron, has proven that it is inappropriate to call any group of people on the move a swarm, but these travellers, motivated by choice not desperation, all need to stop moving at the end of the day and find a place to sleep. The impact of servicing that demand goes ways beyond the type of toiletry packaging, the energy efficiency of coffee makers and kettles or whether towels are left out to dry or stuffed in a washing machine.

So in my opinion, the Cleantech Group completely missed the point. And, sadly, their client also missed an opportunity to win some very positive PR.

Airbnb and the copycats that follow them(eg Homestay) or preceded them (eg Couchsurfing Homeaway and VRBO) simply ease – albeit slightly – the enormous environmental pressure associated with the future construction and maintenance of the hotels, airports, planes, and cruise ships and all of the infrastructural paraphernalia associated with mass tourism that’s being planned or is under construction to satisfy this demand. Just think of the resources deployed; the water and heat needed to make and pour the concrete, fill up the pools, keep the gardens and golf courses green; let alone all the rare earth that will be mined to provide the fancy electronic equipment deemed essential to support and entertain tomorrow’s “connected traveller.”

Airbnb hosts are more sustainable simply because they are making more efficient use of existing buildings and distributing leisure tourists more evenly within a destination. That’s actually a very significant contribution. They achieve some social good (especially if the income is taxed proportionately and equitably) by also distributing income more deeply into a community.

To use another expression, Airbnb is contributing in a small,  but useful, way to the need to de-couple growth from resource use that is vital if tourism is to enjoy any social licence to operate. See two articles by Jeremy Smith here and here, citing two academics (Gosling and Peeters), who have consistently supported environmental concerns with hard data. The study that Airbnb should have commissioned would look at the way a dollar, euro, yen or ruble spent by an Airbnb guest generates more net benefit to a host community than the spending that generates paper thin margins coveted by a relatively small number of international investors.

It’s research that The Travel Foundation and TUI to their credit have at least tried to address with the first-of-its kind assessment of local impact that looks more deeply at the impact of hotels on the community “ecosystem” or “Destination Web” as we described it several years ago. It’s because of the overwhelming magnitude of existing and latent demand that I stand by my statement made in 2012 that Airbnb does not constitute a huge threat to the existing hotel community but offers destinations one means of helping deliver better community benefits. But fortunately, other experts disagree as you can see from the following clip.

Given a global demand forecast big enough to make even an investment banker green with envy,  I still find it hard to believe that the mainstream hotel “industry,” with the thousands of MBAs it now employs at rock bottom wages, is seriously threatened by a bunch of ordinary people like you and me wanting to rent out a room to make ends meet – especially given that Airbnb doesn’t appeal to the high-end, liability-conscious corporate buyer.

What’s worse – this discussion actually distracts us from the most important conversation – how can the juggernaut called mass industrial tourism be prevented from destroying all in its path? How do we shift to a better model? How do we all work together to ensure that tourism is developed by and for communities at a pace and in a style that benefits the many not the few? I believe the peer-to-peer style companies like Airbnb should be leading that conversation and not spouting superficial statistics that undermine their fundamental value proposition and role in the emerging “new economy.”

So, what do you think? Can we have a conversation, a dialogue and not an adversarial debate?

A Final Thought

If Airbnb can scare the hotel sector by enabling every one of us to become a host, why aren’t the OTAs and DMOs quaking in their boots given what current technology enables? So if you are reading this dear Chip Conley, as VP Strategy of Airbnb, please make contact and lets discuss how Airbnb can really make a positive difference. I’ve been a fan for years, and I’d love you even more if you did.

  • I hadn’t seen this critique of the press release before writing this post – Jeremy Smith was on the ball as usual.