How short-term rentals can spur tourism recovery

Brent Thomas, director of public policy for Asia Pacific, Airbnb, urges governments to relook regulations on short-term rentals – a sector which he claims can help to hasten tourism recovery by attracting price-sensitive tourists in the post-Covid world.

In a world of full uncertainty, there is at least one thing we do know for certain – it won’t be business-as-usual after this crisis.

The unprecedented Covid-19 crisis has upended the status quo and left no part of life in Asia-Pacific or the world untouched. Business paused. Borders closed. Travel halted. Life won’t return to how it was before the pandemic; life will adjust to a new normal.

Like other sectors of the economy, the pandemic has significantly disrupted the travel and tourism sector. The UN World Tourism Organisation estimates that international tourist arrivals could plunge by up to a third in 2020, and the World Tourism & Travel Council (WTTC) has found that one million jobs are being lost every day due to the virus.

Sadly, the Asia-Pacific region is not immune. The WTTC estimates 63 million tourism jobs in Asia are at risk – close to five times the number in Europe and close to eight times the number in North America.

But this crisis has also reinforced what matters most in life to people. Connection. Kinship. Belonging. Being apart has reminded people of how much they want to be together.

It is for these reasons and more, we know travel will recover. We know that even though there has been a once-in-a-century disruption that travel is resilient and will return.

Despite countless conflicts and calamities, tourism has continued to go from strength to strength. The number of tourist arrivals globally grew from just 25 million in 1950 to over 1.5 billion in 2019. Before the coronavirus emerged, the growth of the travel and tourism industry in the Asia-Pacific region had outpaced the regional economy for five straight years.

While the desire to travel remains undiminished, how people travel will be different. We expect the immediate future of travel will see demand for more local, longer, unique and value-for-money experiences. With long-haul international travel likely to be limited in the short-term, people will look much closer to home for their holidays such as exploring off-the-beaten path destinations they haven’t visited domestically or even travelling between specific international corridors, such as the mooted ‘Trans-Trasman bubble’ between Australia and New Zealand.

Given the significant impact to the regional economy, we also expect travellers will be more cost-conscious. Travellers will prioritise more affordable places to stay and experiences. For families, this may mean choosing accommodation types which gives them room for the whole family to stay together and offers convenient amenities such as kitchen and laundry facilities.

In this new tourism environment, short-term rentals will play an important role. It can help governments achieve the twin objectives of recovery and resilience. Short-term rentals such as Airbnb listings can help accelerate tourism’s recovery by giving travellers greater and more affordable choices, and by making it easier and cheaper to travel. Short-term rentals can also help diversify tourism, making it more resilient and less vulnerable to future shocks.

As such, it may be appropriate for some governments to consider whether their existing regulatory settings remain fit-for-purpose. Rules that might have worked pre-crisis might not work post-crisis. A business-as-usual approach to regulation risks undermining tourism’s much-needed recovery. In some cases, reforming short-term rental rules may act as a form of regulatory stimulus and help create jobs.

At Airbnb, our immediate focus has been on safety and supporting the community through these testing times. We launched a program to help Covid-19 frontline workers, like doctors and nurses, find safe and convenient places to stay so they can continue to carry out their critical, lifesaving work. We have been regularly updating hosts-and-guests with the latest advice and guidance from government and health experts.

We’ve also been listening closely to Airbnb’s local hosts. To date, we have held dedicated listening sessions with local host communities in places right across the region including South Korea, Japan, Australia and India. For hosts who depend on the income they make through the Airbnb platform, the pandemic has been a hammer blow. Many hosts are struggling to make ends meet. Many hosts are experiencing significant personal and financial hardship. To help them weather the storm, we are providing more than US$270 million in funding to hosts impacted by Covid-19.

Importantly, we have been working hard to help our hosts prepare for the future of travel. In partnership with leading experts in hospitality and medical hygiene, we are developing a new cleaning protocol for hosts with enhanced procedures and guidance on how to clean every room in a home. This is the first overarching standardised protocol for cleaning and sanitisation in the short-term rental industry and builds on the Airbnb community’s already strong track record in this space.

Regardless of how long the storm lasts, Airbnb wants to be a good partner to governments and local communities. We want to work hand in hand with them to rebuild the much-needed and critically important tourism industry. In the post-Covid world, we believe the local, authentic travel provided by the Airbnb community will be an invaluable tool for helping grow and future-proof tourism throughout the region.

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