Taking stock and moving forward sustainably

As travel readies for rebound, tourism stakeholders should assess how to build back better, in ways that boost economies, while promoting more sustainable and inclusive growth, opines Mike Orgill, Airbnb’s director of policy for Asia Pacific.

The past year has been one of many firsts – including usually bustling, world-renowned tourist attractions falling silent for the first time in a long time. Beaches, restaurants and marketplaces stood empty, along with museums and art galleries and other typically crowded cultural centres.

As the excited chatter of human voices returns to these places, we’re reminded of both the powerful connecting force of travel and its ability to breathe economic life into communities near and far. The tourism industry plays a critical role in bringing people together to foster growth that benefits everyone.

Airbnb-commissioned research by Oxford Economics, for example, recently showed that Airbnb contributed up to US$22.7 billion and more than 925,000 jobs in the Asia-Pacific region in 2019 alone, supporting US$6.8 billion in wages. It’s just one small snapshot of how tourism creates employment and opportunity in ways that ripple across a range of other sectors.

The recent temporary halting of travel has been, for many businesses and communities, a stark reminder of how tourism can serve as a powerful economic empowerment engine.

But it’s also important those moments of silence and emptiness are not forgotten too quickly and discarded in vain. As travel prepares to rebound and passports around the world are dusted off, there’s never been a better time for our industry to pause and take stock of whether there is a better way to do things. This is an opportune time to ask how we, in the private sector, can more thoughtfully harness the power of travel to not only continue driving long-term economic growth, but also help deliver more sustainable outcomes for communities.

As a 21st-century company dedicated to serving all stakeholders – including the communities in which we operate – this is one of Airbnb’s top priorities. For us, growing sustainable travel is not only about minimising environmental impact, but showcasing local cultures, working with communities to ensure tourism is a positive experience for locals, and being a vehicle for meaningful connection.

There is a genuine desire amongst travellers to ensure their visit is also a positive experience for locals – and it’s critical that the industry not only actively facilitates this, but encourages it. Part of this is helping visitors spend their valuable tourism dollars where it matters most.

This is something that has been a big focus for us for many years – dispersing tourism and spreading the positive benefits to areas that have traditionally missed out. Recently, one focus area for us has been encouraging rural visitation throughout the region to help build more resilient, diverse local economies.

An example of our work in this space is our ongoing partnerships with peak farmer organisations in Australia, which are aimed at helping to grow rural tourism infrastructure. Another example is our partnership with India’s Self Employed Women’s Association, which helps economically empower disadvantaged women in rural India.

Another focus area for Airbnb is how we can harness our platform and our community to help foster a genuine, meaningful sense of connection that brings people together. Part of this is how we – along with the broader sector – can find ways to help communities showcase local food, culture and traditions to travellers in a way that’s authentic and over which they have true ownership.

For instance, we were proud to partner with the Community Development Department of Thailand in 2019 to spotlight Thailand’s hidden villages and local stewards of these lesser-known communities to guests around the world through Online Experiences.

In 2020, we also signed a two-year Memorandum of Understanding with the Singapore Tourism Board to co-promote unique, authentic Airbnb Experiences hosted by passionate locals on our Experiences platform.

As travel returns and the empty markets and quiet tourist attractions begin to once again fill with people and life, it’s important that we as a tourism sector pause and consider how we can play an even more active role in making the future of travel brighter and more sustainable in the long-term.

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