Sustainable tourism in the 21st century

Airbnb Citizen
Dec 1, 2017 · 3 min read

By Taleb Rifai and Christopher Lehane

Tourism has become a force for economic growth. 2016 saw the seventh consecutive above-average increase in international tourist arrivals: 1.2 billion. The sector is growing faster than the global economy, accounting for 10% of world GDP and one in every 10 jobs. As 2017 concludes, signs point to yet another record year.

While we cheer the recovery of European destinations, the growth in Africa and in Asia and the Pacific spotlights the promise of tourism as a force for development and a path to prosperity for people and places.

Tourism can improve livelihoods, unite communities, safeguard and celebrate heritage, and build bridges throughout the world between people of different cultures and backgrounds. These factors all led to the United Nations General Assembly designating 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed upon by 193 nations to chart common progress through 2030.

Guided by the SDGs, new platform tourism services can help scale the growth of travel and tourism. Airbnb’s technology-enabled, people-to-people home sharing has great potential to support households in emerging destinations by helping to cover the costs of everyday expenses, education and entrepreneurship. By the UN’s target year of 2030, Airbnb expects that more than 400 million guests will have used the platform to arrive in developing countries since its founding in 2008.

These guests will have been welcomed by more than 28 million hosts who will set their own listing prices and keep up to 97%. The typical Airbnb host earns US$3,100 sharing their primary home and spends 49% of the income on everyday expenses. Women, who today make up 56% of all Airbnb hosts, have earned more than US$10 billion in income through the platform; 50,000 women have used this income to support their own entrepreneurship. Rural communities and groups in Asia and Latin America are increasingly partnering with Airbnb to help with revitalization, with more than US$1 billion earned by rural hosts in a select set of countries in 2016.

Inspired by the SDGs calling for inclusive and sustainable economic growth and consumption, Airbnb has established a roadmap for government and NGO partners to use its platform to help lift underserved populations through tourism.

Among pilot programs now underway, Airbnb is working with local partners in rural areas to help women and young people find new livelihoods by bringing healthy tourism to undiscovered parts of South Africa’s Western Cape, China’s greater Guilin region, and India. This month, Airbnb and India’s 2 million-member Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) mark the anniversary of a project to empower rural women in the state of Gujarat by training them to host on Airbnb’s platform.

Photo courtesy of SEWA

Tourism also has immense potential to lift underserved populations in advanced economies, such as through Airbnb’s seed funding of locally sourced projects that cultivate tourism beyond central districts in Europe and Asia, and its revenue share with the NAACP, America’s oldest civil rights group, to provide more economic opportunity for locals and more options for travelers in overlooked areas of US cities.

At a time when technology is fostering economic disruption, technology has a special responsibility as well as a unique ability to address it. A recent UNWTO report — ‘New platform tourism service or the so called sharing economy — understand, rethink and adapt’ highlights the opportunities and challenges of the new business models such as Airbnb calling for the need to maximize its benefits while addressing challenges of governance, consumer protection, safety and security, employers’ rights and sustainability.

We need to harness the power of technology together with the promise of tourism. Tourism can without any doubt provide a better future for all. Tourism powered by people and scaled globally through technology will help us get there even faster.


Taleb Rifai is Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Christopher Lehane is Global Head of Policy & Public Affairs at Airbnb.

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