When we travel to a some unknown place, the experience leaves a mark on us. But what we're beginning to collectively understand is that we also leave a mark on the place.
This is the paradox of travel. When too many people flock to a far-flung destination seeking authenticity, that very authenticity becomes jeopardised. If we all at once decide to experience the tranquil natural beauty of a pristine beach, we'll quickly find it neither tranquil nor pristine.
Awareness of this is changing the way people travel.
by Amadeus IT Group imagining what travel will look like in 2030 singles out six key travel "tribes" of the future. Amoung them, the growing tribe of "Ethical Travellers" — those who are guided by their conscience when making travel plans and decisions.
We need not even look so far ahead. A 2017 travel report
by ABTA, the UK’s largest travel association, lists sustainable tourism as one of five key travel trends right now. Indeed, the UN even designated 2017 as “The International Year of Sustainable Tourism”.
So what does all this really mean? Is there any difference between terms like eco, ethical, responsible and sustainable?
Defining Ethical Tourism
The Center for Responsible Travel gives different definitions for each.
Ecotourism is specifically about travelling to natural areas and conserving the environment.
Ethical tourism simply means that ethical issues are the key driver behind travel decisions. The environment is a big part of this, but also things like animal welfare, human rights, and social justice.
Responsible tourism seeks to do what’s best for local communities while minimising negative social or environmental impacts. It’s also about conserving local cultures and habitats.
Sustainable tourism is similar, but more specifically about resource management. Sustainable accommodation, for example, might aim to offer all the comforts and amenities while at the same time preserving local ecology and minimising environmental impact.
There is of course a lot of cross-over between these concepts, and the terms are often used interchangeably. Regardless of whether you use the word "conscious" or "ethical" or "responsible" the underlying principle is essentially the same: greater care for the world and its people while travelling.
So the next big question is, how do vacation rentals — and specifically the sharing economy, like Airbnbs — stack up?
The ethics of Airbnb & other vacation rental platforms
There are two sides to every coin, and the ethics of platforms like Airbnb are debated. According to Airbnb 91% of travellers choose home sharing because they “want to live like a local”, but that doesn't necessarily mean all of its impacts are positive in comparison to traditional hotels.
The argument for home sharing
Here are some of the benefits of home sharing / short-term rentals:
- Vacation rentals (like Airbnb, VRBO, Flipkey, HomeAway, and others) allow people to stay in other neighbourhoods outside of main hotel districts. This means those neighbourhoods and the local businesses inside them get a slice of tourist spending.
- Hosts worldwide have the opportunity to make extra income by renting out spare rooms in their own residence. Airbnb claim that, of hundreds of thousands of hosts worldwide, 81% share the home they live in (though we note that the study was from a limited sample averaged across 14 cities and no timeframe is given.) For these hosts it can take away some of the financial burden of mortgages or rental fees.
- There's the opportunity for cross-cultural exchange; to foster a greater understanding of local culture by being directly exposed to local people.
- A 2017 study by Airbnb found that significantly less energy and water is used, and fewer greenhouse gases are emitted, when guests use Airbnb as compared to traditional accommodation. Across Europe in 2016, for example, people opting for Airbnbs resulted in a saving of 9,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water. While Airbnb are obviously not a neutral source, this does make sense if you consider that hotels wash towels, sheets and dishes far more frequently. Energy, waste, and greenhouse emissions were also reduced.
- The sharing economy has created a silver lining for the hotel industry: it works as a market tester. From the Skift 2017 Megatrends Report: “while the majority of Airbnb’s listings are in popular neighborhoods, it has played a role in getting visitors to new neighborhoods and demonstrating to hoteliers that smaller properties in previously ignored neighbourhoods may be a good idea after all.”
The argument against home sharing
Others point to potential downsides of booms in short-stay accommodation, particularly when home sharing gives way to opportunistic real estate entrepreneurs.
As such, potential negative effects of vacation rentals include:
- In cities experiencing tourism booms, vacation rental numbers have grown faster than regulations can keep up with them. Home sharing platforms are appealing not just to locals with a room to spare but also to property investors who buy up apartments as holiday rentals, making housing for locals more scarce and therefore less affordable.
- Similarly, some Airbnb properties are owned by companies who have dozens, even hundreds, of listings; potentially resulting in an impersonal experience for travellers where sharing and cultural connection are no longer part of it.
- In some neighbourhoods the balance of tourists and locals is shifting dramatically. Tourists flocking to a place in order to “live like a local” might find themselves simply surrounded by other tourists.
The vacation rental and home sharing industry is a complex one and these pros and cons are by no means an exhaustive list. When you take factors like time, geography, and world events into account, there are yet more complexities to consider.
For example, Airbnb makes the point that home sharing avoids the need to build permanent accommodation to cope with tourism influx of a major event. The Rio De Janeiro olympics would have reportedly required 257 new hotels to accommodate the thousands of temporary visitors — hotels that would be left desolate once the event wound down. Home sharing in such situations is far less taxing on the environment.
Airbnb have also been running their Open Homes program since 2012, helping refugees and evacuees find temporary accommodation when they most need it.
So is home sharing ethical? Are vacation rentals a more responsible way to travel? What we can conclude is that there's no simple "yes" or "no" answer to questions like these.
A lot of it also comes down to the individual owners, hosts, and the travellers themselves. As travel trends forecasters have noted, sustainable travel and ethical travel continue to blossom as the tourism mindsets of choice. And where there's demand from travellers, industries have to rise up to meet them.
That means, hopefully, more initiatives from home sharing platforms to lessen negative impacts, better regulation from governments and local councils, more sustainable property management from hosts, and more consciousness from guests.
If we share the responsibility, we can hope to make the travel industry as ethical and sustainable as it can be.