Could Strangers in Your Home be a New Trend?

Filed in Tourism commentary by on October 12, 2015




An interesting concept concerning travel accommodation has made its way to Durban, and is showing promising growth potential; however, it involves sharing a property with complete strangers. How have South Africans been responding to this idea? An amateur research study conducted by a tourism student at DUT sheds some light on the present situation – words by Alexa Kosovic

Popular tourist destinations in both Europe and North America welcome large numbers of travellers each year, but many of these visitors are no longer making hotel reservations. So where are they booking their accommodation? Many are choosing to stay in the homes of locals.

This trend is related to the ‘sharing economy’ concept, which is characterized by the sharing of assets, whether it be cars, homes, offices, or even power tools, as opposed to individual ownership. The organisation of these exchanges is arranged online. For example, if a tourist visiting Paris wants to rent out a single room for one week, they are able to search for available rooms online, which have been posted by the locals who are actually offering this extra space in their own homes at a price of their own choosing. Therefore, the cost is usually lower than that of say, a hotel booking, and there tends to be a wider variety of choice in location, style, and personal preferences with regards to the accommodation options.

In terms of accommodation, Airbnb, the pioneer company capitalising from the ‘sharing economy’ trend, is the current market leader with over 1.5 million lodging options worldwide – all of which are owned and managed by individuals referred to as ‘hosts’ (Airbnb 2015). Essentially, Airbnb is an online platform which allows ordinary people to create accounts enabling them to either offer their own properties, ranging from single bedrooms to entire houses, as short-term rentals to travellers, or to search for accommodation options for their personal travel plans. Airbnb provides and manages the secure payment transactions between hosts and guests, as well as an online messaging system for users to communicate with each other in order to arrange travel accommodation.

In South Africa at present, Airbnb has over 30,000 listings, with certain areas of high host concentration such as Cape Town and Johannesburg. However, KZN seems to still be in the early adoption phase of the trend. Therefore, this research study was conducted to determine whether Airbnb would be likely to become a major competitor within Durban’s accommodation marketplace. In other words, to reveal whether Durban residents would be accepting of the idea, and actively engage in welcoming visitors into their own homes using Airbnb’s services. Although the study was limited to specific suburbs, lacked funding, and was restricted to a 6 month timeframe, the results offer a glimpse into Airbnb’s potential for success within Durban.

10 active Airbnb hosts located in Durban were interviewed, and 32 local residents participated in an online survey regarding their level of awareness, along with their perceptions of Airbnb and the trend in general.

Findings indicated that the majority of locals (61%) were not previously aware of Airbnb’s existence. Both hosts and residents favoured the opinion that the platform would experience successful growth in Durban, especially in the B&B and guesthouse market segment, although Airbnb would not be a source of direct competition for hotels.

Surprisingly, the current hosts expressed that they were not at all skeptical of the concept when they were first introduced to it, suggesting that there may be great potential for further expansion – or perhaps these hosts share certain personality traits. On the other hand, more survey respondents agreed that they would consider using Airbnb for their own travel, but were unsure as to whether they would rent out their own homes. Another finding worthy of mention, exposed the purposes for travel amongst people booking Airbnb listings in Durban to vary drastically. Hosts claimed that 35% of their prior guests were visiting Durban for business, followed by 30% vacationers, and the remainder staying for special events, academic purposes, or to visit family and friends. The nationalities of these guests were also diverse, along with their age, occupation, and marital status.

A high percentage of the study participants revealed a positive perception of Airbnb and the sharing economy concept, although they believed that its success in Durban would not reach the same level as it has in other cities due factors such as crime rates, lack of adequate public transport, regulatory issues, and backlash from existing competitors.

Overall, the trend appears to be growing with Durban and its surrounding suburbs currently offering over 300 listings to travellers (Airbnb 2015). Depending on the company’s future marketing efforts and media coverage within South Africa, the success of Airbnb is difficult to predict at this stage, although it seems that there is sufficient support and acceptance within Durban to maintain a steady increase in host numbers. Further research including a larger sample size and a more diverse selection of suburbs would yield a more accurate representation of Durban’s population.

Looking at Airbnb from a responsible tourism point of view, there are several impacts to consider. Firstly, Airbnb allows individuals to supplement their income, and essentially enables self-employment. It has been found that in many cities, hosts tend to be freelancers, students, or part-time employees. This means that Airbnb provides employment opportunities for locals in one sense, although a major increase in supply and demand for hosts in Durban could also lead to losses in hotel revenues, and therefore cuts to traditional hospitality staff due to lower occupancy rates. In other words, Airbnb promotes one form of employment, while potentially negatively affecting another. Secondly, the sharing economy concept on which Airbnb is based actually promotes resource preservation. Instead of individual ownership of assets, the lending, sharing, or renting of assets is a more environmentally friendly option for consumers. Although efforts by hotels are improving with respect to their eco-friendly practices, they still produce more waste, use more energy, and require more physical space than that of an Airbnb listing. Lastly, when tourists choose to stay in the homes of locals, they are usually more dispersed among different neighbourhoods within a city. This directs economic benefits to auxiliary businesses in less popular areas, such as restaurants or local shops which normally do not serve out of town visitors. This wider distribution of tourist spending helps rejuvenate neighbourhoods which are otherwise largely ignored by travellers. In sum, Airbnb appears to be a responsible form of tourism, offering unique and authentic experiences to tourists who choose to participate.

So the questions remains, would you be comfortable opening your doors to strangers? 

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