Image: Amsterdam Houses, Flickr/Tambako.
It seems that finding sustainable accommodation, or responsible accommodation is rarely a simple task.
My experience has been that it’s certainly not as easy as it should be.
With a myriad of accommodation options out there for our travels, it can be hard to pick the right one, let alone be able to know which option is sustainable accommodation, and is going to have the best impact on environment (eco labels and certifications are of some help here, although usually only for larger hotels), society and the local economy.
With the rise of the sharing economy, airbnb and other apartment sharing / renting schemes (this post is not solely focused on airbnb, although they are clearly the market leader in this space) have been touted as a responsible way to stay. A way to “stay local”. But should that really be so?
Experiencing a destination like a local.
A key component of Airbnb (and other short term apartment rentals) is the attraction of being able to experience a new city or destination like a local. “Belong anywhere” is pivotal to their marketing campaigns. Yet one has to wonder, to what extent to airbnb and other apartment renters really do feel like they are a local?
I’ve used airbnb only a handful of times, and while I’ve had great experiences, I do not feel that I felt like a local in the destinations I travelled to, or integrated more into the cities because of my choice of accommodation.
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The role of the sharing economy.
The sharing economy has had notable positive impact when it comes to travel—not only in the accommodation space but perhaps more notably when it comes down to transport and experiences. A number of initiatives have been set up encouraging locals to act as tour guides in their own cities, sharing insider knowledge with visitors. Blabla car has made it easier than ever to car-pool and travel cheaply from place to place.
Meanwhile Airbnb, initially set up as the sharing economy’s solution for sustainable accommodation, has blossomed and now boasts over two million property listings – from castles to houseboats to everything in between.
But to what extent are most of these listings actually sharing? Which brings me to:
The difference between hosted and non-hosted.
A search for an apartment shows as many options that offer the whole apartment for rent (non-hosted) as those that are a room or shared room in someone’s apartment (hosted).
Arguably the benefits of sharing platforms and accommodation sharing come from the hosted aspect: that someone else is around to show you a side of the city that isn’t in the guidebook, introduce you to their friends, and in short enjoy a completely different experience to one that you would have had with only your lonely planet for information. While all Airbnb hosts do write guides to their apartments and surrounding area, the non-hosted options contribution to the sharing economy are substantially less than those being, well, shared.
The effect on communities.
Speaking to a friends and while looking at renting out my own apartment in Amsterdam while I travel, I discovered two things. First: that the number of property listings on airbnb had skyrocketed from 3,000 to over 11,000 in the course of the last year, with 2,000 of them having been created in the last month.
Secondly, that the sentiment held by many true locals, who’ve been living in the city for many years, was far from positive about short term apartment lets. The criticism being that in the city centre, so many apartments were being rented out short term via sites such as Airbnb that the local community was effectively being destroyed. There was no local community anymore, only tourists.
This is compounded in cities with exceptionally high tourist volumes (which Amsterdam is one). So far from experiencing being surrounded by locals, Airbnb’ers were in all likelihood surrounded by: other Airbnb’ers. There’s also the discussion about the effect of short term rental opportunities on property prices in key cities, with locals being priced even further out of the market as investors snap up property for rental potential—such has been the complaint of cities like Berlin.
The effect on hotels, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts and the rest of the accommodation industry.
Not surprisingly, the more traditional side of the accommodation industry has been up in arms at the increase of short term apartment rental supply. A number of studies have attempted to quantify the impact of Airbnb on the accommodation industry, however findings are as yet changing. One report, by Hospitality Net estimates that between September 2014 and August 2015, 480,000 hotel nights were reserved versus 2,8 million nights on Airbnb. During the same period 2,800 hotel jobs were lost as a direct result.
So the impact on the accommodation industry is clear. Why this matters is because of the number of resources already invested into the more traditional accommodation industry (hotels, guesthouses, etc), the amount of jobs that the accommodation industry is responsible for, and the number of accommodation options already available.
If hotel occupancies continue to fall at the expense of airbnb bookings then not only will we see an increased emptiness and underuse of existing accommodation options, but we will also see a loss of employment opportunities— which hold significant impact in developing countries where tourism plays a vital role in the local economy. Hotels and guest houses require a number of roles to be filled from housekeeping, to chefs to restaurant staff, receptionists and sales people; airbnb’s require only simple cleaning and are therefore much cheaper to run, and offer far fewer employment opportunities for locals.
In short: when looking for sustainable accommodation, we should take into consideration what is going to benefit the place we are visiting most.
Hotel chains, on the other hand would be wise to heed the growth of Airbnb and review their development pipelines of new hotels accordingly.
So what is the most sustainable accommodation option?
It’s clear that Airbnb’s can—and need to be— part of the solution. It’s also clear that hosted Airbnb’s offer a much higher sharing value proposition than those that are not. It may also be that using existing guesthouses and hotels however mean that you are contributing more (at least economically) to the welfare of a destination, particularly in developing parts to the world that rely heavily on tourism.
Hotels and guesthouses that have invested in eco certifications, sustainability practices (such as renewable energy generation, waste reduction, water saving) and encourage responsible tourism initiatives should always be our first choice. Small bed and breakfasts often offer the personal touch and can be as good a way of feeling genuinely at home in a new place than a swanky loft apartment.
Want to find sustianable accommodation? Check out my post on finding sustainable places to stay here!
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What do you think about finding sustainable accommodation options and about using airbnb’s vs hotels/guesthouses? I’d love to hear your views and comments below!
A Londoner by birth Ellie has lived in the UK, Netherlands, India and now Canada. Prior to blogging, she worked for 12 years in hospitality and online travel. Ellie started this blog during a sabbatical trip in 2015 around South Asia, to help conscious travellers find the best inspiration for their next sustainable trip. When not travelling, she is happiest with wine, pasta and a good (travel) book. Ellie is also Founder of Soul Travel Consulting which helps travel brands communicate their sustainability initiatives.