Sustainable Accommodation and Travel: Why Airbnb may not be the Answer.

by Ellie Cleary

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?

How to find sustainable accommodation

Image c.Pixabay

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.

Pin this post on Pinterest!

Is Airbnb the answer to sustainable accommodation? In sustainable travel, where to stay is an important decision - is renting an Airbnb your best bet versus a hotel or eco lodge? Pin this post to one of your boards to save it for later!

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.

is Airbnb sustainable accommodation?

Image c.Flickr/Adrian Scottow

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.

How to book sustainable accommodation

Image c.Pixabay

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!  

Would you like to support Soul Travel Blog?  You can sign up to my newsletter below or support by sharing content that you like and follow along on social media: every like, comment and share counts.

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!

You may also like


Kelly August 8, 2016 - 9:55 pm

Yes, yes, and yes. I have been saying this to all my friends for a while, and they are usually shocked at how Airbnb is more so taking away from a community and destination than contributing to it. I completely understand why Airbnb is appealing for a traveler (and for hosts) , but I can’t yet get on board with their sustainable claims. At least not until it’s more so a SHARING accommodation site and not just renting an entire apartment, as you said.

What are your thoughts on home-sharing in destinations like Africa and Southeast Asia? For me, home-sharing in developing destinations could really benefit from traveler dollars AND give tourists a great local experience. Again, as long as the hosting aspect is there.

Ellie August 9, 2016 - 1:37 pm

Hi Kelly,
Thanks for stopping by and for your comment!
The homesharing ideas in SE Asia and Africa sound really interesting – it sounds like a sort of more developed homestay experience?
I think your point is spot on that hosting makes all the difference and provides a genuine opportunity to connect with people and a different culture. It also seems like a great way of delivering economic benefits directly to neighbourhoods that perhaps need it most.
If you try it i’d love to hear back about your experiences and who you used – do let me know.
Enjoy your travels,

Kelly August 11, 2016 - 11:40 pm

I haven’t tried it yet, but the most intriguing ones to me were on a site called I Like Local. Im DYING to try the one in Nepal where you can stay on a tea farm. If only I could leave tomorrow! 🙂

Nikita August 21, 2016 - 11:41 pm

I hate this, but it’s true. I’ve loved my AirBnB stays, and I love the idea of a sharing economy, and in theory it should be a great way to give some tourist dollars to people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford to start a business while connecting with people, but in reality it’s mostly landlords renting out multiple houses at prices people living in the city couldn’t afford. 🙁

Outside of eco hotels and campgrounds, I like accomodation that isn’t based on money, like work exchange (lots of really awesome sustainable projects to be found!) and CouchSurfing (I always try to repay hosts in food or personalized gifts). I like cutting down the capitalism in my travels to a bare minimum. 😉

Ellie August 23, 2016 - 8:15 am

Hi Nikita, thanks for reading! I really like your points about moving towards exchange – accommodation and work related. I can definitely see how that could be a great opportunity for tourism going forward and that could also help strengthen inter-cultural learning and appreciation amongst travellers and hosts. Safe travels! Ellie

Frog and Freckles October 3, 2016 - 1:40 pm

We have had many AirBnB stays, and while we really enjoyed it at the beginning, more recently we can only agree with the points in your piece Ellie! It is such a shame that actually hosting guests is not a bigger priority – some of our most recent stays have involved getting the key from the letter box, or from a key safe. I think the success of some rooms/apartments means that hosts get too involved with the business side of things. Such a shame for a site with the potential to create a great travel community!

We are going to Japan next year and plan on working in exchange for accommodation and meals. Hopefully we will finally get the ‘local’ experience we constantly crave! – Freckles.

Ellie October 3, 2016 - 8:37 pm

Hi Freckles, thanks for your comment! Yes I definitely agree the hosting is a great option and could be expanded so much more. that sounds like a wonderful plan for Japan – do let me know how you get on with that! Happy travels, Ellie

Venice and the Tide of Tourism. - Soul Travel Blog December 10, 2016 - 11:28 am

[…] Venice also suffers from illegal accommodation and unregulated b&b’s.  Check you’re doing your part by staying in a licensed hotel or guesthouse. I recommend booking with hotels directly, or failing that checking rates and availability via on online travel agent vs using Airbnb. You can read more on that here. […]

Finding Sustainable Places to Stay. - Soul Travel Blog February 26, 2017 - 6:59 pm

[…] Hosted Airbnb’s – I mention this one with a huge BUT. Airbnb rentals where we stay with the host can be a great sustainable travel experience – similar to a homestay – that makes travel a win-win. Airbnb’s where the whole apartment is available for rent however are often far from sustainable due to issues with unlicensed hotels, the driving up of house prices and out of local communities, etc… you can read more about the mixed effects of Airbnb in my post here.  […]

Micaela Ellison July 14, 2017 - 1:02 am

Like others, I was excited by my first rentals on Airbnb. But lately, I’ve only enjoyed the hosted stays as the rest feel no different than hotel rooms (sometimes with less amenities). I’d love to know what you think about the Airbnb Experiences. I haven’t done one myself but they sound more in line with your values.

Ellie October 8, 2017 - 11:39 am

Thanks Micaela (sorry for the late reply to your comment!). Interesting to hear that about your rentals on Airbnb.

As regards Airbnb experiences. I actually booked one recently (for Plastic Whale in Amsterdam who run trips to clean plastic from the canals) but I only used Airbnb to book since that was the way Plastic Whale had set it up on their website (only booking option on Airbnb). On one hand, Airbnb is an easy and powerful way for small experiences to reach the large audience that is on Airbnb, so can be a helpful thing. On the other hand, Airbnb is threatening smaller platforms / websites that are purer in their outlook on sustainable travel. I love to go to sites like and directly – they are a great source! 🙂

Thanks again for stopping by and happy travels!

Erin Gustafson | Oregon Girl Around the World August 31, 2017 - 12:06 pm

I use Airbnb for almost all of our travel around Europe – as a family of five – hotels and BnB’s – even eco-ones just can’t normally accommodate us in one room. I like supporting the local economy by shopping at the local markets and cooking in an apartment to save costs and eat sustainably. I am aware that there has been a growing trend to buy apartments in heavily touristed areas to solely service tourists and I try to book personal places, not landlord owned properties. Sometimes it is easier to suss these out online than others. We prefer staying in someone’s home, but normally choose the non-hosted route to retain some family privacy when traveling. I still think that Airbnb (and other home-sharing websites) can offer positive impacts, but the onus is on the traveler to determine which listings work best to do just that. It’s definitely an important conversation and being aware of how our travel choices impact a place is the best way to start. Cheers from Copenhagen!

Ellie August 31, 2017 - 3:46 pm

Thanks for your thoughtful comment Erin, yes I can imagine it is much more of a challenge finding suitable (and sustainable) accommodation for a family of 5 compared to 1 or 2 people. As is often the case there isn’t a clear one-size-fits-all answer, but it’s great that these issues are coming more to the fore and that more people – such as yourself – are making conscious decisions about what to support! Happy travels, Ellie

Venice and the Tide of Tourism. | Soul Travel May 6, 2019 - 8:53 pm

[…] Venice also suffers from illegal accommodation and unregulated b&b’s.  Check you’re doing your part by staying in a licensed hotel or guesthouse. I recommend booking with hotels directly, or failing that checking rates and availability via on online travel agent vs using Airbnb. You can read more on that here. […]

48 Hours in Lisbon... and a Warning. | Soul Travel June 6, 2019 - 3:42 pm

[…] Resolution to this problem cannot come from travellers alone, although it does help for us to be aware of the issue. Avoiding Airbnbs and choosing hotels instead (see our recommendations above) helps to avoid the issue of inflated property prices and locals being pushed out. […]

The Best of Sustainable Travel in Amsterdam: A Guide. | Soul Travel October 9, 2019 - 2:11 pm

[…] You can read more on the responsibility debate about Airbnb in my post here. […]


Leave a Comment

* By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More