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From greenwashing to ‘Airwashing’? Airbnb as cultural tourism provider

My friend Evelyne Lehalle, who produces a great blog on cultural tourism, recently posted on the activities of Airbnb in developing cultural tourism in villages in France. She reports on Airbnb’s donation of €5.6 million to the French Heritage Foundation, to support their programme to develop heritage and local tourism. Apparently, a similar programme funded by Airbnb in Italy has already had significant economic impacts, with almost €80 million in turnover generated for local operators.

The key question that Evelyne poses, however, is why France can’t develop programmes of this type without the help of Airbnb? A bit of seed funding obviously helps, but probably what helps more is the Airbnb brand and the power of it’s platform. Small villages obviously have problems reaching the market, so they need some kind of collaborative marketing and distribution system to reach consumers. In the past this function was fulfilled by national or regional tourist boards, or by tour operators. But Airbnb has made the process much more efficient by developing a peer-2-peer system with a global reach.

But we might also turn Evelyne’s question on it’s head, and ask ‘why does Airbnb need small French villages’? After all, the bulk of Airbnb properties are located in the centre of major cities. In a sense, this is also the answer. The dramatic growth of Airbnb in recent years, particularly in cities such as Barcelona, Paris and Venice, has also had a major impact on resident communities. The growth of collaborative economy accommodation such as Airbnb has raised issues such as increased housing prices, displacement of local residents and problems with noise and anti-social behaviour. In essence Airbnb has made city centre locations more accessible and affordable for tourists, increasing the intensity of use of these areas, and therefore also the scale of impacts. In some cities this has led to active resistance to the expansion of tourism, and in the case of Barcelona the election of a municipal administration with an anti-tourism attitude.

The negative impacts of collaborative economy accommodation in cities such as Barcelona also explain why Airbnb is interested in linking itself to small scale rural cultural tourism. Although small villages may account for a small proportion of Airbnb turnover, the image of small scale, slow and responsible tourism helps to counter the negative image the company has gained in large cities. By linking itself to heritage and prestigious heritage organisations Airbnb can help to polish its tarnished image. We are used to the concept of ‘greenwashing’, but might we now be seeing the advent of ‘Airwashing’?

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