The evolving nature of tourism: Innovation and flexibility are key in rebuilding the industry

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Bloukrans bridge in the Eastern Cape.
Bloukrans bridge in the Eastern Cape.
Nomvelo Chalumbira

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The global tourism industry has been set back by 20 years, according to the World Economic Forum. Covid-19 has placed “up to 120 million tourism jobs at risk, with the economic damage likely to exceed $1 trillion [R17 trillion] in 2020 alone”.

It will be a long road to recovery but, in addressing the current challenges, there are opportunities to remedy issues that existed long before this pandemic.

To survive, people and businesses have had to continuously pivot to adapt to changing lockdown and general safety regulations, reworking business ideas and strategies, working remotely, and generally having worlds collide while juggling a career, school and family life at home.

In the same way that flexibility has helped individuals navigate these times, it will also be key to recovery. We were forced to become adaptable in a short space of time to ensure businesses and, ultimately, the economy survived.

This just proves that we can adjust our way of thinking. We don’t have to stick to outdated, rigid processes. Things like flexitime, remote working and video conferencing have been embraced as the new normal.

Read: Property market under siege as coronavirus transforms how we work

And this upsurge in remote and flexible working as a result of Covid-19 has meant that people no longer have to live in cities if they can do their work from anywhere. We are likely to see more and more people move to towns and villages outside of urban centres. The desire and need to live and work anywhere, including in locations off the beaten track, have only grown among those who can do so.

As the lines between travel and living change, Airbnb continues to be the platform of choice for digital nomads, as working from home can become working from any home on Airbnb.

Our CEO, Brian Chesky, recently shared that we’re seeing a global increase in hosts offering long-term and monthly stays, and more guests booking these types of stays all over the world.

Today, more than 6 million – more than 80% – available listings on Airbnb accept monthly stays, with more than half of them offering discounts for extended trips. Chesky noted that the share of long-term stay searches in August this year was almost double what it was in 2019.

As we celebrate Tourism Month, traditionally a time for fresh thinking, this is the ideal time to make the most of this flexibility as new opportunities arise as a result of this crisis. The theme this year is Tourism and Rural Development which, when looked at under the current conditions, is particularly appropriate considering that travellers now want more isolated trips, seeking mountains, beaches and nature where they can safely practise social distancing.

Read: Coronavirus threatens Africa’s tourism market

Airbnb’s international travel trends data show that there is a definite shift away from urban destinations and towards more rural areas and smaller communities. For example, in August, more guests stayed in the Catskills and Hudson Valley than in New York.

To support this new trend and these rural communities, across the world Airbnb has partnered with a range of destination marketing and other tourism organisations to highlight remote places as new destinations to travel to – including Wesgro and Tourism KwaZulu-Natal. We are proud to work alongside these organisations to promote tourism to regions that are likely to struggle to recover from the impact of Covid-19.

We know that the Airbnb model allows travellers to book entire homes where they don’t need to share space with strangers. It also offers a diverse range of accommodation offerings in more destinations, which are now open to a wider group of people as South Africa moves to level 1 of lockdown regulations.

In addition to these positives for guests, in boosting domestic travel, we are directly creating an economic lifeline for many people and communities ? spreading the benefits of tourism from the few to the many, from cities to rural communities.

Airbnb directly benefits local communities, with hosts keeping up to 97% of their earnings - earnings that have been put towards university fees, bond costs, feeding families and more.

To be successful in gradually rebuilding our industry, we know that domestic tourism needs to become more of a priority and that visitor confidence in a destination needs to be boosted.

We would also like to see laws and regulations, at both a national and municipal level, become more rationalised so that micro, small and medium businesses aren’t bound up in so much red tape that they’re unable to introduce any flexibility to their model.

Read: Five predictions for the future of residential property rental

With the tourism white paper under review, there is a real chance for the industry and policy-makers to come together to make sure that all accommodation providers - including Airbnb – have a clear, fair and proportionate set of rules to work from.

We are determined to do our part and play a positive role in the recovery. As part of our strategy, we are educating hosts about safety standards – from the Johannesburg CBD to the heart of the Karoo – because, as we emerge from this crisis, we must do everything possible to instil confidence in travellers. We must send a loud and clear message that safety is our top priority.

It is essential to back that up with visible evidence that this is our concern and responsibility. We have re-evaluated and set cleaning standards that lead the industry. We have also partnered with SweepSouth and Propaclean to offer advice and training for hosts. We need to strive to ensure that people feel, and are, safe enough to travel.

The pandemic and its effect on our incomes and ability to earn money will be felt for a long time to come. Overall, the inequality pendulum is likely to swing even further so we must work to ensure that tourism recovery is inclusive.

As we’ve seen, there is a significant opportunity for tourism in townships and rural areas in this new reality, so we need to ensure that these communities are empowered to fully leverage this. At Airbnb, for example, we have done our utmost to support our hosts in townships and rural communities during these tough times.

Read: Tourism department already working on plan to stimulate and strengthen decimated sector

During the lockdown, we established the Airbnb Africa Academy fund that saw Airbnb distribute R1 million to hosts who have been part of the academy’s training, many of whom are from underresourced areas.

Currently, we are also supporting our academy hosts with carrying out the mandatory enhanced cleaning protocols that have come into play for all Airbnb hosts, and we are looking to scale this up in the coming months.

Covid-19 may have given us the toughest year in travel in modern history, but it has also provided us with opportunities to adapt and learn new ways of doing things. While there is still a long road ahead, it’s up to all of us to make the most of this opportunity to build a better, safer and more inclusive tourism industry.

Corcoran is regional leader, Middle East and Africa at Airbnb


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