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“Airbnb only succeeds if our hosts succeed”: The disrupter talks sustainable tourism

Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s Head of Global Policy and Public Affairs, is at the forefront of the company’s efforts to encourage sustainable tourism.

Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s Head of Global Po

With more and more cities introducing legislation against home-sharing broker Airbnb, the company itself is working to ensure healthy tourism, says Head of Global Policy and Public Affairs Chris Lehane.

Airbnb has been facilitating home-sharing for nearly a decade now. It is present in 81,000 cities across 191 countries, and is perhaps the best-known face of the ‘sharing economy’ (with the debatable exception of Uber).

Chris believes the nature of Airbnb’s model means it must work for all stakeholders, or it doesn’t work at all.

“It’s not a typical business structure where there is a winner and potentially multiple losers,” Chris says. “It’s a community model where Airbnb only succeeds if our hosts succeed, economically.

“Our hosts succeed economically only if guests feel like they’re getting a great deal. And guests are ultimately welcomed by communities only if communities feel like it’s healthy for travel and tourism.

Our hosts succeed economically only if guests feel like they’re getting a great deal.

“The stakeholders are our hosts, our guests, the community that we’re in, our employees, and our investors. We’re really making sure that we consider all of those and if there’s tension, we’re really trying to balance that tension.”

But in recent years, a number of destinations popular with tourists have started to implement heavy regulation. New York, Japan and numerous Spanish cities have all created legislation targeting Airbnb’s vacation rentals.

In Byron Bay, Australia, locals are complaining that landlords now prioritise short-term rentals, and long-term housing is increasingly hard to find.

The New South Wales government has instituted limits on the days a property can be available for rental. Strata owners are also permitted to ban short-term apartment rentals.

Meanwhile, Japan’s recent law change forced Airbnb to cancel reservations with the large number of properties not yet registered. For its part, Japanese locals cite culture clashes, and Japan being unprepared for a tourism boom as justification for the regulation.

While obviously not the optimal outcome for Airbnb, the company has endeavoured to cooperate and negotiate with the Japanese government. Indeed, this is its strategy for dealing with any government body.

The democratisation of travel

Chris’s duties revolve around the company’s relationships with numerous organisations across the globe, policymakers in particular. He also drives initiatives to spotlight Airbnb’s “democratisation of travel”.

Having once worked in several press- and counsel-related roles in the Clinton administration, Chris says he only made the jump to private industry once he was certain Airbnb aligned with his values.

In a manner of speaking, he’s switched sides, having gone from representing the government to negotiating with it. This has proved a boon, for example, when Airbnb enters a dialogue with governments about any proposed regulation.

“We didn’t love every single element of the proposal in New South Wales,” Chris says. “But we recognised it was a fair and balanced approach, one that was innovative and sought to take into account different stakeholders.

“Having that perspective allows us to get into the conversation. Our stance is that we really need to roll up our sleeves and work constructively with government. We’ve got a pretty clear understanding that this result really did reflect good government work.”

Airbnb launches Office of Healthy Tourism

On the home front, Airbnb has announced an Office of Healthy Tourism, which will likely address some of the criticisms from local communities.

“In the same way you can think about healthy food and junk food, you can think about mass travel and healthy travel. Our Office of Healthy Tourism is really designed to work with local communities to promote a vision of healthy travel.”

This vision is defined by five criteria: benefits to local economy; authentic cultural experience; geographical diversity (in rural and urban areas); socio-economic inclusivity; and sustainability from a climate perspective.

“All five of those elements are part of the Office of Healthy Tourism,” he says. “It really is becoming our organising principle, by having to try to really work with governments, and make sure they are getting the right type of tourism.”

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