Airbnb has announced that Airbnb in SA has supported 22 000 jobs and has had an economic impact of $648 million in the past year alone.

Speaking at a three-day summit in Cape Town which it is hosting, head of global policy and public affairs, Chris Lehane said its latest economic impact report had indicated that three out of the eight fastest-growing Airbnb countries were in Africa.

The Africa Travel summit, which is hosting more than 200 delegates from across Africa, is aimed at a discussion around how technology can benefit more people through tourism and is part of Airbnb’s $1m investment in boosting community-led tourism projects in Africa. Lehane said that 2 million guests have arrived at Airbnb listings in SA since its establishment some ten years ago while figures for Africa as a whole showed that this figure was at 3 million.

While the report indicated that Nigeria, Ghana and Mozambique were three of the eight fastest growing Airbnb countries, SA was also popular. In SA, Cape Town was still the favourite but guest arrivals at Airbnb in cities such as Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria and George also indicated encouraging growth. “There is an African proverb that says you vote with your feet. We want to make sure tourism benefits as many people as possible,” said Lehane.

“It is very important for Airbnb as outsiders to listen and learn from locals. Last year we made three commitments regarding Africa. Firstly to hold this summit; secondly to launch Airbnb experiences; and thirdly to open an Airbnb academy in Khayelitsha, Cape Town in order to enable more people to benefit from international tourism.” He explained that South African townships have not necessarily been open and accessible to international tourists and Airbnb wanted to enable that.

“It is very important to understand the history of SA by spending time in townships too. It is about creating value for the broader community in Africa and SA and to make sure we get this economic opportunity right,” said Lehane. Lehane pointed out that a large number of millennials are entering the travel market and  three out of four wanted to spend time on authentic experiences. In his view, SA and the rest of Africa could benefit from that.

“As we go into an age of automation, travel and tourism is one of the areas where you need people. People connection creates economic opportunity for real people. Airbnb hosts in SA have already earned $260m,” said Lehane. He added that 30% of Airbnb’s experiences in SA make a social impact. “People come to Africa for the land, the wildlife, the food, the history, but from a travel perspective the greatest asset for Africa is the people,” said Lehane. “So, it is about making sure that there is full interaction. The experience must be local, authentic, diverse, inclusive and sustainable.”

The report found that the majority of Airbnb hosts in SA recommended local business to visitors and more than half said they wanted to experience what it was like to live as a local. Some 82% of Airbnb guests in SA said they were more likely to return to the country due to their Airbnb experience. About 65% of Airbnb hosts in SA are women and about half of the SA Airbnb hosts are freelancers supplementing their income.

Asked about what is done to ensure the safety of guests, given SA’s high crime rate, Lehane told Fin24 that a lot of time is spent talking to hosts about educating guests about where they are going.  “We drive a social contract based on trust and making sure all parties are communicating. Cape Town is one of the world’s great cities. From the data, we are seeing our Cape Town hosts are among the highest-rated in the world,” said Lehane.

“Ubuntu is all about the concept that you make communities stronger and to make sure that SA and the rest of Africa benefits from the huge tourism opportunity in the right way.” Asked about accusations that Airbnb leads to over-tourism, Lehane said the focus is actually on sustainability.“We actually enable folks to go into areas that were not typical tourist destinations. So we spread the tourism benefit impact,” he said.

This article was first published by Fin24 on 12 September 2018.