travel-platforms-want-to-move-away-from-tourist-areas-in-search-for-sustainability

As the European Commission and local authorities seek to manage over-tourism in populous European cities, short-term rental tech platforms are encouraging stays in more remote and rural areas.

The growth of travel platforms like Booking.com, Airbnb and Expedia has been a source of much debate.

On the one hand, online platforms have been seen as leading to significant economic advantages in reducing transaction costs, allowing for more efficient resource allocation, and providing reliable information and real-time prices aligned with market conditions.

On the other, the boom of short-term rentals driven by these platforms has accelerated gentrification in key urban areas. Evidence also shows that increasing the share of lettings like Airbnbs in an area drives up long-term rents. 

“You have to find a balance for the city. You want a city where you have the Airbnbs. But you also want to have the people that live in the city. That’s something socially very important,” Carlos Moedas, mayor of Lisbon, said at the Web Summit last month.

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Tourism sustainability

Short-term rentals are often blamed for the ‘touristification’ of the centres of cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Venice, with serious implications for the local communities and the environment, leading to local authorities regulating tourism entries.

Sharing the stage with Moedas was Nathan Blecharczyk, co-founder and Chief Strategy Office at Airbnb, who acknowledged that too much tourism in a too small place could be overwhelming.

“And yet, how do we disperse that?” he asked.

In response, Airbnb has redesigned its travel search, moving from a configuration in which it asks people first and foremost where it wants to go, to one where the search relates to categories based on a particular experience.

In 2021, the company launched a ‘flexible’ search, with the view of moving the tourist flows away from the usual ‘hotspots’, to prevent them from overheating. According to an Airbnb report, in 2019, the top 10 most visited cities on Airbnb in the EU accounted for 20% of all trips to Europe, a figure that dropped to 14% in 2022.

Similarly, Airbnb states that a trend that started during the pandemic – namely stays in rural areas – is increasingly popular, growing by 55% in the last three years. The report found that the supply is adjusting to this new demand, with a growing number of Airbnbs in ‘national parks’, ‘Farm Stays’, or similar.

For Blecharczyk, these figures are “a reminder of how powerful platforms are to shape consumer behaviour.”

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Industry trend

The European Travel Commission (ETC), an EU-funded observatory, found that while Europe’s most popular destination countries have already bounced back and surpassed pre-pandemic levels, “this demand is still leaning towards non-urban short-term rentals, which have gained a market share of approximately 10% over the course of the pandemic.”

The study indicates that vacation rental reservations for urban areas dropped from 66% in January 2019 to 52% in September 2022, whilst reservations for rural areas have gone from 23% to 31% in the same time period.

“What we found is an emerging consensus among travellers on wanting to avoid busy and over-visited destinations,” wrote Booking’s chief lobbyist, Peter Lochbihler in an op-ed, stressing that over a quarter of its users chose to travel to a less popular destination in the last year.

A report sponsored by Booking.com last year, found that online platforms allow tourists to access more rural areas in a way that hotels simply cannot and are best placed to respond to this growing demand.

In 2021, the Expedia Group published data indicating that the most searched regions in France post-COVID-19 are highly rural areas in the south of the country, with two-thirds of French families looking for non-urban holiday destinations.

Managing change

Cities are also playing their parts in supporting a shift of short-term rentals away from city centres.

For instance, Barcelona put together a Special Tourist Accommodation Plan (PEUAT) to strictly “control the setting up of tourist accommodation in the city and guaranteeing residents’ basic rights”, according to city services.

“People want to travel again, discover new places and cultural heritage, but the pandemic has changed models of tourism towards destinations that are nearer and less massified,” said Alfonso Rueda Valenzuela, President of the Galicia region at a conference on sustainable tourism in June.

In 2021, the European Parliament also adopted an own-initiative report for an EU strategy for sustainable tourism, which “highlights that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a shift in the nature of travellers’ demands towards safe, clean and more sustainable tourism.”

The parliamentary resolution invited the European Commission to operationalise the European Tourism Indicators System, a tool to provide governments with real-time data on tourism destinations to monitor tourism’s economic, social and environmental impact.

The system also seeks to bring legal certainty through the shareability of short-term rental data from the platform to empower local authorities to regulate the harmful impacts of over-tourism.

“To act wisely, short-term public and private entities need quantitative and qualitative metric data”, MEP Claudia Monteiro de Aguiar told EURACTIV.

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[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald/Alice Taylor]

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