Airbnb and the tourist ‘broker’

By Daniel Wroe

Last month Airbnb announced it would be offering ‘Experiences’ as part of its service. The development moves Airbnb into a new area of the travel and tourism sector, the company having previously offered only a platform for people to sell accomodation. Run with little oversight from Airbnb, Experiences range in length from a couple of hours to multi-day ‘immersions’. As is the case for hosts using Airbnb’s existing accommodation feature, the ‘local experts’ that run the Experiences keep the profits they make.

The news from Airbnb caused me to reflect on travel and tourism in Malawi, a country where I have spent a lot of time over the last ten years. In particular, I remembered a holiday with a friend who had come out to visit me while I was living there. We hired a guide to take us around one of Malawi’s national parks and then drive us to Lake Malawi for the second leg of the break. On the journey to the Lake the guide, who had been extremely informative about the wildlife in the national park, started to tell us about life in Malawi’s rural villages. As he pointed at villages that we drove past he explained that village chiefs we very autocratic and could not be questioned by their people. I knew from some of the research I had been doing that village chiefs’  actions were in fact very often strongly influenced by their people but, not wanting to interrupt our guide’s flow, I did not say anything. I met my friend in the UK several months later. During conversation we got on to what the guide had said about chiefs and to my surprise I found myself having to correct my friend, who had taken the guide’s perspective on life in rural Malawi quite seriously.

An esoteric point to argue over, perhaps, but the story captures the essence of a body of research on tourism that analyses the ways in which ‘brokers’ shape the way in which tourists and travellers experience the places they visit and people they meet there. Brokers like my safari guide can often easily influence the perspective of visitors, sometimes simply by telling memorable stories. My experience of living and working in Malawi put me in a position where I was able to provide a corrective to my guide’s viewpoint, although this is not to say that other kinds of broker do not mediate the experiences of researchers and development workers in the places that they work. Questions about the power of brokers and how they mediate interactions are relevant across many sectors.

One of the novel aspects of Airbnb’s Experiences platform is its peer-to-peer structure. Like the company’s existing accommodation service, it offers the opportunity for tourists and travellers to bypass the kind of powerful individuals and companies that have traditionally brokered the experiences of tourists, including in African countries like Malawi. At the launch of Experiences Airbnb’s CEO described how the feature would allow locals to give visitors an ‘insider’ perspective on what they do and where they live.

Many of the Experiences currently offered do however seem like rather conventional kinds of tourist activities. In Nairobi, Kenya, for example, they include a Maasai craft experience, a traditional arts experience, and a food tour. Even in the case of slightly more unconventional offerings like ‘Tech Mufti’ in Nairobi I was struck by the kind of knowledge, skills and resources that are needed to conceive, develop and effectively sell such Experiences to foreign tourists.

Currently individuals have to apply to Airbnb to run Experiences but even if the platform becomes more open, like the accommodation service, it is still likely that only certain people in countries like Kenya and Malawi will be able to make a success of using it. Internet and mobile technology continues to advance apace across Africa, but being able to successfully sell experiences to tourists in other countries involves far more than simply having a phone or a laptop and reliable IT infrastructure. Languages are key, particularly ‘global’ languages like English, French, and Spanish. The current state of education in most African countries means that opportunities to learn such languages lie only with relatively few. Even with linguistic ability there are still subtle cultural styles and tastes without knowledge of which running a successful Airbnb Experience would be difficult; potential Airbnb Experience experts would have to know how to present their own contexts in such ways as to make them appealing to foreign tourists. For example, most Malawians love the staple maize dish Nsima, but it was not offered at several of the places my friend and I stayed on our holiday. When I asked for it our guide explained that the lodges did not make it because they had learned most white tourists did not want it, ‘even to try’.

The Airbnb Experiences service may enable some individuals with this kind of knowledge to convey to foreign tourists their own perspectives on life in the places that they live, independent of traditional travel companies and guides. If the initial Experiences offered in Nairobi are anything to go by the latter may well take advantage of the platform as well. Until broader socio-economic changes take place the way in which the lives of the vast majority of people in countries like Kenya and Malawi are presented to travellers and tourists will remain in the hands of these kinds of brokers. The key question to ask of Airbnb’s Experiences service from a development perspective is then the same one that has always been asked of the tourism sector; to what extent  do the people represented by travel companies, guides or ‘local experts’, get to benefit from the way they are represented?

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