Authentic township tourist experiences in Langa are gaining popularity among visitors and and boosting development for residents of informal settlements.
London-based Sofia Gkiousou works as Airbnb public policy manager, and focuses on Africa, the Nordic countries, Central Europe and the Middle East.

How have other cities responded to the growing regulation calls? How has Airbnb responded to this in other parts of the world?

Everywhere is different and there is no one size fits all. Our priority is to work with communities to do what is right for them. We believe Airbnb can transform the way people experience South Africa, and help ensure everyone benefits from innovation and tourism where they live.

Many cities around the world are introducing new rules that embrace home sharing and Airbnb with good reason: For local residents, Airbnb gives an opportunity to welcome guests into their homes, boost their income and share their neighbourhoods with visitors. Hosts keep 97% of the price they charge to rent their space, which is great news for them and the local economy.

Many guests find it an affordable way to travel, others use Airbnb to immerse (themselves) in communities they might otherwise have missed.

For cities, Airbnb gives them the chance to diversify beyond typical tourist hot spots. Guests typically say they travel on Airbnb to experience life like a local and to explore specific communities. Research shows a large percentage of their spending takes places where they stay.

Cities such as London, Paris and Amsterdam have introduced clear home sharing rules, others are simplifying tax rules and introducing incentives to boost participation in the sharing economy, and others are taking steps to make clear that innovations such as Airbnb are a welcome addition in their cities. South Africa is well-placed to be a leader in the sharing economy and we think Airbnb can be part of the conversation on ensuring that transformation benefits everyone.

With the launch of our newest product, Trips, people can share their passions, as well as their homes, on Airbnb - from learning how to surf in Muizenberg followed by lunch with the community in Masiphumelele, creating street art together or cooking a traditional meal from ingredients found in the gardens of Khayelitsha. South Africans from all walks of life, whether they have a space to share or not, can now take advantage of the opportunities that Airbnb affords - boosting their income, being more entrepreneurial and sharing what they love with others from around the world. Local businesses can also reach a more international audience.

When did Airbnb first enter the South African market?

We have maps tracing growth of the Airbnb community over time and I am very proud that the Western Cape lights up quite early, back in 2009. Having said that, more general awareness was most likely rather low for a time. That has changed luckily and growth is very dynamic by now.

Picture: Jason Boud

How has it grown since then?

Airbnb is growing because our platform reflects the way people live, work and travel in the 21st century. Today, there have been more than 160 million guest arrivals on Airbnb and more than 3 million homes are listed on our site - from an artist loft in Paris, castles in Scotland and a houseboat in Knysna. In South Africa the number of homes being shared has almost doubled in the last year alone. And the number of guests staying on Airbnb when they visit South Africa has almost tripled. Also more and more South Africans chose to stay in an Airbnb when they travel - this number has grown by more than 150% in the last year.

What are Airbnb’s plans for South Africa and Africa?

We’re hugely excited about Airbnb in South Africa. In November, we announced that we would go beyond just renting homes with the introduction of the Trips platform. Cape Town was one of the only 12 cities around the world where we launched, a clear declaration of our commitment to South Africa.

I also think that the political and business environment in South Africa is supportive of new approaches that increase tourism and give opportunities where none existed before. South Africa can be a world leader in sharing economy solutions. I think that politicians and businesses really want to support that vision, so it’s up to all of us to work together to make it a reality.

Why is the sharing economy a good fit for South Africa?

South Africa is an incredibly hospitable place to visit. I love coming here, it always feels young, interesting and diverse. Above all, it feels welcoming. The other day I was leaving my home for the week to go for a dinner and a neighbour going past introduced herself and welcomed me to the neighbourhood. She treated me like a neighbour, introduced me to her favourite place for breakfast - on Kloof Street - and it’s now my absolute favourite!

No money can buy a local’s genuine enthusiasm for their city and their welcoming attitude towards visitors. South Africans are true ambassadors to their country.

Also, the organisations that I have met here - the start-up incubators, the politicians, the business representatives - they all seem to feel that there are opportunities here that should not be wasted. Take Buntu and Ayanda, for example, two of our experienced hosts. They are young entrepreneurs who run a company called The Sporting Code that encourages young kids in townships to play sport - giving them a focus and passion. It’s a good thing for everyone and authorities are asking the right questions on how to support it. How can we find a way to help provide economic opportunities for regular people, ensure cities grow sustainably and help make efficient use of space?

In other words, how can the sharing economy inspire and boost an economic revolution for the country? The strong will to have this conversation is exactly why the sharing economy is an ideal fit for South Africa.