Sharing passions unlocks economic opportunities for all, writes Stephanie Holmes.
The underlying desire of travel is no longer simply an urge to visit a culture different to our own. Today's travellers want more — we want to feel like a local wherever we go; hoping to veer away from the tourist trail to find the places only residents know about, so when we get home we can impress our friends with just how world-savvy we really are.
This seems to have been spurred on by the growth of social media — where the desire to be original means it's not enough to post a photo at the Empire State Building on a first trip to New York, you have to find something no one on your Insta feed has seen before.
It's arguably why chains like Starbucks are seeing declines; because people are seeking out the new, independent, cool stores to get their caffeine fix, wanting to go where the locals go and not where they'll find their fellow tourists.
And this drive for "authenticity" is why Airbnb is no longer just an online accommodation-booking platform.
The company has been on the "local" bandwagon since it began in 2008. Founded by flatmates Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk and Joe Gebbia, for whom inspiration hit after renting out blow-up mattresses in their San Francisco apartment to help them pay rent.
Their first guests were in town for a conference and found all the hotels fully booked.
After staying with the budding entrepreneurs, the guests were impressed at how staying with locals gave them an insight into the city they wouldn't have found at a generic conference hotel.
Airbnb has massively disrupted the traditional accommodation provider sector and, whatever you might think of its ethos, there's no denying it's been a global success story.
Worth more than $46.4 billion, there are now five million property listings in 81,000 cities, across 191 countries.
Although a welcome addition from a customer point of view, the company's disruption hasn't been well-received by everyone. In Queenstown, for example, a lack of permanent homes for those living and working in the region has been blamed on owners renting their houses on Airbnb during busy tourist seasons. The rules currently say homes can be rented out for up to 90 days a year; Queenstown Lakes District Council wants to slash that to just 28 days. And in Auckland, the council has introduced a targeted rate for homeowners who rent their properties on sites like Airbnb and Bookabach, to bring them into line with other accommodation providers. The move came after representatives from the hotel and motel industry complained about Airbnb's advantage.
Paris is the most recent destination to look at clamping down — the city has introduced a law making it illegal to list a home as a holiday rental for more than 120 days of the year, and some councillors are pushing for Airbnb rentals to be banned completely.
These changes have been
, but certainly haven't slowed it down, with the company expanding its offering to more than just accommodation. Launched in November 2016,
(originally called Airbnb Trips) gives local hosts the chance to share their passions with their guests, whether that's offering a walking tour around their neighbourhood, giving cooking lessons, or photography workshops. It's an egalitarian opportunity — anyone can become a host as long as they have expertise in their chosen field, give local access that your average tourist couldn't find by themselves, and they must show true hospitality.
There's also the chance to book experiences that give back. Social Impact Experiences are hosted by volunteers, employees, or board members of registered non-profit organisations, with all proceeds raised going back to that cause.
There's been a huge uptake, with more than 13,000 Experiences on offer in more than 180 cities. There's everything from street art tours, to surfing lessons, rescue-dog walking to beach clean-ups ... if you can think of it, chances are there's an Experience somewhere in the world to let you do it.
Experiences is projected to be in 1000 cities by the end of the year, including Easter Island and Iceland.
New Zealand was the most recent country to get its own Experiences sub-site, with a media launch at the end of August inviting Kiwis to apply to be hosts, or "micro-entrepreneurs". "It's an opportunity for anyone to share their hobbies, skills, or expertise with others."
"Experiences are a great way for creative entrepreneurs to tap into their passions and unlock economic opportunities through the platform," Airbnb NZ country manager Sam McDonagh said. "I'd encourage anyone in New Zealand with a passion they want to share to submit their unique Experience ideas and become an Airbnb host."
Log on to the site and search for Experiences in New Zealand and you'll find jewellery-making classes, wine tours and guided hikes in Queenstown, penny farthing rides in Oamaru, and the chance to learn how to sculpt, taught by a Weta Workshop staffer at their Wellington base.
McDonagh believes it will help spread the burden and benefits tourism brings. "The expansion of Experiences across all of New Zealand will help to boost tourism outside of city centres by attracting more people to regional areas," he says.
In June, Thailand became another country with its own Experiences "marketplace".
At the launch in Chiang Mai, Airbnb's Southeast Asia and India head of Experiences Sriram Vaidhya talked about how becoming a host can bring empowerment. In a country like Thailand, where tourism is experiencing record year on year growth (it brought in $81b in 2017, up from $70 in 2016), the chance to start up your own business as an Experiences host can "unlock an aspirational future", Vaidhya said.
Parin Mehta, Airbnb director of Experiences Asia Pacific, agrees. "Our Thai Airbnb community is poised to take Thailand's tourism industry to the next level. Experiences are a great way for creative entrepreneurs to tap into their passions and unlock economic opportunities."
That seems to be true for Nukul, a young woman from the Karen hill tribe, an ancient culture that originated in Myanmar and began migrating into Thailand in the 18th century. Born and raised in a mountain village in the jungles of Northern Thailand, she has been a tour guide for more than two years. She graduated from a hospitality training programme with Daughters Rising, a non-profit organisation founded by two American expats, aiming to empower young women at risk of human trafficking.
"Education is key to stopping the cycle of intergenerational poverty that puts ethnic minority girls at risk of being trafficked," Daughters Rising's website states.
After finishing her hospitality programme, Nukul received an interest-free loan to set up her own company, Chai Lai Sisters, Thailand's first Karen women's trekking company. She now trains Chai Lai employees to be trekking guides and manage their own homestays.
In addition, she hosts a
through Airbnb, giving tourists the opportunity to learn more about the traditions of the Karen tribe. As a Social Impact Experience, all proceeds go back to Daughters Rising.
"Through trekking, I empower myself and other Karen guides to preserve our traditions by sharing them with guests," Nukul writes on her Experiences page.
For guests, it's a chance to see an authentic side of Thailand, and interact with hill-tribe villagers it would be hard to get access to travelling solo.
Taking a condensed version of her tour, Nukul led us on a trek to a stunning waterfall, showed us traditional weaving techniques, and gave us the chance to cook lunch using traditional methods. The rain poured outside the wooden stilt house and two older women looked on as we struggled to peel green mango with a blunt knife, then pummelled it with a makeshift mortar and pestle. The eldest of the women, with a lined face and a toothless, betel nut leaf-stained smile, chuckled when she saw her image reflected back in my phone when I asked to take a picture with her. I walked away feeling like I'd gained a new perspective on ageing and what beauty really looks like; she went back to her weaving, chewing her leaves, spitting the dark red juice through the gaps in the bamboo floorboards. Whatever impression we left on each other, our meeting would never have happened without Nukul.
Other Experience hosts gave us insights into different aspects of Northern Thai culture.
At Air's Thai Culinary Kitchen, our genial host taught us to cook four different dishes, which we then enjoyed family-style for dinner.
Before a Thai massage at Porwa Spa, we learned how to make the herbal poultices used by the masseuses, under the expert guidance of Kankowan, the young female owner of the elegant spa.
And on the outskirts of the city, Arjan Sompong, a former Buddhist monk turned tattoo artist, practises the ancient art of Yantra tattooing, sacred designs originally introduced by the Khmer people and still administered using sharpened metal rods.
On this whirlwind trip to Chiang Mai, I came away feeling like I'd seen sides to the city I would never have found by myself — an enriching stay that left me keen to see more.
That's the true reward that comes from travelling like a local, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia says. You get to "see the true character of a city through the people who live there".
Thai Airways flies from Auckland to Chiang Mai, via Bangkok, with return Economy Class fares starting from $1138.