Airbnb makes its move on the growing African tourism market


Since it launched in 2008, Airbnb has revolutionised the way many of us travel. Goodbye bland hotel room, hello chic artist’s loft apartment. It’s not hard to see why millions have joined the site. In South Africa alone, the number of people using Airbnb has shot up by an incredible 255 per cent in the past 12 months with 11,000 properties now listed in the country. This spike in popularity has not gone unnoticed by Airbnb, which in July announced plans to “accelerate its growth” in the rainbow nation.

“South Africa is already our biggest market in the region and we see huge potential for future growth,” says Nicola D’Elia, Airbnb’s general manager for the Middle East and Africa. So far, this progress has been mostly by word of mouth but Airbnb are now establishing a dedicated team. “The first step will be meeting with our host community to hear about their experiences and gather their feedback on local factors we need to factor into our plans,” says D’Elia. “Beyond that, we’ll be looking at partnerships and marketing activities as well as what changes we can make from a product perspective to reflect local requirements.”

While most Airbnb hosts in South Africa are individuals casually renting out a spare room or their entire home while they’re away, some are more established tourism providers looking for new ways to promote their property. People like Doreen de Waal in Cape Town. “I opened my business, InAweStays, in 2011 and I needed an additional portal through which to market the cottages. My son told me about Airbnb because he thought it was ingenious.” Does she think Airbnb has grown more popular in South Africa? “Absolutely! We are not one of a few cottages any more, but one of thousands. Everybody is talking about it.”

"Investing in infrastructure, creating new
products and allocating funding to promote destinations in international markets are
key to tourism growth"

South Africa isn’t the only country on the continent catching onto the idea. There are now more than 30,000 Airbnb properties listed across Africa: the biggest markets being Cape Town (5,000 listings), Marrakech (3,000), Mauritius (1,000), Johannesburg (1,000) and Nairobi (800). And the company plans to reach further still. Gilly McHugo is co-owner of the spectacular Kasbah du Toubkal mountain retreat in Imlil, Morocco. “We signed up to Airbnb because it’s an increasingly important platform that we wanted to be present on,” she says. While it isn’t hugely popular in rural areas such as Imlil just yet, McHugo is “hopeful that this will grow.” African hosts must also help prepare visitors from overseas. “One of the challenges I face regards our Mozambique holiday home is explaining to folk just how remote it is,” says Debbie Osler, who also lists her luxurious home Mana House in Joburg. “Airbnb is growing in popularity and each month I get more and more enquiries.”

Whether or not Airbnb is making a significant impact in South Africa is too early to say, according to Tolene van der Merwe, UK and Ireland country manager for South African Tourism. “We are seeing more people visiting South Africa to fulfil a sense of wanderlust and looking to explore the variety of the country – perhaps Airbnb is helping this growing group of young, engaged travellers. We welcome any developments that enable people to experience the vibrancy and culture of this diverse country.” Airbnb is confident that its model can help grow tourism all over continent. “Firstly, Airbnb is often a more affordable accommodation option so attracts people who might not have otherwise travelled because it was too expensive,” explains D’Elia. “Secondly, Airbnb attracts tourism to areas not well covered by hotels. This can help boost the overall market, attracting new visitors and helping to diversify tourism across Africa.”

It’s certainly a canny move on the part of the company. In 2013, 65 million international tourists arrived in Africa. By 2030, the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimates this will be 134 million. One reason for this rise, says Dr Charles Leyeka Lufumpa, director of the Africa Development Bank’s statistics department, is “an influx of new visitors from emerging economies in Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, all seeking to experience the cultural heritage, extraordinary wildlife and dramatic landscapes unique to our beautiful region. Investing in infrastructure, creating new products and allocating funding to promote destinations in international markets are key to tourism growth.”

Ironically it’s intra-continent travel that is proving more difficult. “Whereas the majority of North Americans and Europeans enjoy liberal access to the continent, at least two-thirds of African countries demand visas from Africans traveling outside their native land,” says Leyeka Lufumpa. “This reflects a lack of regional cooperation and facilitation to support the sector but there are bright spots emerging. For instance, the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have implemented regional visas to ease the flow of tourists to and within the respective regions. In order to boost inter-African tourism, it is imperative to support the ease of air travel and open skies policies.”

Nevertheless, given the positive outlook for African tourism, travel operators are busy exploring future top destinations. The African Travel and Tourism Association (Atta) is spearheading the launch of tourism to St Helena ahead of the arrival of an airport on the tropical Island. And other hot spots include Algeria, Mozambique, Namibia, Cape Verde, Angola, Zambia and Ethiopia. “Due to the political situations in Syria, Tunisia and Egypt in recent times, many people who would have travelled to those countries are instead going to Ethiopia to explore its amazing history, culture and archaeology,” says Anita Powell from Small World Marketing, the PR agency for Ethiopian Airlines. “Until about three years ago, the infrastructure wasn’t really there and the quality of the hotels was poor. But there’s been a new influx of hotels being built that are small, independently owned, and in keeping with the wider Ethiopia experience. Ethiopian tourism is probably 30 years behind the rest of East Africa, but it’s got huge potential.”

Words Carinya Sharples
Images courtesy Airbnb