Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker wrote one of the best songs ever written about privilege, "Common People." His lyric that “everybody hates a tourist” is deeply resonant—anybody who’s ever lived somewhere beautiful, or even just in a major city, knows the feeling well. Tourism changes places, almost never for the better; the locals will always resent the visitors.
Conversely, however, almost everybody loves to travel, and international demand for hospitality services of all stripes is growing incredibly fast.
In China alone, spending on international travel and tourism was an astonishing $215 billion in 2015, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. That’s up more than 50% from $143 billion in 2014, and represents an elevenfold increase from the $19 billion total in 2007. It’s also well above the $149 billion that Americans spent on international travel in 2015 – itself an all-time high, even after accounting for inflation.
The consequences of all this travel can be far-reaching and unpleasant on a national level, as this major Skift investigation into Icelandic tourism shows. And in small towns like Joshua Tree, which Kristen Brown profiled for Fusion, a sudden influx of visitors is just as disruptive.
It’s easy to blame much of this phenomenon on Airbnb. After all, very few people travel far without knowing that they’re going to have somewhere to stay, and as a result, most tourist destinations have historically had a natural constraint on the number of visitors they can host—namely, the number of hotel rooms they have. While there have always been visitors who find a way to travel without staying in hotels, historically they’ve been in the minority; only recently, with the advent of Airbnb, have they looked as though they might become a majority.
Call that the supply-side story. Airbnb has supplied the tourism market with a whole new way of travelling, and the consequences have often been messy.
But really, the supply-side story is just the other side of the coin, and the demand-side story is ultimately much, much bigger. Indeed, it’s a trend that goes back centuries.
With the possible exception of the Dark Ages, travel has always become more popular and more diverse over time. That’s a trend which can probably be traced back to the invention of agriculture, which first started keeping communities rooted in one place.
Since then, we’ve seen numerous advances on both the technological and social front—everything from wheels and roads and cheap flights to restaurants and youth hostels and second languages. Every time one of those advances happens, a previously-unsuspected source of untapped demand emerges to expand the travel economy. Instances where one technology replaces another, like airplanes replacing steam ships, are relatively rare. Much more common is the situation where new supply just makes the whole pie that much larger.
The internet-enabled vacation-rental revolution—which encompasses much more than just Airbnb—is a classic case of a technological advance which massively expands the travel universe.
After all, getting there is to a large extent a solved problem, at this point. Improvements in transportation infrastructure mean that it has never been easier or cheaper to get to the overwhelming majority of places on the planet. As a result, the opportunity space of potential destinations, for any given traveler, has grown enormously.
Simultaneously, the amount of information we have at our fingertips about places all over the world has exploded. In a world where people pick a destination by looking at brochures in travel agencies, tourism is going to be constrained to a relative handful of popular locations. By contrast, a world where people pick a destination after admiring a photograph on Instagram is inevitably going to see a huge increase in demand to visit places which don’t have a long history of being on the tourist trail.
What’s more, those places’ lack of touristic infrastructure is going to be perceived by the visitors as the very reason they want to go to the place in question. It’s authentic! It’s untouched! It doesn’t have cookie-cutter international resorts!
Thanks to the internet, almost everywhere you might want to visit also has easy-to-find lodging available nearby. No longer do would-be visitors need to wait years for some entrepreneur to navigate the financing and permissioning gantlet involved in opening up a new hotel; instead, they can simply stay in already-existing dwellings, many of which are much more attractive, especially for families and groups, than any hotel would be.
The internet revolution doesn’t necessarily make travel more accessible. The transportation infrastructure hasn’t changed, and Airbnbs and other vacation rentals are often more expensive than hotels. So the demand isn’t necessarily coming from people who used not to be able to afford to travel, as it has done during previous bouts of technological improvement.
Rather, we’re seeing an explosion in options, in a diverse world where people have countless different preferences and priorities when it comes to travel.
Even the most service-oriented ultra-luxury hotels can’t give everybody everything they desire: different people might want a sauna with a view of the mountains, or an entire island to themselves for a week, or time spent working on an organic farm, or the privilege of sleeping in a Frank Lloyd Wright bedroom, or friendly introductions to various parts of the Sri Lankan community in Staten Island, or any of millions of other desires. They will be travelling solo, or in a couple, or in a family, or in a group of 18. They will be old, or confined to a wheelchair, or terrified to ever get into an elevator. They will be rich, or middle-income, or on a very limited budget. Up until now, the options available to them have always involved some kind of compromise, and have often involved outright deal-breakers.
Which means that as the option space expands, the demand for travel rises commensurately. Travelers of all stripes increasingly want something different, something without room service and a concierge, and are able to find it with pleasure and ease. That doesn’t mean room service and concierges are dying out–far from it. They exist for a reason, and the inexorable rise in global tourism spending will keep demand for such services strong for the foreseeable future.
But while lots of people get really excited about the prospect of staying in some far-flung hotel, there are just as many people who don’t. Since the happiness and excitement that you get from planning a vacation are often the best aspect of the whole experience, what Airbnb and its ilk are offering is more than just a previously unimaginable trip. They’re also creating a sense of discovery: that wonderful feeling that you’ve managed to find something really special, rather than just writing a painfully large check to the owners of some gargantuan luxury resort.
So while the hotel business is going to be just fine—take another look at those Chinese-tourism figures, if you don’t believe me—the universe of people wanting vacations on their own terms, and seeking locals who can help deliver those experiences, is sure to grow even faster, and even drive future growth in hotels. After all, for all that hotels would love it were Airbnb not to exist, the fact is that it’s the best possible barometer of where to find unmet demand for temporary accommodations. Only after Brooklyn became the center of the Airbnb universe, for instance, did multiple hotels start popping up there. Once the demand genie has been let out of the bottle, hoteliers can make money meeting it just as easily as Airbnb hosts can.
But for destinations which were until recently well off the beaten path, the future is not nearly as rosy. Once the demand for accommodations and other services becomes a permanent drumbeat, it is likely to forever altering the natural rhythm of hundreds of out-of-the-way destinations. That’s why stories like the ones we’re hearing from Iceland and Joshua Tree are never going to go away.
The locals’ complaints are nothing new: the residents of Naples have been kvetching about tourists for centuries. What’s changed is that this new breed of relatively disintermediated travel is harder to regulate: there’s very little the local town council can do to dissuade people from visiting. And while residents can deny planning permission to the entrepreneur who wants to build a big ugly hotel right next to the lovely old City Hall, it’s harder to tell their neighbors that they’re no longer allowed to make ends meet by renting out their spare room.
Overall, the increase in travel is a good thing, as is the way in which it is increasingly expanding from a limited menu of clunky old institutions like mega-resorts and flea-bag motels. But as the demand for unique and memorable experiences continues to rise, the kind of locations which tend to form the backdrop to such experiences are only going to see more out-of-towners passing through for a few days. Rents and home prices in those places are going to rise, and people who used to be able to afford to live there will increasingly be priced out.
But they’ll still have enough money to travel, occasionally. And when they do, they’re going to have more options than ever.