Visit Malaysia Year 2014: Airbnb adds a new dimension to tourism

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Malaysian Airbnb hosts meet up.Malaysian Airbnb hosts meet up.Malaysian Airbnb hosts meet up.

By T.K. Tamby

To quote the celebrated Sufi mystic Rumi, travel brings power and love back into your life. For a traveller nothing is more valuable than experiencing everything the country has to offer, and the best way to do it is to live like a local.

This was what Syah Mat Ali discovered when he stumbled unto Airbnb when trawling the Internet for reasonably priced accommodation for a family holiday. It provided an alternative that not only significantly reduced the cost of accommodation but also offered a more personal dimension to travelling.

“Our first experience was in Greece where we stayed in our host’s master bedroom and it was an eye-opening experience that not only helped us forge a wonderful friendship but also allowed us to experience Greece like a local,” said Syah (pic – far right), who  was on holiday with his wife and three very young children.

That experience turned Syah into an Airbnb convert, and pushed him to venture into Airbnb in Malaysia. “In the last five years, Airbnb has evolved from being a backpackers’ or budget travellers’ preferred choice to a better way to travel as it offers a unique experience not found when staying in conventional hotels.

“I see more professionals opting for this kind of experience and have even hosted a millionaire fund manager who prefers travelling this way as it allows him to experience a country at a more personal level,” said Syah.

Over the years, our reason for travelling has evolved from just a holiday to de-stress, to one that could offer a more meaningful experience. As needs evolve, it’s only natural for travellers look for alternatives that allow for all that, Syah explained.

Airbnb, founded in August 2008 in San Francisco, when then roommates, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia who could not afford the rent for their loft in San Francisco, decided to turn their living room into a bed and breakfast for the attendees of an Industrial Design Conference who were unable to make any hotel reservation. As they did not have any beds, they inflated Gebbia’s airbeds and charged their first three customers US$80 (RM266) a night.

In doing so, they created the initial concept for AirBed & Breakfast which offered short-term living quarters, breakfast and a unique business networking opportunity for the attendees. What started out with air mattresses grew into a highly successful online service company that provides a platform for individuals – referred to as “hosts” – to rent unoccupied living space and other short-term lodgings to guests.

Airbnb Inc is now worth about US$2.5 billion and it offers more than airbeds; accommodations include private rooms, entire apartments, castles, boats, manors, tree houses, tepees, igloos, private islands and other properties.

As of September 2013, the company had over 500,000 listings in 34,000 cities and 192 countries. According to its head of communications for Asia Pacific, Lena Sönnichsen, Airbnb has had nearly 10 million guests and, for peak nights in the summer of 2013, Airbnb establishments around the world hosted 175,000 people. This numbers is said to have surpassed the bookings in many popular hotel chains.

More than just a new dimension to travelling

Airbnb has done more than provide a new dimension to travelling – it has empowered local property owners to monetise their unoccupied living space, and, more importantly, spawned a sharing economy ecosystem powered by micro entrepreneurs.

In his interview with the New York Times in July last year Brian Chesky’s pointed out that more than 50 percent of Airbnb hosts depend on it to pay for their rent or mortgage. He said monetising unoccupied living space has also given rise to related micro jobs opportunities, which allows ordinary people to perform services normally done by corporations and hotels such as cleaning, cooking and providing car rentals to travellers.

In the United States Forbes Magazine has estimated revenue flowing from shared economy provided by companies such as Airbnb will surpass US$3.5 billion (RM11.7 billion) in 2013, with growth exceeding 25 percent. It is fast moving from a mere income boost to a significant economic force.

An Airbnb truck in Kuala Lumpur.An Airbnb truck in Kuala Lumpur.An Airbnb truck in Kuala Lumpur.

Syah pointed out that Airbnb greatest innovation is the creation of an economic community based on trust, and more so during Visit Malaysia Year 2014. “Both host and travellers build a relationship even before they meet each other through an online platform that not only enables verification but also allows guests and hosts to rate each other. This is a huge incentive to deliver a good experience and the best part of this business are the relationships you build.”

In December last year, Airbnb held a roadshow in Kuala Lumpur and, according to Sönnichsen, Malaysian travellers are already embracing the Airbnb experience.

“Here’s an opportunity that creates a simultaneous boost for both our tourism industry and local real estate market and, not forgetting, the ripple of opportunities in local economies,” said Syah, who added that, collectively, all these are significant enough to push for real growth in the national economy.

The Airbnb website in Malaysia is here and Kuala Lumpur Facebook page here.

Syah with visitors from France at the National Monument, Kuala Lumpur.Syah with visitors from France at the National Monument, Kuala Lumpur.Syah with visitors from France at the National Monument, Kuala Lumpur.

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