The cover of Time magazine for February 9, 2015 is an article by Joel Stein called ‘Tales From The Sharing Economy’. It looks at how various companies are disrupting entire sectors, from Uber for taxis to Yerdle for unwanted home goods. For tourism the big name here is Airbnb, founded in 2008, but already operating in 190 countries, with more than 425,000 people using it every night, and valued at more than $13 billion.
Over the last month I have stayed in three Airbnb properties in Australia. A 150 year old house in Paddington Sydney. A studio apartment on a beach near Margaret River. A flat with views over Fremantle harbour. All of them cost a fraction of what a similar traditional hotel might, however redundant that comparison now seems.
All of them were in residential areas, surrounded by the real day to day life of the place I was visiting. For each one I had detailed interactions with my hosts – yet only ever met one of them. They all provided me with the sort of insider information about their local community – their home – that a hotel would struggle to compete with.
I have loved the experiences, and completely get the evangelistic zeal of those who buy in to what is happening, as it is an amazing and liberating way to experience a place and connect with people. It’s great not to have to go through the process of checking in, being shown the room, having the awkwardness of appropriately tipping porters. I see why the hotels are worried. How can they compete with this combination of personality and price? And I love that the currency it is based on is, as Stein writes in Time: “the discovery that while we totally distrust strangers, we totally trust people, more than we trust corporations or governments“.
What has inspired me most of late, however, is not my time with Airbnb, but the experiences I have had over the last six nights in a campervan travelling between national parks and campsites through New South Wales and Victoria. It has been life pared down. Find somewhere nice. Cook some food. Go for a walk. Watch the sun set.
It brings out the best in people. You make friends with those pitched alongside. As you wash the dishes each evening at the communal amenities block you fall into conversation with those next to you, swap tips for where you have come from, or seek advice on where you are going. It’s a timeless way of travelling, and much of its strength is based on trusting strangers.
Furthermore, living in a campervan, with a finite amount of water and electricity, where every inch of space is premium, you become hyperaware of your resource use. If you choose to have power and water, you pay more than double for your site. And many of the sites, tucked in forests behind dunes in national parks, have some of the smallest permanent footprint I have ever seen from a tourism location.
Yet no one talks about campsites as ‘disruptive’. Venture Capitalists aren’t flocking to invest in caravan parks. But this form of holiday touches the same part of the travelling urge as the young bucks of the sharing economy. They both take us away from mediated experiences and closer to something that feels closer to the elusive “real life”. As much of the tourism industry wonders about how to do ‘responsible tourism’ and how to keep up with the future offered by Airbnb and its ilk, it might be worth also reflecting on why the simple pleasures of camping and caravanning have remained popular for a very long time.