Which is more revolutionary – Airbnb or a caravan park?

Which is more revolutionary – Airbnb or a caravan park?

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“.

A campervan gets you as close as possible to unspoiled nature
A campervan gets you as close as possible to unspoiled nature

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.


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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of Travindy.com, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.


  1. Avatar Richard Layman says:

    They’re disruptive and they’re not. Neither will eliminate the value of the hotel industry, its ability to serve large numbers of people, etc. However, heretofore, these market segments existed but weren’t being met with “tourism products” in a substantive way and as importantly, the industry was set up organizationally to work through large firms (e.g., Holiday Inn) focused on satisfying large homogeneous segments, not niches.

    E.g. I deal with urban revitalization and the research in the US shows that about 30% of the market prefers to live in the city, 40% in the suburbs, and 30% in either. But most all of the production for the housing market took place in the suburbs, so 70% of the people looking for housing ended up in the suburbs. Now that cities are safer and most of the easy opportunities have been built out in the suburbs, developers are focusing on urban markets and providing more housing and therefore more of the “either city or suburb” segment is being captured by the city.

    The same goes with lodging. I have written a couple of commercial district revitalization framework plans for small US towns and I said that they need to develop “lodging and accommodations plans” as part of their economic development plans. Then I was thinking of bed and breakfasts (many communities have zoning restrictions which ban them), boutique inns and hostels (this was about 7 years ago), maritime themes (both communities happened to be waterfront towns), marinas, even campgrounds (e.g., is it possible to have a campground in a city), etc.

    Now I am sure were I in the position to give similar advice, I would include options like VRBO and airbnb. There are differences between the two, VRBO you rent an entire place–we use it all the time (and have had great experiences living like a local in SF or Seattle among others).

    Airbnb started with what we might call “fractional” rentals–a room or sofa in a unit, with the rentor on the premise–but now it includes both. While I considered fractional rentals in airbnb as a cost saving measure, my wife wasn’t interested. (And these can be problematic, even dangerous, in ways that B&Bs usually are not.)

    We use VRBO, boutique inns and bed and breakfasts, and have for a number of years and continue to do so. The advantage of VRBO is, like you say, being able to embed in the city and the best proprietors do outfit their properties with a kit of information about what to see and do and recommendations, just like the best hotels do.

    Anyway, VRBO and airbnb are enabled by technology and the utilization of the Web as a marketing and sales platform. I don’t think VRBO/Homeaway/airbnb will take over the market, because the reality is that only a small proportion of the total market for travel is interested in consuming travel in this way. Yes, it’s not a small proportion. But no, it won’t take over the whole market.

    (Despite the hopes of venture capitalists and people buying stock.)

    Getting back to housing choices in the US, 40% of the market is totally uninterested in living in the city. I don’t know how market segments break out in tourism. Obviously, a large proportion stays with relatives, business travelers usually stay in hotels. What proportion is interested and willing to stay in B&B vs. hostel vs. rent-a-unit vs. shared accommodations in someone’s home, camping, campervan, etc.? In all likelihood, 70% or more of the total market will continue to stay with relatives/friends or in traditional properties. That still leaves plenty of business for firms like airbnb, but the reality is that firms like Marriott will be fine (as long as they continue to innovate and don’t overcharge for wifi).

    The point for communities doing tourism planning is to encourage the development and support of as many of these options as possible and as appropriate, and developing marketing and promotion systems that support them. And CVBs trying to deal with VRBO and airbnb and similar firms to assist their properties in developing good packets of helpful info, etc.

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