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Airbnb is taking on the tourism industry with an ambitious expansion and a star-studded launch but it comes at a delicate time for the company

Airbnb is taking on the tourism industry by offering travellers excursions and experiences hosted by locals, an ambitious expansion which will allow people to plan entire trips through the home-sharing site.

The redesigned app works for a dozen cities, including London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris, Tokyo and Nairobi, and will spread to dozens more next year, and eventually thousands, the company said on Thursday.

Offerings include stargazing, surfing, embroidering, food tasting, truffle hunting, burlesque dance lessons, mountain biking, samurai-sword classes and murder-mystery tours.

Brian Chesky, the companys CEO, made the announcement at the start of Airbnb Open, a three-day gathering of employees, hosts and celebrities in Los Angeles. If you want to travel, you basically end up on a research project, Chesky said. We want to fix this.

Rory Carroll (@rorycarroll72)

Brian Chesky unveils Airbnb’s next big thing: ‘experiences’. Customized tours. Already live. pic.twitter.com/7bO7J2R35I

November 17, 2016

It will create a holistic travel experience, said Chesky. This is not a tour. You participate. You are immersed … this is literally just the beginning.

The announcement came at a delicate time for Airbnb. The colossus, valued at $30bn, is eyeing a stock market debut but a rising tide of regulation and concern about the companys impact on property markets threatens to stall breakneck growth. It currently boasts 3m property listings in 191 countries.

Critics say that instead of ordinary people renting out spare rooms in a benign cultural and financial exchange, many hosts are commercial operators who fuel rent rises, evictions and gentrification a reality Airbnb allegedly blurs by withholding and massaging data.

New York last month passed a law to fine residents who rent out apartments for illegal short-term stays. San Francisco makes hosts register and can fine Airbnb for listing an unregistered property.

The next big battle is in LA, where the city council will soon debate whether to toughen rules.

A coalition of tenants, community activists, labour leaders and business allies is due to rally outside the companys jamboree this week to try to engage hosts and pressure city authorities.

We are very concerned at how short term rents are perverting our housing market and raising our rents, said James Elmendorf, of the advocacy group Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (Laane). So we are out there educating Airbnb hosts about their responsibilities so theyre not just hearing from the company.

Airbnbs expansion into tours and experiences will open multiple new fronts for authorities around the world who are still wrestling with how to tax and regulate its short term rentals.

Opponents
Opponents of Airbnb rally in New York, which last month passed a law to fine residents who rent out apartments for illegal short-term stays. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Chesky, who is at 35 one of the worlds youngest billionaires, channelled the spirit of Steve Jobs Apple product launches in Thursdays announcement, wearing all black and promising transformative change in a slick presentation. Employees, plus some of the 200 journalists Airbnb flew in for the event, cheered and applauded.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashton Kutcher will sprinkle Hollywood glitz when they address some of the 7,500 hosts on Saturday.

Chesky billed the companys move as empowering travelers to connect with other people and authentic experiences they would not otherwise have as tourists. The presentation showcased hosts including an astro-photographer in LA, a jazz pianist in Havana and a lifestyle blogger in Nairobi.

Experiences can last a few hours or several days, said the CEO. Half are priced below $200. Everything powered by people. The magic is in the people.

Chesky evoked the companys origin in 2007 when he and co-founder Joe Gebbia started hosting people on an airbed in their San Francisco apartment, a real-life Silicon Valley fairytale.

Its the next really big chapter for us, Chris Lehane, Airbnbs head of global policy, said. It has real potential to fundamentally transform how travel and tourism works.

Hosting could be a lifeline for people displaced by robotics and other economic forces, said Lehane, a former political adviser to Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Property hosts pay Airbnb a 3% commission. Experience hosts pay 20%. Those who signed up during a trial period earlier this year, and attended the LA event, lauded the collaboration.

Its a boost to my business. I had the structure already, said Kike Correa, 26, who takes clients paddleboarding, snorkeling and scuba diving in the Florida Keys.

Nicole Biondi, 39, has designed a murder mystery tour in Cape Town, South Africa, priced $212, which starts with a hike up Table Mountain. Her first Airbnb clients hailed from Peru, Sweden, Ireland and Britain, she said.

Chuck McCarthy, an LA-based actor who supplements his income by walking people, said he was open to becoming a host. If Airbnb reached out to me as The People Walker, Id definitely think about it.

The LA gathering includes seminars and workshops with titles like building empathy through community, leaps of faith: strategic risk-taking, interior design tips, finding your inner happy host and be a 5-star host. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, will give a talk titled creative living beyond fear: traveling with curiosity.

Airbnbs ambition and its hosts evangelical fervor will dismay detractors who accuse the company of driving up rents and ruining neighborhoods by siphoning off rental units for tourist hordes, a critique heard in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and elsewhere.

In LA, activists say Venice, the citys bohemian coastal community, is the worst affected: an Airbnb hotspot where rents have spiked 39% between 2011 and 2015.

Airbnb is used by corporate property buyers who masquerade as property owners but are simply creating illegal hotels with no regard for Venice as a collection of neighborhoods, filled with neighbors and community, said Mary Anne Thomas, 64, a librarian who is being evicted from the bungalow she shares with her husband and dog.

Philip
Philip Henrikson and Mary Anne Thomas are being evicted from their home in Venice, an Airbnb hotspot. Photograph: Rory Carroll

Tourists were often loud and disruptive, said Thomas, standing in her yard. People in a neighboring house which towered over the bungalow gazed down as she spoke. Airbnb-ers, she said.

Airbnb denies worsening housing crises in LA or elsewhere, saying it pays taxes which fund low-income housing and provides cash an average of $7,500 per year which helps middle class hosts pay their own rents and mortgages.

Its a platform that was created to keep people in their homes, said Lehane, the head of global policy. Gentrification and homelessness had wider, deeper causes, he said. Were talking about socio-economic trends going back 10 years.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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