Airbnb is inviting four lucky people to drink wine, make pasta, and grow produce in the picturesque city of Grottole, Italy for three months–with free housing and living expenses covered up to $1,000 per month. The catch? There is no catch. Even without Airbnb’s patronage, it’s actually very possible for anyone to live life like this.
Across Italy, small mountain villages are being abandoned by younger generations, because, despite their fairytale skylines, these rural communities don’t offer much in terms of professional opportunity. That has left empty homes and led to the rise of the albergo diffuso–literally “scattered hotel”–in which tourists pay to bunk in an unoccupied home and enjoy being part of a village community for a little while. It’s the anti-resort approach to travel–an attempt to preserve a local culture rather than steamroll it with new construction and pizza shops.
Now, Airbnb is getting in on the action. The San Francisco company originally partnered with the Italian city of Civita in 2016, and now is partnering with Grottole (via nonprofit Wonder Grottole) to help revitalize the city. “We will find every way possible to support sustainable tourism, and give visibility to these rural areas,” says Federica Calcaterra, PR Manager at Airbnb Italy.
Grottole itself has a population of only 300, and 600 houses left vacant, and its mayor was looking for a way to preserve its historic district. “When we met it was really a perfect match,” says Calcaterra. “They were looking, not for tourists, but people to enjoy and be part of the community.” Furthermore, the mayor was looking for people who were willing to bring new skills to the town.
Airbnb’s arrangement with Grottole is that the company provides funding for the city to buy three buildings to convert them to a new community center, owned by the city. It will also fund the sabbatical and local housing for four people (who agree to host Airbnb’s “experiences“–educational classes and events hosted by locals) and, of course, generate lots of press for the city to encourage more tourism in the future.
These initiatives generate zero revenue for Airbnb.
So is it a corporate social responsibility project? A business play? With Airbnb, those topics are bewitchingly intertwined.
Calcaterra declined to comment on Airbnb’s broader business strategy. But Airbnb has invested in revitalizing small cities within the past few years. Its biggest initiative to date was in building the Yoshino Cedar House, a community center and dwelling for the Yoshino District of Japan, which successfully spurred the local economy, inviting tourists to both stay and pay to try Airbnb “experiences” like making soba with locals. Airbnb seems to be using these projects as a test-bed, to assess both the viability of albergo diffuso vacations (how much revenue can be generated by scattered hotel cities on the Airbnb platform when scaled?), and the potential of fresh capital for remote communities in trouble (can tourists revitalize a small town without ruining it?).
For tourists, it offers a tantalizing vision of the future of travel. If Airbnb has its way, the vacation package of tomorrow isn’t limited to Carnival cruises or a Disney World adventures. It will be the chance to stay in a highly Instagrammable village you’ve maybe never heard of, to meet its people, eat its food, experience its culture, and yes, book it all through Airbnb with a tap.