It’s business as usual in Soweto’s famous Vilakazi Street as tourists scurry between the museums and restaurants. Tourists continue to flock there, despite the ailing economy, and locals see a chance to take their business up a notch.
Inside a newly renovated seven-roomed house, just off Vilakazi Street, Vilakazi Backpackers co-founders Sibusiso Nkabinde and Tiko Mashele say the digital hospitality service Airbnb is growing their business.
Airbnb claims that this year alone it has boosted Johannesburg’s economy by R197-million and welcomed 51 500 guests. And it’s likely to invest even more in the city. Last month Airbnb announced it would spend R13.5-million to promote and support community-led tourism projects across the continent, to cater for what is described as “record numbers” of international travellers arriving in Johannesburg.
A special focus of the Airbnb investment in the city will be the township economy. The company’s host empowerment programme aims to train residents in hospitality and technology so they can open their homes to travellers and earn an income.
The investments will also be directed at sustainable and inclusive tourism and promote people-to-people travel to generate new revenue streams for more communities.
Airbnb has already had some success in South Africa’s townships.
Its presence in Khayelitsha has grown so much that the service now has a home-sharing club in the township to offer advice and support current and aspirant tourism entrepreneurs.
But Soweto has some way to go before it has a similar Airbnb footprint. Finding Soweto listings is not that simple.
If you type Soweto into its website search engine, you get few returns for establishments that are actually in Soweto, even though at least 20 out of 25 B&B establishments are listed as Airbnb hosts. Typing in areas such as Orlando, Jabulani or Pimville brought up these options.
Airbnb’s Lena Sönnichson says there is nothing wrong with Airbnb’s search engine algorithms because that is how Airbnb’s search engine operates worldwide. “We encourage all tourists to look beyond the site,” she says.
And establishments such as Vilakazi Backpackers that have successfully listed on the Airbnb website are satisfied with the results.
Florence Mondi, owner of Flossies B&B in Pimville, says her business has benefited from an Airbnb listing, attracting a mix of guests.
“Most of my guests are locals. I would say 70% are local and internationals make up 30%”, she said.
Mondi says she charges R450 a night through Airbnb, which is R250 less than her normal rate.
Nkabinde and Mashele also have special prices for Airbnb guests. “We charge cheaper rates for the Airbnb guest compared to their normal rates, which are usually between R250 and R500, depending on the stay,” they say.
An Airbnb spokesperson told the M&G Soweto has the potential to attract more tourists, particularly locals, using the home-sharing scheme.
Airbnb is known for bringing greater competition to the hospitality industry and has disrupted traditional tourism services around the world — and not without incident. Last week Airbnb’s head of public policy Josh Meltzer sent a letter to Marriott Hotels chief executive Arne Sorenson asking him to explain to Americans “your industry’s habit of taking billions of dollars from taxpayers to subsidise the construction and operation of your hotels”.
As a self-styled champion of the people, Airbnb sees itself investing in tourism across Africa.
But the service has also courted controversy in some cities where rentals have escalated. Homeowners can often make more money through Airbnb from short stays by tourists than from long-term lease agreements with tenants. In Cape Town, Airbnb has pushed property rental prices upwards, putting pressure on what residents pay to rent.
Some countries, including the United States, have passed restrictive laws limiting how often Airbnb hosts can rent out their properties.
Thulebona Mhlanga is an Adamela Trust trainee at the Mail & Guardian.
This article has been amended because it mistakenly made reference to Airbnb offices in Khayelitsha instead of a home-sharing club. Also, the article referred to a township empowerment programme instead of a host empowerment programme.