For most of Airbnb's existence, the company has simply helped users rent out and book existing houses and apartments. After all, why spend money to build your own facilities — wouldn’t that just be a hotel?
But the company seems to be changing its tune — and dipping a toe into urban planning. A new in-house division called Samara hopes to explore new potential directions for Airbnb, and its first project is a communal housing development in a small Japanese town.
As Fast Company reported, the project — a community center that doubles as a tourism hub — will be built in Yoshino, a bucolic, rural town in the Nara prefecture in Japan. But it's a lot more complicated than a nice hotel.
The space will feature a lodging facility that tourists will book through Airbnb, as well as a community center open to visitors and local residents alike. The individual rooms will be located upstairs, while visitors can meet and connect with locals in the space below.
The original idea for the project came after an elderly Japanese woman created an Airbnb listing in the small city of Tsuyama, Okayama. She was surprised to see her listing blow up in popularity, and recruited other members of her town to start becoming tour guides, translators, and hosts for guests.
It was a dream scenario for Airbnb — a bucolic town with little in the way of marketing or tourism that gained new economic potential thanks to the company's innovative platform.
Inspired by the notion of doing the same in other similar locations, Joe Gebbia, Airbnb’s chief product officer, led a team of designers and architects to scout out small Japanese towns for the new project. They chose Yoshino, and worked with local community members to design the new development.
In other words, the company is hoping to create a mini tourism economy in a town where hardly any existed before. To place Yoshino’s remoteness in perspective, the town is a five hours’ train ride to Tokyo, and an hour ride from Osaka.
The concept and completed structure are currently being presented at an architectural exhibition called House Vision in Tokyo. Afterwards, Airbnb plans to ship the building to Yoshino and open it by October.
The idea deserves serious consideration, since Airbnb has earned a spotty reputation in larger cities, where the company's rental services often get wrapped up in local housing conflicts.
Though Airbnb sometimes markets itself as a way for hosts to earn extra cash, the rentals can also decrease cities' affordable housing stock — the New York State Senate recently passed a bill banning short-term rentals (less than 30 days) for that reason.
But by fostering tourism, Airbnb could promote a different kind of economic opportunity in rural Japan, where the housing supply is less of an issue. In Yoshino, the company is working with the government as opposed to against it.
Other small towns that hope to highlight their overlooked charm to tourists are also paying attention. Gebbia told Fast Company that he's has received calls from people in the U.K., China, Korea, Spain, France, and Italy saying their towns face the same challenges in driving tourism.
Yoshino is in a uniquely favorable position to serve as a guinea pig in Airbnb's experiment with urban development— the town is tranquil and located near Japan's cedar forests, allowing builders in the area to construct the facilities from locally sourced materials.
But if the project is successful, it could be the first of many such developments in towns off the beaten path — and add Airbnb to the ever-growing list of tech companies diving into the realm of urban planning.