Why Airbnb takes serious interest in European cultural heritage

American company donates €10 million to heritage organisations

Not your typical Airbnb, but Airbnb's focus on built heritage might turn that around. Image: H. Nijssen/Canva & RawPixel (All parts CC)

Airbnb is looking to get more involved with European cultural heritage. Not only did the American company add a ‘historical homes’ category to their website, but they also donated around €10 million euros to various heritage organisations in Europe. Airbnb’s interest might turn out to be a welcome change for the heritage sector. However, not everyone seems happy with the attention.

The recent investments, or ‘support to the heritage tourism’ as Airbnb calls it, were made to meet the growing demand for heritage-related travel. The strategy “supports our commitment to heritage tourism and makes it easier for people to discover traditional Airbnbs and to enjoy Europe’s rich heritage”, a press release stated. While travellers generally stay in relatively unknown historic houses and buildings, you can also book a stay in landmarks such as the Weissenstein Palace in Germany and Villa Balbiano in Italy. Both buildings were featured on the big screen, namely Netflix’s The Empress and House of Gucci.

Fancy booking the impressive Baroque-style Schloss Weissenstein as an Airbnb? You can in June 2023. Image: Georg Schelbert/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Successful Formula

Airbnb’s plan seems to work remarkably well. Within twelve months after the launch of the ‘historical homes’ category, the number of hosts in the UK, Germany, Spain, Italy and France has more than doubled; from 20,000 to 45,000 according to Airbnb’s own statistics. The crown jewel would be the ‘epic slow travel journey’, partnered with Interrail: a European train Pass that takes you along an English mansion, a French chateau, a Catalan manor, an Italian villa and a German castle.

In the upcoming months, Airbnb is planning to add more countries to the website as Historical Homes. To support potential hosts to make an Airbnb out of their heritage building, the company launched a so-called Heritage Academy. It includes a toolkit and advice on how to become a Historical Homes Host.

Besides stimulating homeowners to add their place to the website, Airbnb started to create more ‘Historical Homes’ by themselves. They restored a traditional townhouse in the historic town of Sambuca, on the isle of Sicily. The abandoned €1 house was fully restored to boost tourism in this rural area of Italy, which has been dealing with depopulation for years.

Considerable donations

Where the previous investments were geared towards attracting individuals and other companies, Airbnb recently set its sights on the European heritage sector. Organisations that work with historic houses and buildings such as the German Verein Schlösser und Gärten in Deutschland (€1,5 million) the Spanish Fundación Casas Históricas y Singulares (€1 million) and the Italian Associazione Italiana Dimore Storiche (1 million) received considerable gifts. These funds will often be used to create grants for historic homeowners.

The French Fondation du Patrimoine even received €5,6 million for their Heritage and Local tourism programme to renovate buildings and places of heritage interest in the French countryside. And in the UK, the fifth country where Historical Homes are available, independent charity English Heritage received £1,25 million to conserve and repair historic houses, castles, abbeys and other ancient sites in its care.

A gift for which they were “very grateful to Airbnb”, said Kate Mavor CBE, Chief Executive at English Heritage. “It is thanks to support like this that the charity is spending more money than ever before conserving sites for the benefit of the public – right across England.”

‘Cultural greenwashing’

However, not everyone is happy with Airbnb’s interest in cultural heritage, because of the recent criticism they faced. For example, the director of the English charity Action on Empty Homes Will McMahon questioned Airbnb’s motives to become involved in heritage: “Airbnb’s donation seems to serve one purpose – it is a sort of cultural greenwashing for what has become an investment platform taking homes out of residential use and worsening our housing crisis”, he told The Guardian. McMahon also urged the heritage organisation to rethink whether they want to accept the donation.

English Heritage defended itself by pointing out that donations like these helped it attract visitors and investment to some of the poorest parts of the country, according to charity news platform Third Sector.

Inspiration for others?

It’s no surprise that organisations such as English Heritage are targeted by Airbnb, as they have houses and buildings in their care that can potentially be used as an Airbnb. And it makes sense to reach out to organisations with plenty of experience and knowledge on how to conserve these buildings, instead of Airbnb trying to do it all on their own without the local network and know-how.

And while heritage organisations are often relying on public funds or government grants to carry out their work, it’s not uncommon to receive donations from private companies. It could even inspire other companies to donate more often to the heritage sector. Or start a waive of structural investments to preserve cultural heritage.