DUBAI: International rental platform Airbnb is eyeing up Saudi Arabia as the next “very exciting” emerging market as the multibillion-dollar start-up gains a greater foothold in the Middle East.
Hadi Moussa, general manager for the Middle East and Africa at Airbnb and head of EMEA Business Development, said that the Kingdom holds great potential for the global accommodation sharing service — which is set to mark its tenth anniversary next month — especially as the Arab country looks to enhance its tourism and hospitality sector as it continues to diversify its economy.
“Saudi is a very exciting market because of all the opportunities this country represents; it has all of these big initiatives; Vision 2030 is a huge project and really focuses on increasing the level of tourism,” Moussa said.
“In general, we are very excited about the Middle East right now; if you think of some of the big schemes that are coming up in the region right now — Dubai’s Expo 2020 — as well as Saudi’s Vision 2030, and all the other big projects in the region — it means there is greater focus on hospitality.
“It is a great time to be more engaged in the region to try and help all these cities with all these projects and events and obviously this presents a big opportunity for Airbnb as well — and that is why we are becoming more engaged in the region as a whole.”
Airbnb is a online marketplace that allows people to list their living spaces to be leased or rented by users looking for short-term lodging. Ten years on from its Aug. 11, 2008 debut as Airbed & Breakfast, Airbnb is worth an estimated $31 billion and has a stock of 5 million accommodation units advertising with it globally in 81,000 cities across some 200 countries. As he looks ahead to the next years of the company’s ambitious goals, Moussa said the Middle East is a top priority for the US-based unicorn.
In the UAE, specifically, there are more than 6,700 listings on its platform as of last year, and 90,000 people have used Airbnb to travel to the Emirates, with a further 180,000 people using Airbnb to travel from the UAE to other countries.
“So we are seeing very strong growth,” Moussa said.
While the apartment-sharing startup has had a presence in the Emirates for almost a decade, the past two years has seen tremendous growth in the number of people using the platform thanks to a move in May 2016 which saw the Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing (Dubai Tourism) sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the home-sharing firm to help promote responsible hosting, and grow and diversify tourism in Dubai.
The MoU, which came shortly after the tourism department announced the easing of holiday home regulations — meaning home owners can apply for a holiday home license without going through an approved operator if they meet certain criteria while tenants renting property can also lease their home as a holiday home with a short-term permit if they present a no-objection certificate from their landlord — was a move to enhance and diversify the holiday homes sector and increase competition “through a safe and transparent holiday home segment,” according to a statement from Dubai Tourism at the time.
Under the agreement, Airbnb informs all host members of the Dubai Tourism regulations through its website and email reminders and shares aggregated, anonymised data about short-term rental hosts.
“We have always had a foothold in the market here, but this MoU really helped set the stage to build an environment which makes it easier for people to become hosts and that really is where we saw significant growth here,” Moussa said. “Over the last two years the number of listings have doubled during that period so we have seen that type of partnership really show significant benefits, so that is why we signed another MoU with the UAE emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah earlier this year.
“These types of initiatives can really help create an environment which makes it easier and simpler for hosts to join our platform.”
Moussa said that while statistics for Airbnb traffic are not yet available for Saudi Arabia — given it is “still a very young market,” Moussa said that he hoped similar partnerships with the government in the Kingdom would enable the platform to enjoy similar growth to the UAE.
“Saudi is a relatively new market for us — very early stages — but I think now, with all the plans under Vision 2030 we see a big opportunity,” he said. “There really is a big focus on hospitality trying to diversify away from oil.
“Also there is a very strong focus on really trying to provide these very local Saudi experiences, which is a very good fit for what Airbnb stands for.
“So there is a lot of room for us and a lot of value in this market. It is very early stages and for us it is important to do the same sort of partnerships we have done in Dubai as a baseline to really build growth in the market.”
The Middle East, Moussa said, is different to more established markets such as in Europe and America, but he said that he is yet to see any “red-tape” restricting the company’s expansion plans.
“These are conversations we are starting to have now with stakeholders in Saudi Arabia and, as they are really pushing for Vision 2030, we are seeing a lot of openness and expressions of encouragement to really help build their tourism agenda.”
“What we do see in the Middle East is a real focus on quality and registration on properties, which is different but not necessarily unique. We do see that in other countries.”
Gaining a stronger presence in Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East would be of dual benefit, stressed Moussa, given Airbnb is “unique” in its ability to bring a diverse set of tourists.
“If you look at the types of listings in Dubai, for example, you can have options from a small studio apartment (in an) area good for millennials on a budget, to one, two, three bed apartments, to villas to really high-end luxury. It also brings the types of tourists who really want to have a ‘local experience’.”
Mousa said that surveys carried out by Airbnb showed that more than 90 percent of customers use the platform because they want an authentic experience.
“So it is really about the ability to bring these different types of tourists that help the economies by bringing more tourists to the city. It also helps economies as one of the unique propositions about Airbnb is that the hosts are financially empowered and they can generate additional income, which they can then invest in the local economy.”
Speaking to Arab News at an Airbnb listing in Downtown Dubai, overlooking Burj Khalifa, Moussa said that he joined the company in May 2015 — leaving his post at social media giant Facebook, where he led mobile partnerships in Europe, Middle East and North Africa, as he spotted the huge potential that the apartment-sharing startup had in the travel market.
“I was really intrigued by Airbnb. I have always been someone who really likes travel, I felt Airbnb offered something really different; it really gave this unique different experience. Before Airbnb, when I traveled I also sought these more authentic types of places to stay during my travels, and that is core to the Airbnb concept.”
He recalled shortly before jointing the global platform that he, together with some former colleagues from Facebook, rented an Airbnb in Cape Town.
“We took this huge apartment with stunning views and the experience of sharing this house — rather than renting hotel rooms — was a real experience.”
A decade before it carved out a multibillion-dollar opportunity in the massive global hospitality industry, Airbnb started with an email between two of its co-founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky.
In 2007, the two roommates living in San Francisco knew a big design conference was coming to town and decided to turn their loft into an area that could fit three air mattresses. They created a simple site, airbedandbreakfast.com, and along with the mattress and a night’s sleep came the promise of a breakfast.
The idea was born and, after a few early hiccups, the web-based phenomenon is now the second-most-valuable US tech startup after Uber.
That was made possible because of its role as simply a broker — connecting people looking to rent out a living space, and those looking for a place to stay — and its growth is entirely reliant on the number of hosts and guests it attracts to its platform. The company makes money by charging the host as well as the guest a percentage of the booking cost as a service fee.
As the platform has grown, so has the variety of accommodation. The platform now boasts some of the most unique places for people to rent, with Moussa saying people have listed castles, tree-houses — “one of the most popular types of listings” — caravans and even igloos.