Travel TrendsThe vacation rental giant is carving out a new niche for the long-stay worker-traveller.

Why Airbnb sees big opportunity in Asia's digital nomad market

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From living the digital nomad life, Airbnb's Steven Liew identified the specific type of amenities that digital nomads need in their accommodations.
From living the digital nomad life, Airbnb's Steven Liew identified the specific type of amenities that digital nomads need in their accommodations. Photo Credit: Adobe/olezzo

As travel businesses struggle to fill vacancies, one high-profile company in bucking the trend by offering people the chance to work abroad for 90 days a year.

It’s one of many calculated bets that Airbnb has made in order to carve out a new niche for the long-stay worker-traveller.

Steven Liew, director of public policy, APAC for Airbnb, is currently enjoying the digital nomad life, while he carves out a new segment for the company.

His previous roles have included an eight-year stint at eBay as well as setting up an investment company called Cosmic Cafe with his wife.

Speaking as part of a panel at WiT Singapore 2022, Liew says: “I think COVID did a lot of strange things to people. The other panelists talked about soul searching. I did quite a bit of soul searching for the two years that we were stuck in Singapore.”

Having made 14 start-up investments, he says the investment game “was fun.” Yet COVID put paid the hangout time with founders and co-investors. Soon, he began to look for something more stimulating.

The Airbnb opportunity looked fascinating.

“There are very few companies at this stage of his growth cycle, which are still run by the trio of original co-founders, and are still very much values-driven.”

While Liew was speaking in Singapore, he had recently spent two-and-a-half months in Japan – testing its potential as a digital nomad destination.

From mid-2022, Airbnb announced that employees can work anywhere in the world for up to 90 days per year, assuming they have permission to work there.

“I took that opportunity to enjoy the benefit on one hand – and the other side of it, really test-drive this thesis that people should be able to live and work anywhere,” he says.

So having covered Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Nagano, Fukuoka and Hirado Nagasaki, is Japan ready for digital nomads from everywhere?

Having covered 11 Airbnb listing across seven cities, Liew says he learned a lot about a dwelling’s capacity to support living and working.

The needs of his market include a dedicated workspace, reliable Wi-Fi – and plugs to be visible and close at hand.

“For a destination interested in digital nomads, remote workers, entrepreneurs and gig workers who want to spend longer time in a destination, there are few things that we need to look at," Liew says.

Europe and beyond

Critically, these travellers require a digital nomad visa. In Europe, Malta and Estonia are doing this, while in Asia-Pacific, Thailand and Malaysia have announced it, while Australia has a working holiday visa.

Meanwhile, Japan and other North Asia markets have not yet introduced one.

Liew observes that recently Indonesia’s tourism minister had confirmed that with the country’s tourist visa, you can now work in Bali for two to three months with the ability to renew this once.

Secondly, tax regulations have to be simplified and clarified.

“If I want to spend nine months in Bali for example, how do you treat that? So these are the questions that we are spending a lot of time trying to figure out.”

Having attended several gatherings of tourism ministers in Bali recently, he senses a greater willingness to be flexible.

“My take is that I think a lot of government are trying to rebuild the economy, rebuilding tourism and just looking for any new solutions that can help them,” he says.

Recovery was especially tough on the supply side.

Liew adds: “They are all suffering from the difficulty of getting staff to come back. Two years is a long time. One of the industry association representatives shared with us that one in 10 jobs worldwide are still not filled.”

As Lu Dong, CEO and founder of TakeMe Co, points out during the Changing Things Up, On The Ground panel at WiT, one of his goals is “for travellers to live like locals anywhere.”

But really, should destinations revamp infrastructure and tax policies to go after this digital nomad market?

Liew points out with a lot of employers facing challenges trying to convince their employees to come back, this type of policy could actually be viewed as a genuine incentive towards retention.

“When Airbnb announced that we were going to have permanent work from anywhere, our careers page was viewed one million times overnight,” Liew says.

“So I think there is a demand for that.”

He adds that the long-stay category segment was the fastest growing category for Airbnb during the second quarter of 2022, with 25% year on year growth, compared to 2019 pre-COVID numbers.

“This is 90% growth. It’s a very fast growing segment for Airbnb. We believe this is a segment worth investing in,” Liew says.

“We are assisting hosts to make sure they have the right kind of amenities on their properties. And we're working with destination marketing organizations to ensure they have the right infrastructure to receive these guests.”

Furthermore, as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea open more slowly post-COVID, the long-stay segment could also be a good market to road-test the reopening, as fewer travellers staying longer can be viewed as both safer and more sustainable.

As Liew explains, one million people coming into a destination for just a day will cause more health and environmental issues than 100,000 who each spend 10 days.

“The choice is yours. For those markets that are only now opening, our recommendation is you could view this particular segment as a controlled experiment – to see how travellers coming in will then interact with the local community.”

Source: WiT

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