According to a report published in 2016 by Legambiente – an Italian environmentalist association – there are somewhere in the region of 2,500 depopulated rural villages in Italy, semi-abandoned and fast becoming ghost towns as a result of the younger generations wanting to live and work in large cities or other countries. One of these is Grottole, a village of around 2,100 inhabitants that lies 30 kilometers from the city of Matera in the Basilicata region of southern Italy. Its historic centre has only 300 residents and over 620 abandoned houses.

However, earlier this year – in the year that Matera isone of the European Union’s two Capitals of Culture - a social enterprise was born to rehabilitate the tiny town. Baptised ‘Wonder Grottole’, it aims to connect people and energies from across the globe in an experimental new tourism model that has also caught the eye and imagination of home sharing platform, Airbnb.

Velma Corcoran, Airbnb Country Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, elaborates: “The model of Wonder Grottole works because it assumes that any visitor is no longer just a passive tourist but instead becomes a protagonist in the space, exchanging skills and values with the local community, interacting with its resources and people.”

“In so many ways, it’s what Airbnb has been about since the company was founded a little over ten years ago, in which the whole idea is to really immerse guests into a host’s unique world, way beyond the typical touristy activities that may be offered in an area.”

The visionary Wonder Grottole project captured the attention of Airbnb and turned into the Italian Sabbatical that supports the initiative, offering five  the opportunity to spend three summer months (from June to August) in the village, helping to revive it in close connection with its inhabitants.

“Airbnb had more than 280 000 applications in one month,” says Corcoran. “The final five volunteers came from across the globe – from Australia, the USA, Wales, Argentina and Canada.

“They stayed with locals and became temporary citizens. They immersed themselves completely in the local lifestyle and learnt local skills such as vegetable farming, honey harvesting, pasta making and olive oil production. They, in turn, welcomed new visitors, sharing what they had learnt with these guests.”

The experience for these hosts would not have been possible had it not been for the technology that the homesharing platform uses to make connections between human beings from opposite ends of the earth, notes Corcoran: “We’re breaking through so many geographical and cultural ‘walls’, so to speak. And everytime that a new host or guest joins our network, our global connectivity grows.”

To better understand just how wide this connectivity is reaching, Airbnb has created its Connection Index that tracks pairings between countries and, more specifically between hosts and guests in particular regions.

“For example, when the first guest from Argentina stayed with a host in Canada, that counted as a new connection between Argentina and Canada. Likewise, the first Canadian to say with an Argentinian host also became a new Canada-to-Argentina connection,” explains Corcoran.

“We’ve recently recorded a series of new connections. A host from Djibouti welcomed a guest from Chile, a host in Botswana welcomed a guest from Indonesia, and a host from Kyrgyzstan welcomed a guest from Rwanda.”

Currently, the home sharing platform is active in 245 countries and regions across the globe. With more than six million listings in over 100,000 cities, it has been estimated that 60,025 place-to-place connections could ultimately be possible. A total of around 26 000 connections have already occurred and, with an average of eight new connections happening each day, the company believes it will reach the halfway mark of 30 013 by the end of 2019.

“We estimate we’ll have made over 50 000 connections by 2027,” says Corcoran.

It’s quite an achievement: by 2010 the platform had facilitated only around 1 300 connections. By 2015, this had increased to more than 16 500, further highlighting that Airbnb has made it easier for people to travel all around the world and belong anywhere.

Another important factor behind Airbnb’s connectivity is that it helps to increase tourism in areas where tourists may not traditionally be found and which may even be trying but struggling to attract visitors.

“This has been the experience for our hosts across the globe – from villages such as Grottole to the townships of South Africa. Airbnb is bringing tourists to areas off the traditional tourist track, and enabling people not just from across the world to connect, but helping people in their own country connect with cultures other than their own. There’s a great deal of bridge building going on here.”

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