The Antarctic trip is the second trip in Airbnb’s “sabbatical” program; over the summer, the company sent five volunteers to “save the Italian village of Grottole” (i.e., drum up tourism interest and therefore economic growth). The line that Airbnb is telling reporters (Haskins, me) is that it hopes to show how travel can be a “positive catalyst for change.” Airbnb is not, as a spokeswoman emphasized to me, trying to expand its services into Antarctica, nor is it intending to encourage people to travel there, as was the case with the Grottole trip. The goal here, ostensibly, is science.So, can this trip produce good science? Melanie Bergmann, a marine ecologist whose work charts how microscopic bits of plastic make their way through the atmosphere to faraway locations, wrote to me in an email that it’s difficult to say without knowing more about the particulars. It’s certainly possible for ordinary folk to help with collecting microplastic samples, as Airbnb intends participants to: Bergmann and her team had regular people living on a Norwegian archipelago pack up snow samples for a study themselves. The main challenge there was ensuring they did so in a way that wouldn’t further contaminate the snow; the lab provided pre-rinsed plastic containers.
On its website, Airbnb says it is “democratizing revenue by generating tens of millions of new tax dollars for governments all over the world.” But when Palm Beach County, Florida, a popular tourist destination, passed an ordinance in October 2018 requiring Airbnb and other short-term rental companies to collect and pay the county’s 6 percent occupancy tax on visits arranged through their sites, Airbnb sued.