Accused of draining the life out of picturesque towns and cities by encouraging a flood of tourists, Airbnb is seeking to make an amends, albeit on a modest scale, with a new project in the sultry south of Italy.
The accommodation platform wants to recruit four people to move to the village of Grottole in the region of Basilicata for a three-month "Italian sabbatical". They will be expected to become part of the fabric of the community and to help revive the village's ailing fortunes. Like many places in Italy, particularly in the south, Grottole suffers from chronic depopulation. So many locals have left that the population is now down to 300 and there are around 600 empty homes in the town.
The chosen candidates will enjoy an all-expenses-paid stay in the village, where they will be responsible for helping a local NGO, Wonder Grottole, revitalise the community. The successful applicants will be responsible for renovating buildings, maintaining the village's vegetable garden and hosting Airbnb Experiences, which go beyond the usual bed and breakfast concept by incorporating tours and classes for visitors.
In exchange, the candidates will be offered free accommodation, up to €900 in expenses per month and given the opportunity to enrol in language courses and cookery classes. The deadline for applications is February 17 and the placement will take place this summer.
"Our dream is to repopulate the historic centre of Grottole," said Silvio Donadio, a founder of Wonder Grottole. "Within 10 years we'd like to see the village full of people from different cultures, perfectly integrated with the local community."
Rocco Filomeno, a local beekeeper, said: "People who arrive here from big cities will find an ancient village surrounded by woods and meadows. We'll encourage them to leave behind their old lives and to connect with our way of life."
Francesco De Giacomo, the mayor, hopes that the project will "revitalise the social fabric" of Grottole, which is all but untouched by tourism.
The village lies just west of Matera, a stunning town known for its centuries-old cave-dwellings known as "sassi", which is poised to welcome tens of thousands of visitors as European capital of culture for 2019, with the inauguration to take place on Saturday.
Announcing the Grottole initiative, Joe Gebbia, Airbnb co-founder and chief product officer, said: "Italy is an extraordinary country with a strong and vibrant rural community, countless hilltop villages and a passionate and welcoming culture. We want to help preserve these communities so they continue for generations to come."
Dying towns and villages across Italy have come up with a variety of novel solutions to avoid extinction. Some have offered empty houses for sale for just one euro, including the hilltop towns of Gangi and Sambuca in Sicily, on condition that newcomers spend substantial sums restoring the properties.
Others, including Riace and Acquaformosa in Calabria, have welcomed migrants and refugees in a bid to reverse population decline and inject new life into their ageing communities. There are also ghost villages which have experimented with a model known as the "albergo diffuso", literally "spread-out hotel", in which the whole place is turned into accommodation for tourists.
The best-known example is Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a stone village in the mountains of Abruzzo, in central Italy, which was turned into a spread-out hotel by Daniele Kihlgren, a Swedish-Italian businessman.
The model he pioneered has since been adopted by other villages across Italy.
The Telegraph, London