By Sarah Bianchi, US Federal Policy Director for Airbnb

This morning I spoke at a terrific event in Washington, D.C. hosted by the Asia Society Policy Institute. We had the chance not just to talk about Airbnb, but to hear from some public servants – one American from the U.S. Department of State, the other one the Counselor for Science and Technology from the Chinese Embassy – two people whose entire job is working to break down barriers between countries through the power of culture, education, and exchanges – what experts in the foreign policy world often call “soft power” or “people to people diplomacy.”

I couldn’t help but think that this gathering took place just weeks away from the ultimate and probably the oldest people to people exchange in all the world – the Olympics. I remember growing up watching the Olympics every four years and even getting to go when it came to my hometown of Atlanta.  Even as a kid, it was clear that the event was about so much more than hoping our athletes would stand atop the podium. It showed how much the citizens of the world have in common – sports was a common denominator, and a window to see that the stories of other countries’ athletes were very much like our own.

At the Asia Society breakfast discussion, it struck me that today we don’t have to wait every four years for that kind of cultural connection bridging divides – increasingly it’s happening every day and it’s happening not just between governments – there’s an emerging People to People Diplomacy 2.0 – that is happening organically as people everywhere seek out authentic cultural experiences.

We’re living that every day at Airbnb.  We’re seeing the emergence of a global cultural diplomacy that is providing Chinese and Americans with new ways of engaging with each other’s cultures and getting to know each other – a surge in opportunities to enjoy authentic travel and tourism experiences, a new 21st Century “Cultural Diplomacy 2.0.”  

Almost half a century ago, after the United States and China didn’t speak to each other for decades, a thaw began with – you guessed it! – carefully negotiated, highly scripted cultural travel: the U.S. and China exchanging athletes – playing ping pong! – even the gift of the Pandas from China for our national zoo that created a whole new focus on a potential friendship after years of mistrust.

And today?

It doesn’t depend on the exchange of diplomatic notes or the opening of an Embassy. It happens with the click of a mouse or the tap of a smartphone. It happens at Airbnb. It happens when you open your home to someone from hundreds of thousands of miles away. We are a platform that provides an opportunity for people to become cultural ambassadors.

When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense – there’s nothing more intimate or illustrative than staying in someone’s home – living as they live – for a day – a week – or longer – and the platforms like Airbnb that are now available to people almost everywhere have a democratizing impact: not everyone everywhere can afford to study abroad or travel for a gap year before or after college, but more and more people can travel and stay in a country in a different way more economically through Airbnb.

It’s hit home for our company the potential power that these platforms have to bring people together, and the spirit of cultural connections they embody – and it’s inspired us to support other means of bringing people together as well.

That’s why in June we sponsored a reception in Beijing, China to bring together U.S. and China policymakers during the 2016 U.S. China Consultation on People to People Exchange.

That’s also why we first got involved earlier this year as a company in supporting the work Assistant Secretary Ryan does through the Gilman Scholarship – the program that makes it possible for lower income students to study abroad. We have become sponsors in the hopes that as the Scholars study, they can also travel and experience the culture of a country – and, tellingly, the #1 destination for Gilman Scholars is China.

We’ve also seen how China is using our platform to connect with the world. It’s an amazing story. We’ve witnessed a 500% increase in outbound travel from China in just the past year. Just think about that – 500%. And since 2008, there have been over 2 million guest arrivals from China at Airbnb listings worldwide. It’s particularly popular with young people: The average Chinese traveler is 30 years old and is using Airbnb to have a truly authentic, local experience.

Chinese guests are traveling from cities, with most coming from Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. And some of the most popular destinations for these travelers are the United States, France, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Italy, the UK and Japan.

More broadly, we see that these kinds of interactions facilitated by sharing economy companies are thriving in China. As of April 2016, more than 500 million people in China have used at least one sharing economy service and sharing economy companies are expected to represent 10 percent of China’s Gross Domestic Product by 2020.

That’s why this discussion with the Asia Society is so interesting to us – because the face of people to people diplomacy in 2016 is no longer just a traditional exchange student, it’s a traveler staying a few days in someone’s home. It is as authentic as it is organic – and we believe it could be the great unwritten story in strengthening people to people understanding.    

We know that cultural understanding won’t solve every one of the world’s problems – but we also know that misunderstanding is at the root of too many conflicts today. It’s easier to trust if first you can understand.

At our core, Airbnb is really about bringing people together and we’re excited about the chance to connect people directly, catalyzing the exchange of ideas and building of mutual understanding across our two cultures like never before – and that’s an idea we believe will only grow in its power and potential.