In the decade or so since their beginnings as matchmakers for lonely spare rooms, online letting platforms in the new sharing economy have mushroomed, and morphed into popular players in the holiday property rental market. But the internet is humming with fury and anxiety about the havoc this new travel phenomenom is causing.
Is the anger justified? Should we avoid using this type of accommodation? As with so many tourism dilemmas, it all depends…
Airbnb is the most famous online accommodation platform but there are many others. The growth in this sector of the sharing economy is as furious as a wild fire, and as threatening to those in its path. Not just because there is no time for society to adjust and redefine its relationship to the new way of doing business, but also because that growth can be both unpredictable in numbers and dauntingly hard to control. The ethical dimension of its impact is also hard to pin down.
Airbnb and its lesser competitors are about making profits, for themselves and their clients, or ‘hosts’. They do this by selling accommodation, often promising the chance to ‘belong’ or ‘live like a local’ in a chosen destination. People love this idea. But what we don’t always take on board is that our host’s hospitality and friendship is part of a commercial transaction, just like any other form of tourism. And in the search for profits by both platforms and their hosts, ethical considerations aren’t likely to be a priority.
So if we want our hard earned cash to stay local or our temporary neighbours to be happy to have us, we need to do some spade work ourselves on the issues locals care about.
CAN YOU BE A WELCOMED GUEST IN A HONEYPOT AREA?
It’s all too clear nowadays that too many tourists trying to ‘live like the locals’ renders neither the tourist nor the local able to do exactly that! The peer-to-peer commercial model first developed by Airbnb still works well when it is small scale and rooted in direct contact between host and guest, but once upscaled, it can result in grave social disruption.
Many hosts on online platforms are not just making a bit of extra cash from their extra room – they own or manage multiple empty properties. Not surprisingly, they look to rent out properties in the most popular areas and here’s where the big problems arise, particularly in cities which still have sizeable residential populations in their centres.
Local people have had to put up with crass behaviour and loud partying in holiday resorts and honeypot cities for decades. But the impact of holiday lettings is more insidious.
Disturbance from constant late night arrivals and departures; security concerns as strangers are given keys to zoned residential buildings; worry that the cost of services such as waste disposal and water are not being borne fairly. These problems, found all over the world, are voiced poignantly in the film Bye Bye Barcelona
In Casas sin Familias, a short film funded by Tourism Concern, the narrator’s landlord wants to turn his residential block into tourist accommodation and is ending his lease. Unregulated business activity on rental platforms has been linked over and again to soaring accommodation prices and falling long term rentals for city residents in popular home sharing areas.
Airbnb and fellow providers dispute this link, but city authorities nevertheless have begun taking action, limiting the number and length of short term rentals, and most recently, requiring platforms to share details of hosts. In time the genie may be put back in its box.
Meanwhile here are some ways you can act as an individual.
First carry out your own web search to see what issue might be around in your intended destination. Then try looking for hosts who are…
… long established, with a track record you can check on
… living in the property or personally overseeing it
… able to show how they conform to local government regulations
… keen to share how guests can benefit their neighbourhood.
IS IT BEST TO ‘LIVE LIKE A LOCAL’?
When intercultural experiences go right, it’s wonderful on both sides of the transaction and peer-to-peer platforms within the frameworks provided by online platforms may even work better than unmediated internet bookings. What platforms can’t deal with are politically sensitive situations caused by the hosts themselves. Jewish settlers letting properties built on occupied Palestinian land through Airbnb is a case in point. Another more recent cultural wasp’s nest has involved the Great Wall of China
If you’ve never travelled in a radically different environment and want to experience another culture, consider using small scale tour operators instead of going independently. Tourism Concern’s Ethical Tour Operators Group could be a start. Their knowledge of a place and its people can take you quickly to the heart of what you’ve travelled to see, avoiding cultural pitfalls and using local owned accommodation.
If you want to get close to living like a local, the easy way is to look for a rural or provincial homeshare or B&B. Your money is more likely to be recirculated in the local economy, and you’ll have far more chance of meeting the neighbours.
Or try something different entirely. There are several international traveller networks with mutual hospitality at their heart, where no money changes hands. Take a look at Servas or Couchsurfing
WILL THE LOCAL ECONOMY BENEFIT FROM YOUR STAY?
In tourist hotspots, decades of attempts by planners to entice tourists elsewhere have failed to dampen numbers. Research in 2106 by UCL academics into Airbnb’s impact in London. found the really popular home shares or flat lets in London are in exactly the places where the hospitality industry is already at its busiest – near the city centre and its Must See attractions.
It’s not surprising that the majority of in-demand online letting accommodation is in easy reach of honeypot cities, ‘must see’ beaches and top cultural attractions, not in the undistinguished backstreets or suburbs most of us live in. But hosts in outlying areas, and the series and shops around them, are more likely to appreciate your financial input. A bit more inconvenience for you might result in a real difference to someone’s life.
KEEP YOUR OPTIONS OPEN
Online rental platforms are part of the new world being forged all around us, and here to stay. But they are not a sure fire win-win for the local community. Your online booking may be a boon for a remote Highland village B&B trying to reach new customers or the driver behind a Barcelona native losing his home. So don’t give up just yet on exploring conventional, accommodation options too. A good tour operator, a comfortable hotel, a cheap and cheerful hostel, a decent campsite – all could just as easily produce your best holiday yet and even leave the locals happier…