The Misadventures of Airbnb

Author: Joyce Huang, Graphics: Carol Lu

The BRB Bottomline

With the overwhelming success of Airbnb, many have embraced this rental service for its innovation and benefits for the economy. However, several cities suffer from the over-touristification brought by Airbnb. How has Airbnb influenced these tourist destinations, and what can we do about it?

“Pretend you’re my friends visiting—not that you’re using Airbnb.”

For many travelers at Park Güell in Barcelona, these were their instructions at their Airbnb apartment. Upon entering, they found that their Airbnb was a room within an apartment that was divided up into several rooms—each room listed as its own rental with its own lock. Without a host, the travelers shared a bathroom, kitchen, and living room with strangers across the globe. In a city like Barcelona, this is not an uncommon experience.

Growth of Airbnb

What has happened to Airbnb rentals, especially in cities like Barcelona? First, let’s revisit what Airbnbs were intended to be. Rising out of the ashes of the 2008 market crash, founders Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nate Blecharczyk founded Airbnb for users to rent out their place to earn extra cash and provide an inexpensive residence for travelers. The idea was centered around homeliness: rather than the pricey, cold, cookie-cutter hotel rooms, these Airbnbs offered an experience to live in a family home with an inviting host. The founders believed that through these authentic homes, travelers could truly immerse themselves in a new culture and experience.

You see, a house is just a space, but a home is where you belong. And what makes this global community so special is that for the very first time, you can belong anywhere. The rewards you get from Airbnb aren’t just financial—they’re personal—for hosts and guests alike. – Brian Chesky, 2014

For numerous cities struggling financially, Airbnb became their lifeline in saving their economies through bolstering their tourism industries. As more and more countries embraced Airbnb, Airbnb grew into an enormously successful company, surpassing six million listings in over 81,000 cities globally by year… . The company had uniquely captured the market of young casual travelers with tighter budgets. Although most cities continue to reap the benefits of Airbnb, a few cities have become increasingly hostile towards Airbnb and its travelers. In 2017, thousands of protestors stormed the street of La Rambla in Barcelona in an outcry against Airbnb and its users.

What Went Wrong?

As a major travel destination, Barcelona faces twenty million tourists annually despite its population of only 1.6 million people. One powerful example demonstrating the effects of Barcelona’s exploding tourist industry is evident in the Raval, a historically impoverished neighborhood that was once rampant with crime. After the government funded numerous museum projects, the Raval grew into a modern-day tourist haven full of wealthy visitors, cultural museums, and trendy cafes. A major contributor to this growth is Airbnb: hosts scrambled to list out rooms, and companies formed to capture the new market. 

As more Airbnbs cropped up, residents began to find their presence controversial. While the Raval was once improved, the Raval and many other parts of the city became centered around tourists rather than residents. Neighborhoods began to lose their own cultural history as “centuries-old apartment buildings are hollowed out with ersatz hotel rooms.” Rather than providing that intimate, authentic experience of a new culture with a host, these Airbnbs have become the very hotel rooms that its founders sought to combat in order to appeal to increasingly luxurious demands. Residents began losing their own services such as dry cleaners and grocery markets to lavish bars and restaurants—places that tourists go constantly, while residents only visit them occasionally. Unfortunately, the city of Barcelona itself began to lose its own culture as well. As activist Martí Cusó states, his hometown had become a “theme park—filled with restaurants selling paella, tapas, and sangria, none of which have local origins, but which conform to a generic image of Spain.”

Issues Unique to Airbnb

Why have Airbnbs dealt with much more resistance than hotels have? Unlike hotels, Airbnbs are nestled right in the neighborhoods of long-term residents who have to hear the drunken rowdiness of tourists. In cities flooded by tourism, an alarmingly common complaint is the disruptive behavior of tourists. 

Furthermore, unlike hotels, Airbnbs can greatly disrupt the housing market for long-term residents and natives. As powerful companies buy out entire houses and apartments to market Airbnbs, long-term residents face an overwhelming shortage of housing. With this lowered housing supply, the price of housing shoots up. This can be seen in the 7% increase in rent prices of Barcelona neighborhoods in the top decile of Airbnb activity. The increased rent then attracts more companies and landlords who prioritize lucrative short-term lets over longer lets for long-term residents. After all, it is far easier to overcharge tourists on a few nights rather than a year for a long-term resident. 

In 2014, a controversy made headlines when a San Francisco landlord reportedly kicked out his tenant to accommodate Airbnb guests that could generate almost three times as much money compared to the tenant. Unfortunately, these stories are not uncommon, and as editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Bay Guardian Steven Jones states, these Airbnbs and short-term rentals worsen the already present housing crisis. 

These problems became a strong source of resentment in cities across the globe, and waves of protests broke out across Barcelona, Venice, and cities all over Europe. Other cities took action as well: In 2019, ten European cities jointly sent a letter against Airbnb to the European Commission. Germany banned short-term rentals to tourists without travel permits. New York City banned whole apartments from being rented for less than 30 days by Airbnb, but 72% of reservations in NYC in 2014 were still illegal. In 2016, New Orleans banned Airbnb in most of the French Quarter. As stated in the New Orleans Advocate, the city aimed to ban short-term rental hosts who rent to large groups that cause noise and trouble. 

In response to the complaints and protests, Airbnb began working with the government to reduce listings that could have gone to long-term residents, and more short-term listings have become illegal or require extensive permits and licenses. Unfortunately, many rentals are still operating illegally, as Barcelona had to remove 2,577 illegal listings in 2018. Airbnb’s own hometown San Francisco fined the company for its lack of proper registration of short-term listings.

How to Use Airbnb Conscientiously

Although the economic costs of Airbnb to renters and local markets exceed the gains of travelers and property owners, this is not to say that you should always avoid Airbnbs. Airbnb is a crucial way to travel for those with tighter budgets or anyone wanting to save money. 

Feel free to book your Airbnb! There are just a few things you should keep in mind, especially if you are booking at a major tourist hotspot. 

Try to travel at a less popular time of the year rather than peak times—it could be cheaper too! Try to choose listings from local families rather than a rental company with numerous property listings. You can support local communities by opting out of rental companies that often damage the local housing market. The local residents need affordable housing much more than tourists do: this is where they need to live and work. If the host happens to stay with you, this is your chance to truly immerse yourself in a new culture!

Rather than supporting the ritzy restaurants from large corporations, try out local businesses instead. Buying local helps you form personal connections with locals for an engaging travel experience, while also experiencing the authentic culture of these communities. Supporting these businesses keeps the community unique. And of course, because Airbnbs can be in very residential areas, it is important to be a respectful tourist who follows quiet hours. 

Take-Home Points

  • Airbnb is a popular and inexpensive way to travel, but many cities have been crushed by the over-touristification brought by Airbnb. 
  • Airbnb disrupts the long-term rentals market for locals and raises housing prices in numerous cities, which has even led to protests in the tourist-filled city of Barcelona.
  • With Airbnb bringing in tourists to residential neighborhoods, businesses catered to tourists overcrowd the local businesses and harm local cultures.
  • However, with a few tips such as supporting local shops and avoiding corporate listings, you can still enjoy your Airbnb and support the community.

1 Comment

  1. With the exorbitantly high additional cleaning fees, booking fees etc. that some owners now want (to offset the % that AirBNB corporate demands from them?), I seldom find it a savings to book .

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