Airbnb is now a staple fixture in any travellers accommodation choices, but is the company really as ethical or responsible as it says it is? Are travellers unwittingly contributing to unsustainable tourism practices by using Airbnb and helping to destroy the places they are visiting? With the company facing such a huge backlash, the question really needs to be asked should travellers be using Airbnb at all?
Airbnb, once the golden child of the sharing economy has now over the last few years become a giant, faceless behemoth that is firmly entrenched in the mainstream travel industry, and is as far removed from its founding principles as it can get.
It is not a community of owners renting out their spare room anymore. It is a space for full blown property management businesses with hundreds of employees and private landlords with dozens of properties to make vast profits.
But it is still extremely popular with travellers, and it is not hard to see why. With the mainstream hotel industry failing to cater to a lot of independent and long term traveller needs, and Airbnb offering chic homestays, apartments and quirky inner city locations at a reasonable price, it is hardly surprising that the service is now an everyday part of most travellers options.
But should it be?
As part of a growing discontent with mass tourism in general, Airbnb has become a symbol of all the ills of the tourism industry, of how mass package tourism can ruin communities and destroy the very thing tourists come to see.
What is Airbnb. Really?
Airbnb started out as part of a new trend in travel, the sharing economy, and the sales pitch was unbeatable; throw off the shackles of the mainstream hotel industry, connect with locals and give them some extra cash as you travel and ‘live like a local’. For many travellers and backpackers it seemed perfect, and for a time that may have been what it was.
Except now it is far more than that.
Airbnb still sells itself on that image of course, but now the local people with a spare room just hoping to make some extra cash have been largely supplanted by management companies and professional buy to letters with multiple properties.
Airbnb is now as mainstream and corporate as any international hotel chain.
Increasingly mired in controversy after controversy, with horror stories of landlords and tenants from hell, trashed properties, problems for neighbours and a whole host of other problems that could easily fill one of those cheap reality TV documentaries, it seems like Airbnb has been taken over by the very mainstream industries it was designed to circumvent.
And this has led to Airbnb becoming world news for all the wrong reasons, with stories emerging of it breaking local laws all over the world, tax avoidance on a vast scale, lying about its official data, illegal rentals and even accusations that it is contributing to the destruction of local communities.
The legal issue.
In recent years Airbnb has come under intense scrutiny from both the eyes of the public and perhaps more importantly, the legal system. Cities as far and wide as Amsterdam, London, Barcelona and San Francisco among many others have begun to resort to the legal system and the courts to challenge the behemoth that Airbnb has become and even more cities besides are starting to crack down on what they perceive to be breaches of the law. Airbnb is still embroiled in a long legal dispute with the attorney general in New York, and Germany is even passing new housing laws to ban short term lets and try and shut down the way Airbnb works in their cities.
The big problem is that whilst Airbnb is not in and of itself illegal, the mass expansion has led to UK councils labelling it ‘out of control‘ with short term lets more than 20 times the national average, and the lets and rentals advertised on the site – the same apartments and rooms that travellers rent out – often circumvent or directly contravene local housing and rental laws. This means that on top of essentially being illegal, safety standards with fire and environmental zoning laws are often ignored, insurance policies are voided, local tenants are often inadvertently affected and taxes are not paid properly.
Airbnb isn’t helping matters much either by essentially trying to fob the problems off onto the individual host’s and saying it is their responsibility to comply with local laws. They may technically be right, but many people, including the attorney general of New York, are arguing that putting up a set of guidelines for individual hosts just isn’t good enough and many cities around the world are becoming more and more determined to push back against a company that they essentially see as if not criminal, then at the very least an antithesis to the controlled legal system that is imposed on the housing, rental and tourism industries.
The industry issues.
Unsuprisingly given their vast loss of revenue, the hotel industry is backing these legal challenges to Airbnb, saying that it is essentially unfair competition.
Now as an independent traveller myself I do not have a great deal of sympathy for the mass international branded hotel chains. They themselves have a whole list of ethical and sustainable issues that they need to start dealing with before they start calling foul, and quite frankly they do need competition to force them to change.
However, saying that the hotel industry is still technically right, and the fact that they – and by the same extent genuine landlords – do have to comply with strict laws, rules and regulations, the fact that Airbnb are skirting around these rules creates a distinctly unfair advantage for them.
But it isn’t the large chains that will suffer from this, even though they are the ones with the clout to protect future revenue, it is the smaller hotels, the boutique hotels, the genuine homestays, all of which stay within the law, pay the taxes and help regulate tourism, the type of places independent backpackers and travellers are likely to stay and the ones that offer real and genuine competition to the branded chains, that will end up suffering the most.
And as for and for those travellers who are using Airbnb, with the current system set up the way it is now they could be potentially breaking the law too. It is highly unlikely any tenant will fall foul of the law as most laws do concentrate on the landlords and hosts, but still it is not a situation you want to be caught in the middle of and the fact is there is no way to know. There is no transparency, so travellers have absolutely no idea what they are walking into and no protection in the eyes of the law like they would get in a hotel, guesthouse or other industry compliant accommodation.
The Ethical issues.
Airbnb is great for independent travellers. Of that there is absolutely no doubt. Travellers get to stay in great rooms or even entire apartments, often in central locations or quirky, characterful or even amazing buildings that they would never normally experience, and they often get to meet great local hosts. And all of this often for a lot cheaper than equivalent hotel rooms.
It essentially gives greater choice and better options at a better price.
The service is even great for hosts too, and Airbnb have taken great pains to emphasise that. For anyone who has a property and needs a little extra income, renting out their spare room (or even the entire building) is an ideal solution to that.
Except it isn’t all that clear cut, and all the legal issues aside does not take into account the multiple issues and problems it causes. The fact is, Airbnb is having a massive detrimental effect on local communities and even the housing markets.
Airbnb may have an image of homeowners just making extra cash from a spare room, but the simple truth is that it’s vast growth has encouraged property speculation and has been fueled by investors and property speculators.
This reduces the stock of housing which is a huge problem in many countries and cities around the world where demand for affordable housing already far outstrips supply, and pushes up house prices even further which prices out many locals from buying a property or even living in the area they grew up in or need to move to for work.
Take Iceland for example, a country that is already suffering from overtourism and where tourists regularly now outnumber local Icelanders, where the once pristine natural landmarks are now being ruined with the sheer number of tourists trampling through them and the hotel industry is struggling to meet demand, Airbnb is being allowed as a last resort to cater to the sheer number of tourists. House prices are up 18.3% this year compared to 6.3% the year before and locals are being priced out. Locals are even being turfed out of rental accommodation because landlords can make more money with Airbnb.
This level of tourism is not sustainable, and Airbnb is causing huge ethical and moral problems in the towns and the cities where it operates. Exacerbated by locals who are already at tipping point with overtourism, many cities are now seeing a huge backlash against this.
On top of that, the growth of Airbnb is drastically changing the nature of local neighbourhoods and businesses, with many accusing the company of breaking up communities by forcing locals out in favour of a production line of tourists and short term letters.
Whole towns and neighbourhoods are now being displaced, with locals and residents moving out and businesses closing down, with new service industries springing up to serve tourists instead.
Where once tourist towns and areas were limited to very specific areas, the spread of Airbnb alongside the huge surge in mass tourism has allowed that to disseminate everywhere.
Laws and regulations do exist to prevent hotels from springing up in residential streets, or curtail those that are there to protect homeowners rights too, but Airbnb circumvents that.
Local residents rights to live in their homes without adjacent houses being turned into party hotels or being disturbed by inconsiderate tourists are being ignored. Problems with noise pollution and litter from waves of tourists, crime and safety are all issues that local homeowners are now having to deal with when they shouldn’t have to.
The big problem is an absolute lack of regulation and control.
Tourism is a good thing, in moderation. The sharing economy is a good thing, when balanced against the traditional tourism industry.
There is even nothing wrong with Airbnb’s model, provided that it isn’t allowed to go unchecked and unsupervised as it is now.
Homestay’s, B&Bs and pensions – essentially the same model Airbnb uses but operating as an official business – are not a new phenomenon, they have been a backpacker and flashpacker staple accommodation for decades where travellers can pay to stay in a locals spare room. The difference being here is that they are official businesses, they are regulated, they pay tax, they conform to local laws and regulations, and they assist the tourism industry by complying with its rules and helping to regulate tourism. Local councils or governments may even have limits on how many their should be to try and prevent overtourism.
This is what needs to happen to Airbnb now.
No matter what it’s roots in the sharing economy, much like others in that industry such as Uber, they are now officially mainstream and corporate, and they need to act and be treated as such.
Of course there is also the argument that the traditional hotel and accommodation industry also needs to evolve and innovate to meet the needs of modern independent travellers if they ever want to compete with Airbnb, but in order to do that a level playing field is required and Airbnb cannot go on getting all the rewards of working outside the system with none of the responsibilities it should be working under.
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