Airbnb has become part of the travel mainstream over the past decade, bringing quirky and chic apartments and homeshares to the masses. For many of us, it forms a key part of our travel planning process. But recently Airbnb has been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Residents of popular tourist destinations across Europe – including Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik, Rome, and Lisbon – are mobilising to protest against the increasing numbers. Airbnb stands accused of destroying local communities, fudging data, of allowing illegal rentals and racial discrimination.
As a consumer and as former host I love Airbnb and can’t imagine travelling without it, but recent events have made me think about how I use the site.
Is it possible to use Airbnb ethically in Europe? And if so, how? Here’s a quick rundown of the issues.
IS AIRBNB LEGAL?
There’s nothing illegal about the Airbnb platform itself, but the company does not enforce local lodging laws and regulations, insisting this is the host’s responsibility.
Possible problems with this include:
- the host may not be complying with (intentionally or otherwise) regulations around fire and environmental safety, zoning and property use
- the locality may be missing out on taxes
- the host may be (intentionally or otherwise) violating housing contracts and/or insurance policies
Regulation is slowly catching up with the sharing economy reality and forcing Airbnb to comply, particularly in cities with clout. Local authorities are starting to cap tourist numbers and restrict how hosts are using Airbnb, with a focus on commercial apartment listings rather than shared spaces and primary residences.
As a consumer, a further problem is the lack of transparency in the listings. As a guest, it’s impossible to know which listings are compliant, and therefore to gauge the impact of your stay.
IS AIRBNB UNETHICAL?
The main ethical argument against Airbnb concerns its impact on local communities and housing markets. Airbnb is great for guests and hosts, less so for the rest of the community.
- Lack of regulation combined with good returns encourages property speculation
- Landlords can make more money on holiday lets than long term tenants
- Investors buy up apartments, reducing the stock and pushing up prices
- Exacerbates existing problems with scarcity of affordable housing
- Harder to control tourist numbers if accommodation is outside regulation
- An influx of inconsiderate guests brings problems with noise and littering
- Neighbourhoods and businesses change with the ratio of residents-tourists
Airbnb’s marketing presents a cosy image of home-sharers bonding over authentic moments and connection, but its growth is fuelled by property investors and third party management businesses.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with commercially run apartments – if they are compliant, the guest is aware and the numbers properly managed, then we can all enjoy the benefits.
Is it possible to use Airbnb ethically?
Arguably the genie is out of the bottle. Airbnb has created a demand that won’t disappear by avoiding the platform.
- regulation to protect communities in over-touristed areas
- better information from destinations on minimising impact
- consumer demand for transparency and accountability from Airbnb and other companies
- innovation is needed from the hospitality sector to win back customers who don’t feel that the traditional providers cater for them (the rise of flashpacker design hostels is one example)
As a consumer, I want more transparency. I want to know the impact of my choices. I want to know if I’m booking a business listing or a primary residence. If the money is staying locally or going to foreign investors.
In the meantime, here are a few suggestions to minimise your impact:
- Avoid vacation rentals in over-touristed hotspots in favour of locally-owned B&Bs, hotels and hostels
- Check with the local tourist board for a list of registered properties
- Use Airbnb to book primary residences or private rooms only where possible
- Be a considerate guest
In Mediterranean Europe, Airbnb is increasingly used as a booking engine by traditional pensions, traditional family-run guesthouses. It can be a great way to surface these pensions who otherwise might not have much of an internet presence, particularly outside cities.
AIRBNB AND DISCRIMINATION
One fundamental flaw of the default booking system in Airbnb – which requires approval from the host – is that it allows for discrimination. Studies have found POC and disabled users of the site are more likely to have a booking request rejected.
Airbnb’s most visible response has been to make hosts sign a Community Commitment, whilst it experiments with platform changes to reduce unconscious bias.
But is this enough? Airbnb seems reluctant to remove hosts accused of discrimination – what’s the point of an agreement if there is no recrimination for breaking it?
ALTERNATIVES TO AIRBNB
Looking for alternatives to Airbnb? Here’s a list of booking sites for apartments, rooms and homeshares, although bear in mind they might be subject to the same problems listed above.
“When mainstream companies don’t serve particular groups of consumers well enough, new enterprises very quickly muscle in on their territory.” – The Airbnb Bias Row . . . , The Guardian
- Kid and Coe
- Boutique Homes
Have I missed any? Let me know and I’ll add them to the list.
What do you think? Is it possible to use Airbnb ethically, or will you be avoiding it on your next trip?
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