Charlemagne: the backlash against Airbnb
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WAKING UP in an Airbnb apartment can be briefly disorienting. Where are you? Brushed steel, exposed light bulbs, mid-century furniture. Lively walls and shelves (a guide for hosts recommends accentuating “personality, not personal items”). The laminated neighborhood guide, slightly skewed English and dotted with exclamation marks. The excellent Wi-Fi. You might be in Lisbon; but maybe it is St. Petersburg? The Verge, an online magazine, describes this Airbnb aesthetic as “the hallucination of the normal,” a phrase borrowed from Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect. This is why it can also offer the jaded traveler a feeling of home.
Not all Europeans feel the same. Tourists packing for this year’s holiday season might be bracing for an awkward welcome. Anti-tourist protests in some towns have become a summer ritual. Last August, 200 residents occupied a Barcelona beach to tell visitors to run away (or at least stay in hotels). In several cities, a plaintive theme emerged. Residents outside of Airbnb are distorting neighborhoods and upsetting residents. Grocery stores and libraries that cater to locals are being replaced by identity cafes and bicycle rental points that serve tourists. As rental housing colonizes new areas, residents are forced to move further away (18% of properties in central Florence are listed on Airbnb, according to a study.) Airbnb’s “oligarchs” amass properties and money. profits. Tense housing markets in cities like Amsterdam are further squeezed when landlords remove properties from sale or long-term rental in favor of vacationers. Not all of these allegations concern Airbnb. But the brand is channeling the anxieties plaguing European cities that feel besieged by mass tourism, and politicians have started to take notice. In 2015, Barcelona elected a left-wing mayor who promised to crack down on tourism excesses. She started with Airbnb, fining her for leaving properties unregistered.
If Uber was the terrible toddler of the sharing economy, Airbnb, which celebrates its tenth anniversary next month, has behaved like the quieter big brother. Uber has preached (and practiced) disruption and chaos, and generally lost its crumbs with regulators in Europe. But Airbnb told a sweeter story, of tourists swapping the anonymity of hotels for the authenticity of neighborhoods; owners weaving a few bobs out of the guest bedroom. Your columnist’s unscientific Facebook survey revealed a surprising level of affection for Airbnb among hosts and visitors.
However, if the backlash started in America, Airbnb’s main market, it is now the liveliest in Europe, its largest. From Amsterdam to Berlin to Madrid, city authorities are tightening the screws, limiting the number of days an apartment can be rented and fining offenders. Paris, the European crown jewel of Airbnb, is suing him for failing to remove unregistered ads. (This week, New York decided to require registration as well.) The European Commission, the 800-pound regulator gorilla (see article), has generally been reluctant to intervene. But this week, she ordered Airbnb to make some of its charges more transparent or face legal action. The honeymoon is, it seems, over.
Part of it is just the growing pains that come with any innovation that the old rules don’t fit. Even Airbnb’s biggest enemies, in the hospitality industry it turned upside down, aren’t seeking its demise (at least not publicly). Certain regulatory overruns have been brought under control; Berlin, for example, no longer outright prohibits apartment rentals on Airbnb. Amsterdam authorities say their rental limits have reduced the number of illegal hotels in the city.
Few people think the tensions are over. Residents and tourists indeed operate in different time zones, explains Fabiola Mancinelli of the University of Barcelona. It mattered less when tourists looked at a few churches before retiring to a large hotel. But it’s harder to ignore visitors who pose for selfies in the local market, sign up for mass bike tours, occupy your favorite bar, and shake their wheeled suitcases on the cobblestones on their way to catch a flight. morning. Ironically, visitors who seek to weave themselves into the fabric of a city for a period of time can cause more problems for residents than those who are just snooping around.
The long and dark vacation rental of the soul
Stricter regulations have barely crushed Airbnb, as a glance at its listings will show. European cities feature high on its latest list of “trending” destinations. Yet to fuel new growth in the run-up to an IPO expected in the next two years, it will need to probe new markets. Business travel is one of them. Airbnb already allows hosts to sell “experiences” (think kimono dress-up ceremonies or vintage photography lessons). A stronger Airbnb presence could mean more potential tensions with residents.
Still, the platform can hardly be blamed for all the woes of the era of mass tourism. Unlike the hordes of cruise ships that made the centers of Venice and Dubrovnik unbearable, Airbnbers by definition stay in a city. There is evidence that Airbnb encourages new travel or at least extends existing travel, suggesting that tourists are spending money that would otherwise have stayed at home. Residents of Eastern European cities like Warsaw and Zagreb say Airbnb visitors are raising standards and fostering a spirit of togetherness. And for every weary traveler who thinks Airbnb has lost their soul, ten more appreciate the choice, convenience, and competition it offers.
“Big hotels have always been… mirrors of the particular societies they serve,” wrote Joan Didion, a California author. Airbnb highlights a quirk of our times, where the thirst for the authentic can come at the expense of the locals who are supposed to provide it. Perhaps a regulatory cut will eventually return the service to its kip-in-the-room-room roots, as many European officials hope. Your columnist is one of those who have found themselves turning away from Airbnb’s ersatz authenticity in favor of hotels that don’t aspire to be anything other than what they are.
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Too much of a good thing”