Charlemagne: the backlash against Airbnb


TO WAKE up in an Airbnb apartment can be briefly disorientating. Where are you? The brushed steel, the exposed lightbulbs, the mid-century furnishings. The lively walls and bookshelves (a guide for hosts recommends accentuating “personality, not personal items”). The laminated guide to the neighbourhood, the English slightly askew and peppered with exclamation marks. The excellent Wi-Fi. You could be in Lisbon; but perhaps 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. That is why it can also offer the jaded traveller the sense of a home from home.

Not all Europeans feel the same. Tourists packing for this year’s holiday season might brace themselves for an awkward welcome. Anti-tourist protests in some cities have become a summer ritual. Last August 200 locals occupied a beach in Barcelona to tell visitors to shove off (or at least to stay in hotels). In several cities a plaintive theme has emerged. Airbnb out-of-towners warp districts and upset residents. Grocery shops and libraries that cater for locals are replaced by identikit cafés and bike-rental outlets that serve tourists. As rental homes colonise new areas, residents are forced further out (18% of the properties in central Florence are listed on Airbnb, according to one study.) Airbnb “oligarchs” hoard properties and profits. Tight housing markets in cities like Amsterdam are squeezed further when landlords withdraw properties from sale or long-term rental in favour of the holidaymakers. Not all these allegations are about Airbnb. But the brand funnels anxieties afflicting European cities that feel besieged by mass tourism, and politicians have started to notice. In 2015 Barcelona elected a left-wing mayor who promised to clamp down on the excesses of tourism. She started with Airbnb, fining it for letting out unregistered properties.

If Uber was the terrible toddler of the sharing economy, Airbnb, which celebrates its tenth anniversary next month, behaved as the quieter older sibling. Uber preached (and practised) disruption and chaos, and generally lost its scraps with regulators in Europe. But Airbnb spun a gentler tale, of tourists swapping the anonymity of hotels for the authenticity of districts; of homeowners weaving a few bob out of the spare room. Your columnist’s unscientific Facebook survey uncovered a surprising degree of affection for Airbnb among both hosts and visitors.

Yet if the backlash started in America, Airbnb’s first market, it is now liveliest in Europe, its biggest. From Amsterdam to Berlin to Madrid, city officials are tightening the screws, limiting the number of days for which an apartment may be rented and slapping fines on violators. Paris, the European jewel in Airbnb’s crown, is suing it for failing to take down unregistered listings. (This week, New York moved to require registration too.) The European Commission, the 800-pound regulatory gorilla (see article), has generally hesitated to step in. But this week it ordered Airbnb to make some of its charges more transparent or face legal action. The honeymoon is, it seems, over.

In part these are simply the growing pains that accompany any innovation that the old rules do not suit. Even Airbnb’s biggest foes, in the hotel industry it has upended, do not seek its demise (at least not publicly). Some regulatory overreach has been reined in; Berlin, for example, no longer bans apartment rentals on Airbnb outright. Authorities in Amsterdam say their limits on rentals have reduced the number of illegal hotels in the city.

Few think the tensions are over. Residents and tourists in effect operate on different time zones, says Fabiola Mancinelli, of the University of Barcelona. That mattered less when tourists gawped at a few churches before retreating to a large hotel. But it is harder to ignore the visitors who pose for selfies in the local market, sign up for mass bicycle tours, occupy your favourite bar and rattle their wheelie suitcases over cobblestones on their way to catch an early flight. Ironically, visitors who seek to weave themselves for a while into a city’s fabric may cause residents more trouble than those who simply poke around.

The long, dark holiday-rental of the soul

Tighter regulations have hardly crushed Airbnb, as a glance at its listings will show. European cities appear prominently on its latest list of “trending” destinations. Yet to fuel further growth in the run-up to an expected flotation in the next two years, it will need to probe new markets. Business travel is one. Airbnb already allows hosts to sell “experiences” (think kimono-dressing ceremonies or vintage-photography classes). A more marked Airbnb presence could mean more potential tension with residents.

Yet the platform can hardly be blamed for every woe of the mass-tourism age. In contrast to the cruise-ship hordes that have made the centres of Venice and Dubrovnik unbearable, Airbnbers by definition stay in a city. There is some evidence that Airbnb encourages new trips or at least lengthens existing ones, which suggests tourists are spending cash that would otherwise have stayed at home. Residents of eastern European cities like Warsaw and Zagreb say Airbnb visitors improve standards and foster a spirit of friendliness. And for every weary traveller who thinks Airbnb has lost its soul, ten more appreciate the choice, convenience and competition it offers.

“Great hotels have always been…mirrors to the particular societies they serve,” wrote Joan Didion, a Californian author. Airbnb highlights a quirk of our own age, in which the thirst for the authentic can come at the expense of the locals who are supposed to provide it. Perhaps a regulatory squeeze will eventually return the service to its kip-in-the-spare-room roots, as many European officials hope. Your columnist is among those who have found themselves turning away from Airbnb’s ersatz authenticity in favour of hotels that do not aspire to be anything other than what they are.