‘Live there!’ smiles the Airbnb advert seductively. I was seduced years ago quite happily into using the booming ‘sharing economy’ of social travel sites to find accommodation. In fact I used one recently to get a cheap bed in outer London before a Tourism Concern conference. My night in my host’s spare room gave him some income and me a cheap and convenient place to lay my head. Win Win.
Someone once said to me that renting a room for one night or several is like that old standby Visiting Friends and Relatives but without the hassle of having to be nice all the time and bring presents. But here’s blogger Miquel Hudin’s recent experience of a room in Barcelona rented online:
‘I crashed there due to being at a dinner and drinking one night. These guys bought two apartments in this building so they are the actual owners. But they don’t stay in them as they live elsewhere. They rent them out continuously and they rent something like four bedrooms in each. So they break pretty much all the rules, not to mention other people who might actually live in the building then have to deal with their partying “guests”.’
Ouch… How have things gone so wrong?
One reason is there for us all to see when we browse the websites. I personally love staying with friends or relatives, and in fact if there’s anyone anywhere near my destination, I’m on their doorstep like a shot. But over the past two years on regular visits to Barcelona I’ve needed to find my own accommodation, and I’ve noticed a change in the online offer even in that short time frame.
For the first visit I booked a local’s spare room – we had some nice chats in the kitchen. Last year it was a flat owned by a retired teacher – one of three he told us he’d bought and rented out to supplement his income. Then this year I almost went for a larger flat owned by someone whose profile openly stated he rented out several similar places for large groups in prime locations around the city. I had expected a host and found instead a full blown businessman.
In the decade or so since their beginnings as matchmakers for lonely spare rooms, social travel websites have morphed into big players in the holiday property rental market. Most honeypot cities now have a bewildering mix of businesses offering holiday lets to meet rising demand, many operating through social travel websites that and other social media channels were set up to link person to person.
Now the internet is humming with growing fury and huge anxiety about the havoc this is sowing. People in urban communities once happy to welcome tourists are up in arms. For starters, Barcelona, Berlin, Venice, San Francisco, Paris, London and Edinburgh all have their protestors.
Is the anger justified? In the film Bye Bye Barcelona residents of Barcelona talk despairingly of what’s happening to their neighbourhood, which has thousands of rented rooms and flats operating outside the officially controlled letting agencies:
“A rented apartment means you’ve lost a neighbour and there are people going in and out of your building every day every week. You don’t know what control has been made for the keys nor who you’ll meet in the stairs.”
“Most of the tenants are young people. The owners pay the same as me for communal expenses but they use and wear down communal areas more than I do.”
Concern about these issues has reached such a pitch that the new mayor has recently announced a ground breaking policy to deal with the problem, according to Miquel’s blog:
‘To be able to offer this type of lodging in rooms, the owner of the business must be the owner of the property, have empadronament [your official, registered residence in Spain] for the premises, and stay there during the stay of the client. The owner of the business can only offer up to two rooms and they can only be available for up to four months out of the year. Each stay has a maximum of 31 days.’
And here’s a thing: if locals now see the threat of this trend to their quality of life, we tourists need to sit up and pay attention too. It’s already devaluing our own holiday experience.
The property rental adverts capture our desires so well. They offer the prospect of getting into personal territory and behind closed doors. I still find that alluring – even though I learned long ago that in tourism, a personal transaction in my eyes is always a commercial one for my hosts, however pleasant the interchange. But increasingly we can forget any notion of getting to know the owners. They’re running a business that could just as well be a conventional holiday operation.
So is there really no more Win Win for visitors and visited, just Lose Lose? Hopefully not. Even the protestors understand that people renting holiday places can and do put something back into the local businesses, so regulation not prohibition is what’s in the air. And there will always be ways to meet the locals if that’s what you love to do.
As for the matchmakers, their role is crucial. Richard Davie of Barcelona language school TEFL Iberia says, “I place students in accommodation all the time. It’s obvious to me that you need happy students and happy locals, so I work hard to make that happen.” How amazing if that became the norm with the big players. Let’s nudge them on by being more savvy ourselves. Tourism Concern would welcome views on this.
Here are five tips to consider before you book your next online stay.
- 1. Learn more about the rising tide of protest and reasons behind it by going to The Anti Eviction Mapping Project and use the internet to suss out local regulations regarding this kind of holiday letting.
- 2. Check out bloggers and news sites local to the place you’re thinking of renting in, like this one from Edinburgh or this one about the West Bank you’ll soon find out if this is a burning issue.
- 3. Ask the owners and agencies about the likely local impact of their properties on the neighbours. Surprisingly, it might be the first time they’ve had to think about it.
- 4. Don’t dismiss hotels and hostels. Here’s a novel idea from one blogger: “I know it’s more expensive but I’m going back to using hotels. At least they’re under regulation and I know what I’m dealing with…”
- 5. Try host-traveller networks like Servas. It started after WW2 as a movement to encourage international friendship. You need to be an active member and stick to the agreed rules but the plus side is that you get a genuine uncommericialised experience and often lasting friendship ties, as I can testify after meeting Servas members in Russia.
And that neatly brings me back to where I started: ironically, when asked about Servas, I usually say it gives you the experience of living in places, not just passing through. Now where have I heard that line recently….?