Airbnb vs the People

Airbnb – and other short-term rental platforms – have long been under fire for pricing local renters out of city-centres in popular tourist destinations. But Barcelona may emerge from the coronavirus pandemic with a better short-term rental market for all.

Trouble on the Horizon

According to a Euronews report in 2019, “the city centre’s residential population has declined 11 percent in the past four years. A major contributing factor is the amount of apartments being rented out to holidaymakers.” 

One 2019 paper found that 6.84 percent of all rental properties in Barcelona were listed on Airbnb. 

And tourists aren’t necessarily bringing much culture with them. The backlash against tourists that I’ve written about before is not matched by the welcome for immigrants. 

“Immigrants bring their culture and contribute to society,” one Barcelona local told me. “Most tourists just come for a few days and take.”

Tourism Down

Travel has been one of the industries hardest-hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Many countries have closed their borders completely, while others have shut them to all but citizens or residents. In Spain the latest data show overnight hotel stays in March at 8.4m, down from 21.5m for the same month in 2019. 

Some critics of Airbnb may well be celebrating. A recent Wired article indicates that Airbnb – essentially now the world’s largest hotel chain – is suffering along with the rest. “According to AirDNA, an online rental analytics firm, new bookings on Airbnb are down 85 percent; cancellation rates are close to 90 percent,” writes James Temperton.

The Good…

Don’t get me wrong, I quite like the concept of Airbnb. If you have some spare space to rent – which is where the whole Airbnb concept was born – it not only utilizes otherwise unused space, but it also encourages cultural interactions. 

Brilliant.

Even if it is a holiday-house rental, it is at least putting otherwise unused property to good use. It possibly even contributes to making some seasonal holiday destinations feel lived-in, year-round. Temperton writes that these Airbnb hosts “will lament the loss of a reliable secondary income.”

…the Bad…

But there’s a whole other business that has sprung-up with Airbnb: professional hosts. Temperton reckons more than half the Airbnb listings in the US are with hosts that have more than two other listings. 

And Barcelona is a particularly attractive market for professional hosts because of the large difference between the costs of long- and short-term rentals. Until this crisis, rental arbitrage has been a very lucrative business. Hosts take out apartments on long-term leases and then list them on peer-to-peer sites like Airbnb, and make a very good living, with very little upfront investment. Generally in Barcelona 10 nights of holiday rental income equates to a month’s long-term rental.

…and the Ugly

There are issues though.

Having lived under an (illegal) holiday rental, I can attest that it is more than a little annoying. People arrive at all hours, drag suitcases up stairs, clomp around in high-heels on hard floors, have parties, and generally make nuisances of themselves. If you’re okay getting reliable sleep between 3am and 6am it’s fine. On top of that the host doesn’t contribute anything for the extra wear-and-tear or cleaning of the common areas.

The good news in Barcelona is that the city had already reacted to the explosion of tourist rentals, and has not approved any tourist licenses since 2014. There are 9,600 legal tourist apartments in the city, and after a crackdown that started in 2016, Mayor Ada Colau, a former housing activist, reckons the supply of illegal rentals has dropped by 95 percent

If you are renting an apartment, do everyone a favour and enter the address at https://www.fairtourism.barcelona to ensure it is a legal one.

Moving Forwards

In 2014 Colau, wrote: “It’s paradoxical, but uncontrolled mass tourism ends up destroying the very things that made a city attractive to visitors in the first place: the unique atmosphere of the local culture.”

“Of course, the answer is not to attack tourism. Everyone is a tourist at some point in their life. Rather, we have to regulate the sector, return to the traditions of local urban planning, and put the rights of residents before those of big business.”

As Mayor she has been working towards those goals. Even in January 2020 Barcelona was looking at ways to boost new attractions to decentralise tourism: “A change of the tourism model will also be sought to reduce passive tourism, relating to sun, sand and partying, and boost aspirational tourism, which seeks experiences relating to culture, gastronomy, architecture and sports.” 

A Better Future

While the novel coronavirus pandemic is nothing to be celebrated, it does give cities the option to picture a different, better, outcome at the end of it all. 

In some ways that has already started. According to a recent RTE article, the number of long-term rental properties available in central Dublin this year increased 71 percent compared to that same period the previous year (mid-March to mid-April) as “a result of short term lets like Airbnb coming onto the long-term market.”

At the other end, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, in a letter to staff regarding layoffs and the company’s response to the downturn, has stressed the company needs a “more focused business strategy.”

“This crisis has sharpened our focus to get back to our roots, back to the basics, back to what is truly special about Airbnb — everyday people who host their homes and offer experiences,” he writes.

Barcelona was already working towards a better Barcelona for residents as well as tourists before this crisis. Maybe the silver lining is that this pandemic offers a chance for a reset. Barcelona is set to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic with a better, more equitable, rental market. And it looks as though Airbnb’s plan plays into that. If some professional Airbnb hosts lose their shirts on that journey, it is a small price to pay.

Travel Under Pressure

Like it or not, travel is under the microscope – and under pressure – from a number of quarters and for a number of reasons. From environmental concerns to overtourism, travellers would do well to listen, and to adjust their behavior…or risk a backlash.

Sensitive Environment

With climate change in the news, there is a growing resistance in some quarters not to travel by air. Sweden and Germany even have words for shame of flying – “flygskam” and “flugscham” respectively.

Aircraft takes off into grey skies
Bumpy skies ahead?

And where you have the option of travelling by train, it’s hard to argue in favour of airlines. But in the third world context, where the infrastructure may not exist, flying may be the only option. The statistics bear that out, with passenger numbers set to double to 8.2 billion by 2037, driven by increases in Asia-Pacific.

For travellers, taking fewer and shorter flights is an obvious response. As is offsetting carbon emissions when flying, even if that is an imperfect solution. Only one percent of travellers offset their emissions, but there’s really no excuse: If you can afford to travel, you can afford to offset your emissions. Given the EU leads the world in this sort of regulation it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it, if it weren’t likely to reduce visitor numbers.

Try to be more like Greta Thunberg, and less like Julia Hartley-Brewer.

Hitting the Reef

Other natural ecosystems can be managed to cope with tourism, though in some instances that may require complete closure, as has happened in Thailand at Maya Bay and Boracay in the Philippines. In the US the National Parks Service is only considering limiting visitor numbers at some parks, though one is experimenting with a requirement to book parking places in advance.

Sensitive corals struggle to cope with warming oceans and pollution

In the third world unchecked development doesn’t help – untreated sewerage flowing into the water in Boracay was one reason for its closure. 

And our travel habits are working against us. Maya bay saw a dramatic increase in visitors, to a peak of 5,000 a day, after appearing in the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach. If you had seen the film, you would recognize the irony of sharing it with 4,999 other people.

Social media only amplifies the pressure on certain ‘Instagrammable’ destinations – 51% of Millennials use social media as inspiration when planning vacations. Little wonder everybody ends up at the same place.

Travel for the FOMO Insta-cliche snap doesn’t help

Money Matters

Limiting tourism numbers is, however, a double-edged sword. Some destinations are heavily reliant on tourism dollars. More than 18% of the entire revenue of Barcelona’s commercial sector is driven by tourism. Foreign tourism receipts account for fully 12% of Thailand’s GDP.

Losing that income would cause problems of a different kind.

Still, moves are afoot to limit the numbers of cruise ships to Barcelona, which is now Europe’s busiest cruise destination. Ironically, that may be motivated by money too – the average spend in Barcelona by cruise passengers is only €57.

Big crowds, little benefit

Some tourism authorities talk about “quality tourism”, but the concept can be slippery. In her excellent piece on the issue Raini Hamdi, has some ideas:

“Ideally, quality tourism should be inclusive, welcoming both rich and poor guests who respect a country’s people, their culture and heritage, their tourism jewels. It should have healthy, responsible businesses that can grow and enrich the travel industry ecosystem and contribute to the economy by creating jobs, training people, and broadening the minds of locals through contact with foreigners.”

Observer Effect

That last thought may raise some hackles: Does tourism broaden the minds of locals? Is the notion of tourism changing a destination a good thing?

For the “it was better before all the tourists” types, the answer is probably in the negative. But there’s a bigger issue at work here, and a dangerous, almost colonial mentality in wanting to keep destinations and cultures ‘pristine’.

Particularly when many European cities are moving away from cars in city centres it seems reasonable to lament the increase in car and motorcycle traffic over bicycles in Hanoi. But that is to ignore the cultural significance of people for the first time being able to afford motorized transport. The last thing the developing world needs is to be lectured by the developed world for enjoying the same luxuries. 

Progress, Hanoi style

Tourism didn’t necessarily bring cars to Hanoi’s streets – progress did. Progress will possibly see them limited in the future too.

Globetrotters vs Globalism

Did tourists bring McDonalds to Barcelona? The outlets in the main tourist areas seems to suggest so. But should we deny the residents of Barcelona any agency? What’s to say that fatty, salty, cheap and fast burgers are not attractive to a number of local residents too? Obviously I don’t see the attraction, but the answer probably lies somewhere between the extremes. 

Melbourne only sees a fraction of the international overnight visitors of Barcelona (2.7m versus 7.6m in Barcelona), yet Melbourne has vastly more McDonald’s outlets. Correlation (an increase in McDonald’s outlets along with the increase in tourist numbers in Barcelona) doesn’t necessarily mean causation.

But no visitor to Melbourne or to Barcelona is going to learn much about either city by visiting McDonald’s. Some Americans apparently like to go to the McDonald’s in different countries to see how they’re different from Stateside. Quentin Tarantino made fun of it in Pulp Fiction back in 1994 with the iconic Royale with Cheese scene.

Go Small or Go Home

Eat in a local restaurant and you’re not only supporting the local economy, but you also stand a chance of learning something about the place. That is quality tourism.

Flying half way around the world for a Royale with Cheese, or for a copycat Instagram snap, or to taunt a young activist, is the reason travel today is under pressure.

Travel is important, because it reminds “people both of the incredible value of our diversity of this planet and the differences we have,” according to Barack Obama. “But travel also reminds us of what we share and what we have become – the ability for us to recognise ourselves in each other.”

Travel allows us to experience and celebrate human diversity, while at the same time forging bonds. It would be a shame to lose all that.

Is Barcelona Ruined by Tourism?

Sticker on the pavement in Barcelona saying "tourism kills the city"

Stephen Burgen argues that Barcelona has been ruined by tourism in a recent Guardian article.

You can’t disagree that the queues for the tourist sites can be long. Nor that La Rambla is an overcrowded mess full of tourist tatt stores. Nor that La Boqueria can be difficult to navigate and is increasingly about ‘juice bars and assorted take-aways.’

But.

If you travel off season, you can generally book tickets to attractions online and completely skip queues. La Rambla may be overwhelmed with tourist crowds, but duck down a side street – particularly in the El Raval direction – you’ll find a community with its own unique culture and feel. There are some decent restaurants on La Rambla, though they are, admittedly, uncommon.

And despite having to fight through the tourist hordes, you can buy excellent fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, meat and supplies at La Boqueria. I’m assuming fresh rabbits don’t count as ‘assorted take-aways’.

In short, tourism has affected Barcelona and the way people live, but life goes on. Barcelona has not been ruined by tourism.

Be like the locals

Residents have adapted to the tourist onslaught in various ways. Sometimes by posting stickers (above), though most just avoid the crowds. One way is to avoid the major tourist attractions: how frequently do you think Barcelona residents want to visit La Sagrada Familia  or Casa Batlló?

Do Parisians visit the Eiffel Tower on a regular basis, would you think?

Surely the main difference the tourist crowds make is to tourists themselves and traffic flow in the immediate vicinity. If you don’t want to get stuck in queues, don’t go to Casa Batlló : Easy. And if you really need to get a Gaudí fix without the crowds, try some of the less well-known attractions such as Palau Güell.

hoardes of sunbathers on Barcelona beach with the W hotel in the background
Not my idea of paradise either.

The same is true of La Rambla. I do my best to avoid the place, though there are some plant sellers with more range than any other suburban places I’ve found.

La Boqueria is difficult: Going early; avoid the stalls that serve the tourists at the entrance; don’t get in the way of actual shoppers. Head to the back where you’ll find stalls like the amazing Bolets Petràs, specialising in all things mushroom, but also featuring a stunning selection of edible flowers and baby vegetables. This is not a tourist-focused business. And there are plenty more.

Hang around near the La Rambla entrance and you’re likely to want to punch a selfie-stick-weilding tourist – it isn’t great. If this your only experience, you may well think that tourism has ruined Barcelona. But the entrance to Boqueria isn’t Barcelona. Just a small microcosm.

And while paella in ‘a startling shade of chrome yellow’ is a sad reality, the dining scene in Barcelona is otherwise incredible, and arguably the city couldn’t support so many fabulous restaurants without tourism.

Retire the tropes

Burgen argues – or maybe the sub-editor does, it’s hard to know – that Barcelona was one ‘of the coolest destinations in Europe just two decades ago’. This is the standard backpacker trope that any destination was much better before it was ‘discovered’.

The crux of that trope is that we travellers (as opposed to tourists) have secret knowledge and are pioneers out in the big wide world ‘discovering’ new destinations. It rather ignores the fact that people already live in most of those destinations. It was a tired trope before low cost airlines and mass tourism, and it is well past time to retire it.

But I will concede a point. I first visited Barcelona around 30 years ago and did feel a sense of excitement about what I experienced.

The difference? Technology.

Travellers today are slaves to online rankings. Skip the top 10 ‘sights and landmarks’ on TripAdvisor if you want to get a taste of Barcelona without the mank, or at least be prepared to find crowds at these attractions.

Has technology ruined travel?

Unfortunately, the on-line-listicle culture does filter into the less-travelled lane. I started to notice queues forming near a favourite local restaurant (Arume) around its opening time, and it took me a while to figure out what that was going on. Somehow it had managed to take the top spot in TripAdvisor for being the best restaurant in town for paella, and thus the queues.

Compared to the ‘chrome yellow’ mush that passes for paella in most tourists places, Arume’s is actually quite good, but it’s hardly the best paella in town; TripAdvisor contributors are pretty easily led. It’s the other food at Arume that wins it for me. The bright side is that by the standard local 10pm dinnertime most tourists are already heading back to their hotels.

If the culture of unqualified recommendation in the lifestyle media wasn’t already bad enough, TripAdvisor takes it to a whole new level. (There’s a whole other blog post in this).

Behaving badly as a tourist doesn’t help – and Barcelona has more than its fair share of badly-behaved tourists. But despite that onslaught, Barcelona’s character is alive and well; you just need to do what the locals do and navigate away from the tourist crowds to find it.