~Airbnb battles: Would you stay with strangers?


by Tom Heyden (BBC News Magazine)

Home holiday lets company Airbnb have been accused in Amsterdam and New York of facilitating "illegal hotels". But why are so many people willing to open their doors to strangers, or indeed to stay with them? "Don't accept sweets from strangers" has been a familiar parental mantra for generations, but people seem increasingly happy to stay with someone they don't know.

Airbnb is a website matching up homeowners with tourists and backpackers wanting a place to stay. Set up in 2008, it's one of a wave of sites - like Wimdu, and Homestay - making money out of those seeking a bargain. The firm says it has listings in more than 35,000 cities in 192 countries. They do cover the luxury end of the market, but many of the customers of sites like Airbnb are trying to economise. Many indeed are backpackers travelling on a shoestring. Taking a spare room in someone's stunning flat overlooking the Eiffel Tower usually works out a lot cheaper than a room in a stunning hotel overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

There's a catch of course. These websites rely on customers and hosts overcoming their fear of strangers. Many of the lets on sites like Airbnb are whole flats, where the tourist stays surrounded by someone else's stuff, but with the run of the place. But it is also very common to get spare rooms in flats or houses where the owner actually lives. Tourists share with somebody they know nothing about. The owner allows complete strangers into his home.

The majority of users seem to report mainly positive experiences. The worst incidents encountered by Peter Tompkins, who began subletting his London flat last May, are that "a book goes missing or some cutlery goes out on a picnic and doesn't return". Yet a series of horror stories, related to the ransacking of apartments and potential identity theft in 2011, did prompt Airbnb to offer a public apology. They now provide a £600,000 insurance guarantee to their hosts, as well as a 24-hour support line.

Airbnb insist that their members are safe from the problems that plague the holiday rental industry. Posting a fake property and running off with the money is impossible, they claim, because Airbnb holds payment to the owner until 24 hours after check-in. But like so many socially oriented websites the service is principally self-regulated. Users rely on feedback scores.

Typical tourists can spend very little time in the flat, notes Tompkins. "The ones who want to try your home for the night are more difficult. They might turn up at 9am and not go until 6pm the next day. Not all guests go on a Christmas card list but I have not yet had a visitor I actually disliked. And they are gone after a few days - unlike a flat sharer."

But this does not preclude some awkward moments. Another user, "Bob", from Amsterdam, first entertained guests six months ago. When a French couple returned from a night indulging in the city's delights, the young woman fainted in the middle of his living room. But even with a guest passed out on his floor, he was "more surprised than frightened". "It turned into a good lesson for me as well. I gave much better advice about the city next time."

Bob started hosting due to a mixture of boredom and unemployment, but above all he was curious. And he believes it is mutual curiosity which provides a connection between hosts and travellers who have never met before. "The type of people means there are rarely problems. They are interested in your life and living like a local, while you get to meet people from all over the world."

But not everyone is a fan of Airbnb and the other informal stay websites. City governments in New York and Amsterdam have taken a stand, viewing many of the lets as "illegal hotels". In New York, renting out an entire apartment for under 30 days was made illegal in 2010. A quick search of Airbnb suggests this would apply to almost half the current listings in the area. Horror stories circulate about the possibility of big fines for hosts and visitors potentially being turfed out mid-let, but in practice enforcement is difficult in such a vast city.

Asked what it is doing about the issue of facilitating illegal letting, a spokesman says: "Airbnb is working closely with the City of New York to find a solution that works for all parties."

Arnie Weissmann, editor of Travel Weekly, predicts a more combative response from local government will come soon. The informal lets mean tourists avoid occupancy taxes and the city loses out. "This is where the battle will ultimately be fought. The city will recognise how much tax revenue they lose every time someone stays via Airbnb, and will begin to get much more aggressive about enforcement."

In Amsterdam, the government has used Airbnb listings to track down "illegal hotels" and shut them down - although they are typically targeting absent owners renting out whole apartments rather than individuals subletting a room. "These places are illegally rented out to tourists with no safety checks and without a permit," says Machteld Ligtvoet, press manager for the Amsterdam Tourism and Convention Board. "We cannot guarantee the safety of our visitors." Where "illegal hotels" have been raided in Amsterdam, tourists have sometimes been turfed out on to the street.

Despite the growing efforts at enforcement, the appeal of the likes of Airbnb remain. Anyone who has ever been to New York, or indeed London or Rome or Paris, knows hotel prices are eye-watering. Avoiding these feels like a coup. There's also a sense, fostered by the companies themselves with slogans such as "Travel like a human" and "Live like a local", that the likes of Airbnb and Onefinestay are the continuation of a decidedly non-commercial travel trend.

The website Couchsurfing, founded in 2003 and boasting 5.5 million members, has long been popular with backpackers for providing essentially the same service for nothing. The only charge is an optional $25 identity verification fee. "For many of our members, Couchsurfing represents a way of life," says Couchsurfing's David Cumpston.

"For me it's primarily a cultural motivation," says 26-year-old Colombian member Santiago Lopez Alvarez. "The best way to have a real travel experience is by sharing with local people. They give you a completely different perspective of the places you visit. "Of course, not paying for a bed is always a plus," he adds, "but I usually cook something for my host in return."

For most users, the unpredictability of who you meet is part of the experience. But there have been bad incidents. In 2009, a woman from Hong Kong was raped in Leeds by her host. "References are the most important factor," says Lopez, who has refused to host potential surfers without them. Just as consumers now regularly read customer reviews, whether going on holiday or buying an iron, users are encouraged to research each other. Lopez even goes a step further by checking the profiles of those who leave references, "just to make sure that the comments are real". "If you know how to use the website you will rarely have a bad experience."

But for many, the unnerving sense of being in somebody else's personal space will always be enough to push them to pay a little extra and stay in a hotel.


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