Pondering the Ethics of Airbnb

Join me in this clip as I recall sleeping in a B&B in Salema, Portugal — back when life was “all sardines and sun,” and fishermen’s families doubled their income by renting rooms to travelers.

These days, websites like Airbnb have revolutionized the travel industry. Many love this service, but others believe it’s unethical. In some cities, the demand for rooms from tourists has driven up rents, forcing some of the original residents to move to less charming but more affordable neighborhoods — and changing the character of the community. You can see this in Rome (around Piazza Navona), in Amsterdam (the Jordaan district), in Barcelona (the Ramblas isn’t what it used to be) — and in many other once-vibrant and charming neighborhoods that now are just plain touristy. Many locals blame Airbnb. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

Here’s a new sidebar on this issue that we’re considering adding to our Rick Steves guidebooks:

The Ethics of Airbnb

Airbnb.com is becoming a dominant provider of accommodations across Europe, allowing travelers to rent rooms and apartments directly from locals.

Fans of Airbnb appreciate the feeling of being part of a real neighborhood, getting into a daily routine as “temporary Europeans.” In this way, Airbnb can facilitate genuine cultural connection more effectively than sleeping in impersonal, crank-’em-out hotels. If you’re willing to forego big-hotel amenities like a reception desk and daily cleaning, you can get much more space for your money. And, depending on the host, Airbnb can provide an opportunity to get to know a local person, while keeping your accommodations money in the community.

Critics view Airbnb as a threat to “traditional Europe.” Some believe Airbnb creates unfair, unqualified competition for well-established B&B owners…forcing some out of business. And in many cities, the lucrative Airbnb market is driving up property values beyond the reach of first-time home buyers, costing downtown neighborhoods some of their local vitality. In some places, authorities are cracking down, requiring that rental properties be occupied by the property owners for at least part of the year – and sometimes even staging disruptive “inspections” that inconvenience guests.

As an advocate for travelers, I appreciate the value and cultural intimacy Airbnb provides. But as a lover of Europe, I share the worry of those who see longtime residents and local home buyers nudged aside by tourists. In the end, each traveler has to decide whether Airbnb is right for them.

(BTW, the clip at the end of the above video is from Portugal’s Heartland, a 2001 episode of our TV show…but it seems like it’s from a different age. Back then, tourists visiting Portuguese towns were ambushed by women offering cheap rooms — a practice that frustrated conventional hotels. Now, those women are gone, but hotels have something much more threatening to worry about: online room-sharing services.)