Airbnb is a for-profit, private online platform that facilitates the supply and demand of tourist accommodation (taking a commission on each transaction) between hosts (individuals or businesses) and users. Founded in 2008 in San Francisco, California, USA, by Brian Chesky (co-founder with Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk and current CEO of the company) under the name of “Airbed and Breakfast”, it has centralised millions of housing offers for short-term rentals.
We have seen a shift in Airbnb’s business model, which in addition to offering short-term rentals for individuals, sought to diversify into other activities, some accommodation-related, such as luxury hotels, serviced apartments and hotel booking platforms, and others not, such as experiences and activities, air travel and tourism video production. The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 brought this shift to a halt (Piganiol, 2020).
With a user-friendly and aesthetic interface, but also an algorithm designed to maximise digital, peer-to-peer (Yannopoulou et al. 2013) intermediation, the company makes it very easy for tourists around the world to connect with people who have underutilised or unused real estate and wish to earn income from it.
Initially presented as part of the sharing economy, it is now associated with a form of “platform capitalism” (Srnicek, 2017), a concept that encompasses host “professionalisation”, economic predation, market domination, and rental market deregulation.
Economic integration and geographic expansion
Airbnb is a business with a global sphere of action. It operates according to a reticular logic. With one main office and ten “regional” offices located in the main markets where the firm is established, it “manages” millions of listings (Gallagher, 2018) located in more than 191 countries, although it does not “own” any of these properties. Perfectly integrated into the globalised tourist system, which it is (re)shaping, the platform acts as an online “catalogue”, centralising the supply and demand in a single virtual space (Beckouche, 2019).
Airbnb has intensified the “home-sharing” process, which was already developed through the Couchsurfing platform (Decrop and DeGroote, 2014), by encouraging more people to participate, leading to an “industrialisation” of traveller accommodation worldwide. The US multinational was founded and grew in a highly competitive economic and sectoral ecosystem. It had to break into regions where the tourist accommodation market was already firmly established.
Despite this, the company was able to quickly scale up and rival the legacy hospitality market, including the large hotel groups (Marriott Int., OYO, Jing Jiang Int. Hotels Group, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Accor, etc.), which it “disrupted” (especially low-star hotels with low price points) by exploiting the lax or non-existent regulations in terms of safety, taxes, employment status, etc., and by offering more attractive rates (Zervas et al., 2014; Gallic and Malardé, 2018). It also overtook the emerging new players in short term rentals, including digital platforms (Booking.com, Abritel HomeAway, TripAdvisor, GuestReady, etc.).
Airbnb not only provides the means to connect with tourists around the world, but also provides the framework for interaction. It is one of the ways to connect the global alterity, which are the different social, cultural, political and tourist realities that were previously separated, but also one of the ways to “tame” the distance.
Airbnb, as a digital platform, serves as a mediator. It is defined as much by what it connects as by what is connected. The apparent “disintermediation” established by Airbnb, resulting from the removal of intermediaries between the producer and consumer, actually refers to the reinsertion of a form of “re-mediation” between the different actors registered on the site (hosts/guests).
Through its platform, Airbnb replaces traditional tourist accommodation intermediaries (commercial accommodation professionals, travel agencies, tourist offices, etc.), and weakens or even eliminates traditional tourist accommodation mediations. All this hides the fact that Airbnb is privatising and confiscating the supply of accommodation and, under the guise of making the rental mechanism (supply/demand) more transparent and direct, is in fact introducing a mode of management that is opaque, locked and totally controlled (algorithms, reviews and ratings, ranking of hosts, etc.).
The default users of Airbnb are still tourists looking for accommodation for their (future) stays. However, the platform’s initial use was quickly subverted. It is now being used not just to find short-term tourist accommodation, but also to find longer-term housing, places for private events, and even primary residences. Accommodation is no longer just “wanted” but also “needed” and “constrained” by the market.
As a result, the typology of Airbnb residents has changed somewhat. In addition to tourists, there are workers, students, people renting month-to-month, party animals, prostitutes, etc. It remains difficult to determine whether Airbnb is one of the causes or consequences of this diversification of users and uses.
Spatiality and Territorial Distribution
The analysis of Airbnb’s spatiality varies depending on the scale considered (see this article). On a small scale in France – the company’s second largest market with over 600,000 listings, behind the United States – Airbnb’s territorial organisation follows a logic of coastal and metropolitan development. At other levels, other dynamics coexist, with listings concentrated in and around urban centres, and spreading slightly outwards into surrounding areas, and properties over-represented in tourist hotspots (beach resorts, mountain resorts, tourist cities, theme parks, etc.).
This is evident in Bordeaux. Although listings may “pop up” anywhere in the city as well as on the outskirts, the majority of Airbnb’s offerings in Bordeaux are located in the historic centre, already heavily visited by tourists, where the highest population densities are found. This includes hyper-central areas such as the Triangle d’Or, the city hall, Meriadeck, the Chartrons neighbourhood, the left bank of the Garonne from the Porte de Bourgogne to the Cité du Vin, around the Flèche Saint-Michel, and peri-central areas like Saint-Jean station and its adjacent areas, along the tramway lines, on the right bank around Stalingrad and Avenue Thiers, etc. Ultimately, while the number of potential tourist service providers has expanded with the development of the platform, thanks to the increased role of “amateurs” (Flichy, 2010), the hosts are reinforcing an already established tourist offering rather than creating a new one.
Factors for Success
The success factors for Airbnb are both structural and situational. Structural factors include having a “universalising” concept, the ability to quickly reach a critical mass (in terms of number of housing units and hosts), low or no fixed costs, high responsiveness and adaptability, the absence of specific regulations and tax laws, and the use of powerful, intuitive, scalable technical and technological systems.
Situational factors include the birth of the company during the subprime crisis of 2008, which led to a decline in living standards in many developed countries (stagnation or decrease in income), increased public awareness of sustainability issues, a desire for better compensation for “producers” and support for attempts to disrupt practices that had been in place up to that point.
Also, tourists were dissatisfied with the excessive standardisation and lack of flexibility of hotel offerings, which offered little or no possibility to customise stays according to individual aspirations.
For tourists, the main arguments in favour of Airbnb are cost savings, the desire for contact or “mixing with locals”, personalised stays, and a unique “experience” while fostering the myth, fantasy, and illusion of authenticity.
Airbnb democratises travel by allowing previously non-travelling populations to do so. The flexibility in terms of accommodating guests (such as families with children or infants, large groups of friends, etc.) and habitability (such as flexible hours and hospitality adapted to personal conditions) is a major advantage. Finally, guests say they appreciate the diversity, originality, and multitude of Airbnb offerings.
For hosts, hosting tourists generates additional, sometimes substantial, income, as part of the “housing economy”, and enables them to maintain or even acquire real estate. It also promotes social interactions and exposure to alterity without leaving home. For the regions concerned, the platform contributes to a better distribution of tourist accommodations, by increasing the possibilities of finding places to stay in diverse areas, while reducing pressure in the areas that accommodate the most visitors, and to some extent, orienting tourist flows to less busy areas.
Finally, this results in “spin-off effects” for local economies, particularly for local stores, but also for a whole range of sub-contractors, including concierge services, property management agencies, cleaning companies, translators, left luggage services, guides, photographers, etc.
Strategies of Hosts and Guests
From a geographical perspective, we can examine the hosts’ housing strategies by looking at how they rent their property on the platform. How to create the most visible advertisement to attract tourists while standing out from the competition? Which local or regional tourist amenities should be highlighted and how? Which parts of the property should be photographed to be inserted into the advertisement? How should the rental activity be managed day-to-day? What is the added value provided by the host to the tourists during their stay? Etc.
Tourists also use strategies when selecting the best possible accommodation for their stay. This selection is based on the host’s profile (their status and “quality” as rated by other guests), the amenities near the property (a busy, festive, or quiet neighbourhood, many museums, etc.), the characteristics of the property itself (equipment provided, room layout, available space, views from the property, etc.), access to the property (near a road or highway, airport, train station, etc.), parking (car park, reserved parking spaces, etc.), and ways to get around once there (near a public transportation station, motorway, etc.).
Other factors include the profile of the tourists (couple, friends, family with children, etc.), the purpose of the stay (sightseeing, shopping, rest, party, etc.), the type of tourism (circuits with stages, visiting a single location, etc.), and the means of transportation used for these activities. In the end, there are as many tourist strategies as there are tourists and Airbnb properties available, and these can coexist in the same space-time.
“Airbnb-style” tourist accommodations
Staying with a host through Airbnb is one way of experiencing tourist housing, in terms of the relationship with space and being in a tourist situation (Lazzarotti, 2018). By delegating the role of official host to those who accommodate tourists, Airbnb changes the host-tourist relationship.
Residents are no longer just part of the scenery, sometimes visited and often kept at a distance, but become active participants and true hosts. They open their home to strangers and develop new tourist skills by providing advice and recommendations (on things to do and see, where to eat) and directly influencing the tourist’s stay. As a result, the host becomes a full-fledged tourist operator (Flichy, 2010).
Airbnb, or My Neighbour the Tourist
Tensions are emerging around this tourist housing mode, due to the discordance with other ways of living in and sharing the same place. This leads to a co-presence and forced cohabitation between temporary (tourists) and permanent (residents) populations, and the coexistence of sometimes conflicting activities (recreation, leisure, rest, work, transportation, etc.) in the same space-time. Given this “forced” intrusion into a private condominium community, for example, the common areas are occupied and shared by an endless stream of new people with whom it is not possible to socialise or “contractualise,” even implicitly (from the viewpoint of other building residents).
All of this results in conflicts between tourists and permanent residents (neighbours, passersby, hosts), between tourists themselves (Airbnb users or not), or between permanent residents (Airbnb hosts or not). Tourists come from elsewhere, they are the expression of the world’s alterity, they live differently and above all, they live in the daily space of others. Airbnb therefore tends to blur the boundaries of “everyday life” with those of “the travel experience” (Delaplace and Simon, 2017; Crozat and Alves, 2018). Competition for space, in its uses, values, and temporalities, is exacerbated by the increase in Airbnb rentals.
From sporadic tensions to generalised conflicts…
Despite conflictual processes inherent at each geographical level (Bouquet, Vacher, and Vye, 2019), most conflicts related to Airbnb arise in large cities, essentially because the accommodation offering there is higher than elsewhere, and co-presence situations are numerous (Stors and Kagermeier, 2015).
Airbnb has faced strong criticism from academics, citizens, and politicians (Aguilera et al., 2019) who decry the visible and lasting consequences of its presence. Airbnb raises major political controversies in most key global tourist cities (London, Paris, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Lisbon, Venice, etc.). The digital intermediation provided by the platform has triggered major changes in the material production of the city (Mermet and Söderström, 2020), blurring the boundaries between housing and tourist accommodations (Stabrowski, 2017).
The consequences are numerous: deregulation of local real estate markets, exacerbation of the housing crisis in city centres (Gurran and Phibbs, 2017), exacerbation of “tourist gentrification” (Cocola-Gant, 2016), relocation of the economically most vulnerable populations to the outskirts of cities, unfair competition with traditional commercial accommodation (Zervas et al., 2014), contributing to over-tourism in some destinations, modification of social, cultural, and identity environments of certain neighbourhoods, conflicts between permanent and temporary residents, damage to homes, etc.
These negative effects tend to be highly publicised, as evidenced by the sensational language used by some media to quantify this deployment and qualify the relationship with urban areas: “colonisation,” “war,” “predation,” “confiscation,” “destruction,” “aggression,” “impacts,” “destroyer of cities,” “destructuration,” “destabilisation,” “killer,” etc. Without minimising the already mentioned consequences, Airbnb is often singled out as the culprit of the over-tourism and negative changes in tourist spaces. Airbnb is consistently criticised and blamed for the problems caused by tourism, whereas other companies operating under the same principles are seen as less responsible.
In any case, faced with the increasing number of tourists in cities – over-tourism – and tourist practices that are now year-round and desynchronised, Airbnb’s place remains to be defined: is the company a factor and/or a product of these changes? What is its precise role in the transformations seen in tourist practices today?
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