Last June my family and I decided we’d give life in Portugal a go. Since then a lot of our life has revolved around a little island(ish) called Baleal Island. It’s surrounded by surf beaches and is insanely beautiful! We’re very lucky! Gabs and I visited the place almost 2 years ago on a romantic holiday and we feel super grateful to have lived (and got married) in a place that most people visit on vacation.
As you can probably guess… we’re from that microcosm. The ‘live from a laptop & use Airbnb a lot' microcosm. And after a year here I really do see a dark side to the microcosm I’ve fed. Let me explain. When we moved here, we first rented a place on AirBnb for a month and then tried our best to find a spot near the beach but couldn’t. It’s not that there weren’t apartments available, there are tonnes of empty flats. We just couldn’t find anywhere that accepted long term rentals. Only a month or two max. The reason is that in the summer, they rent apartments out for loads of money to tourists. The implications of this is that there is an island and a heavenly coastline full of empty apartments in the off season. So locals who grew up here before the surf crowds moved in have gradually, over the years, moved from the beautiful coast to the nearest village, and to the next one, and to the next one… and so on.
In short, most locals can’t afford to live by their beach anymore. This type of economic dynamic and ‘gentrification’ has been the case for a while in many places, but AirBnb has got to take a chunk of the blame no? Under the umbrella of the ‘sharing’ economy, more and more flats are hugely expensive in the summer and rented out to wealthy foreigners, and in the winter, those flats aren’t shared at all. Why bother with the hassle of renting long term to a local family for little profit when you can rent short term for a few months for lots of profit? The renters of course try to bypass AirBnb where they can. After all AirBnb isn’t owned by either of its customer sets, not the home owners, nor the guests. The value of the company isn’t shared but rather hoarded by faceless shareholders and meanwhile 100s of locals gradually move further and further away from the surf spot they grew up with. As for the flats themselves, they tend to be soulless and cold. They’re not people’s homes that are rented out to people on holiday. You don’t get a sense somebody is sharing their home with you. AirBnb had that lovely feeling at first, but now they’re all managed by estate agencies so even that bit of human touch is gone too. No book shelfs to look through trying to figure out who your host is like a game of Cluedo anymore. That’s gone. It’s about the money and the apartment being as stark as possible to not invest or have to repair anything.
Now, time to admit something. I belong to both of these microcosms. I’m an AirBnb guest and host. A few years ago my sister and I bought a little flat in the Alps. I initially intended to spend a good chunk of my time there but life took me a different direction and now it is empty most of the year and rented out on AirBnb the rest of the time. We actually make very little money on it, but that’s not the point. The point is that somebody else could live there. All year round. I don’t understand the local economics well enough but my assumption is: foreigners and city slickers buy small properties, never use them whilst locals and full timers either can’t afford to buy them or can’t rent them for any meaningful duration. Prices goes up. Usage goes down. The economy gradually becomes more and more dependent on fewer and fewer months and a narrower and narrower set of industries resulting in a less and less resilient economy. Systemic fragility.
No wonder locals often have a dual relationship with tourists. On the one side they bring energy and money for a few months, on the other hand communities get damaged. Again, this has no doubt been true of most tourist destinations for a long time but I’m pretty sure that AirBnb and its niche of the so-called sharing economy hasn’t ‘shared’ or ‘democratised’ much other than the democratisation of community damaging utilitarian tourism where the home owner pretends to themselves that they are 'a local’ and that they “belong anywhere” (AirBnb’s slogan). At least hotels hire locals. And building hotels can require local builders. The damage seems more visible because you see a huge hotel be built, but the gradual invisible buying out of private property at the detriment of local communities is happening underground in a way that the damage is only visible with a distant delay.
Actually, in the case of Airbnb the damage is pretty visible. A few years ago, I visited their HQ in San Francisco. It’s beautiful! Like stunningly designed. But turn left or right outside and you’ll no doubt find a bunch of tents on the next street corner. The contrast is pretty harrowing. Homelessness is an epidemic there but so long as the offices include bean bags, bike racks and baristas, all is good. The incentives are stacked against communities to the benefit shareholders. The small movement towards cooperatives platforms (where the network owns the platform rather than shareholders) is promising though and is a part of the suite of ideas I think we need to put our energy into.
So is sharing always caring? Well, actual sharing is. But so-called sharing isn’t. I think it’s important our society gradually questions the big tech companies (of which Airbnb is nowhere near from being the worst!) and that we educate ourselves and each other about the underlying mechanics of their business models, design decisions and the implications of a mass-unquestioned-adoption of their platforms in the name of ease.
I used to say that if we bought something cheap, then our bargain was paid for by somebody else or by the planet. The digital economy is much the same for ease. The ease gained by Airbnb, results in a very real struggle for locals. The price is paid far away from our eyes by somebody else. Guilt free.
As for Gabs, Ivor and I, we think we’ll be moving back to the UK soon. And my sister and I have started chatting about potentially selling our flat in the next few years. We don’t know yet. Nothing rash. But I do know that in the future I’ll try to think a little more deeply about the implications of ‘living the dream’. I’m sure there are ways to live it without my dream contributing to others’ nightmare or without feeding the wrong beast.