Some of Europe’s most beautiful cities are being overrun by tourists renting through websites including Airbnb, Expedia’s HomeAway and VRBO, destroying the character of neighborhoods and overwhelming local infrastructure. A group of Italian-based social entrepreneurs say they have found a better way.
Their solution is a cooperatively owned vacation-stay website called Fairbnb.coop, whose name sums up its aim. Working with local officials to reduce the negative impacts of tourists, Fairbnb plans to launch in six European cities by early August. Software development issues have pushed back the launch date from late June.
“We want to create a market solution that transforms tourism from a problem into an opportunity for local communities,” Emanuele Dal Carlo, a co-founder of Fairbnb, said in an interview with Karma.
While growing popularity of commercial accommodation sites such as Airbnb has put increased pressure on cities’ services, few hosts on the sites bother to collect the local taxes or other fees that hotels are obliged to pay to offset the impact of visitors.
Also, the owners of these sites have been reluctant to provide data to city officials so the scofflaws can be stopped or made to comply. And studies show an increasing number of rooms and homes available on these sites are mini-businesses devoted to short-term rentals, not local residents renting out a room occasionally to make some extra pocket cash.
Leaders in cities from Amsterdam to Barcelona, as well as San Francisco and Tokyo, have been hit by complaints from locals who fear the increased number of apartment dedicated to tourists are destroying the character of historic neighborhoods. Affordable housing advocates say the tourism rentals have led to a worsening shortage of apartments and homes priced for locals. Also, tourist-oriented stores have replaced shops that offering the goods and services needed by long-term residents, from shoemakers to grocery stores.
The basic problem, Dal Carlo said, is that only individual companies and homeowners benefit from the Airbnb-style of tourism, while the entire community suffers from the impact.
Cities are trying to fight back by taking action to restrict rentals, regulate the industry and impose taxes. Even so, more than 100 European cities were found to be “over-touristed” in a European Union report last year, Reuters reported. The article noted that a third of the properties surrounding Barcelona’s popular University Square, for instance, were listed for rent on Airbnb, while the city of 1.6 million struggles to absorb more than 30 million tourists a year, and residential rents have climbed more than 30% over the past five years.
Fairbnb says it can resolve much of that concern.
Its proposition is simple, the company notes on its website: It works together with municipalities to ensure all rented homes comply fully with local laws, and bars hosts who have more than one home for rent in any given city; half of the platform’s brokering fee is donated to a non-profit or community organization in the local community; and the platform is a grouping of locally-based cooperatives with its executives’ salaries capped.
Fairbnb plans to debut with about 500 rental listings in six cities across Europe: Venice, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Valencia, Bologna and Genoa, according to Dal Carlo. The first three are among the European cities hit hardest by the Airbnb trend. A fourth of Venice’s 40,000 homes and apartments are used as short-term rentals, said Dal Carlo, who lives there.
Other pilot cities, including Genoa and Bologna, are not yet overrun, but Fairbnb organizers in those towns want to tackle the problem before it happens, he said.
Fairbnb has been raising money to perfect its technology through a crowdsourcing campaign on Indiegogo, gathering about $12,000 of its $34,000 goal so far. A second crowdfunding campaign, on GoTeo.org, has raised about $8,500 to fund a five-city tour in Spain where the organizers hope to explain their project and sign up additional homeowners.
Dal Carlo and his colleagues launched their quest for a better platform as long-term residents of cities affected by the Airbnb-ification of their hometowns.
“This is not a quick-buck scheme,” said Dal Carlo. In fact, its cooperative structure is designed to ensure no single investor can take control and change the nature of the project, he said,
“We’re open to investors, but more like the impact investors interested in a social outcome,” he said. “Or it could be an angel investor, but don’t come expecting to be billionaires in two years.”
Cities hit by the tourist-rental problem have been eager to work with his team, said Dal Carlo, who added that they are meeting regularly with officials in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Bologna to work out details including how to collect hotel tax.
Marketing is not a major expense in Fairbnb’s plans. It plans to rely on press releases, conferences and word of mouth, hoping to attract local leaders who will set up Fairbnb “nodes” in major cities and tourist destinations. “We start as a social project,” Dal Carlo said. “It may be slower, but it powers the engagement of people around the world.”
The project aims to be in 120 cities by the end of 2021, with an average of 35 to 40 homes in each locality. If the project succeeds, they hope to be able to capture up to 5% of the home vacation rental market in about five years. But without the prospect of billions of dollars in profit, they know they can’t displace the existing market leaders.
“We’re not in this for money,” said Dal Carlo. “We hope the others will see us and say ‘Maybe these guys are on to something, maybe we need to rethink our model and copy them,’” Dal Carlo said. “And even if we fail, we are going to go to sleep with a clear conscience.”