November 10, 2018
Airbnbs and Hotels: Can we get along?
I recently had the good fortune of celebrating my 10th wedding anniversary. This was a big milestone for me and my wife, so we wanted to do something special to celebrate. That something special? Eating our way through Italy.
Having now returned from this trip of a lifetime, I wanted to share some observations from our travels.
Airbnb and short-term rentals truly provide a superior product for certain situations
We have a 2 and a half year old daughter, and while many people would think a trip like this should just be us, we really wanted to experience it along with her. We also are fortunate that my in-laws live in Europe. Therefore, having them join us was pretty cheap and easy. This gave us the best of both worlds. We got to spend our days and some nights touring the country with our whole family. Then, we baked in babysitters for the times we wanted it to just be the two of us.
With that many people, hotels can get expensive. With cribs, car seats, and all the luggage our tiny human seemingly requires, hotels can also get very crowded. For this reason, we spent almost the entire trip staying in Airbnbs. And what an experience it was. In each city we were more and more impressed by the apartments we rented, and the people who hosted us within them. From our 3 bedroom flat right by the Trevi Fountain in Rome to our rooftop 3 bedroom loft on the Ponte Vecchio in Firenze and our ultra modern 3 bedroom apartment in the center of Bologna. At each stop our host greeted us in person, provided tips on what to see and do that only a local would know, and provided extras from bottles of wine to freshly baked pastries. It was magical.
In each of these apartments we had our own bedrooms, our own bathrooms, a full kitchen, and lots of living space besides. And we got all of this for about the same price as a single room in a less conveniently located hotel would have cost us. We were seriously impressed.
The much maligned “over tourism” problem is modern in more ways than one
Though we were in Italy outside of peak season, it was still swarmed with tourists from all over the world. The main sites were packed, as were the streets and walkways. More than once my wife and I commented on how difficult it would be to live in some of these areas full time if you really needed to get to work or school each day, having to dodge tourists who were clearly in no rush whatsoever.
Thus, what we saw was a good illustration of “overtourism” originally highlighted by Skift, but more recently picked up by more mainstream outlets like The Economist. And yet for all of the backlash other cities and parts of the world like Barcelona, Paris, and Amsterdam are experiencing against this “problem,” the locals in the cities where we were staying seemed far more sanguine about their visitors. They seemed to have adapted, and in many cases embraced what tourism, and the tourists it brings also brings to them, their city, and their local economy.
This is just a hypothesis, but my belief is that this is because Italy has had much longer than virtually anywhere else in the world to adapt to tourism. Travelers, first from Europe but increasingly from further afield, have been visiting Italy and what it has to offer for literally hundreds, if not nearly a thousand years. Italy’s 2,000+ year history, and the place that history holds in people’s imagination from the Colosseum and the Forum to Pompeii and the canals of Venice, predate even the Renaissance. While cheap air travel and Airbnbs may have recently made traveling more attainable for more and more people, the idea of tourists overrunning your city is so far from new to many Italians. They’ve had time to figure out how to adapt and get the most from what tourists have to offer, while limiting their downside impact.
Hopefully it doesn’t take the rest of the world 1,000+ years to figure out the same. A good place to start would be to look at cities like Rome and Florence. See what they’ve done, and are doing, to not just address this “problem” but embrace the opportunity it provides.
There’s still a time and place for hotels
As perfect as Airbnbs were for the vast majority of our trip, there were a couple of times that hotels simply made more sense. Twice we traveled through an area for a single day/night, and in such a situation the convenience of having a full time onsite staff, people to help with the luggage, a taxi stand right out front, and no extra cleaning fees, to load onto the nightly rate, made hotels the better choice for us (not to mention the pools the hotels had that my daughter loved).
This made me realize that while Airbnb and short-term rentals provided a superior product in many instances, such instances were highly context-dependent. It’s not that one mode of accommodation is inherently better than another. It’s that, depending on the traveler and the traveler’s needs at that given time and in that given situation, there’s now an accommodation type that can perfectly fit them. Sometimes it’s a vacation rental. Sometimes an Airbnb. And sometimes it’s a big box hotel. These alternatives don’t have to be in competition with one another. Ideally they can be symbiotic in fulfilling travelers needs (e.g., see the partnership between Marriott and Hostmaker).
It’s a big world, but one increasingly accessible by travel. There will be teething troubles along the way from locals unsure how to react to tourists in their backyard, to legacy business unsure how to respond to innovative alternatives. But with the travel industry expected to grow at more than twice the rate of global GDP over the next several decades, the sooner we can all figure out how to play together nicely, the better for all of us involved.