Many cities around the world are moving towards strong restrictions on short-term rentals as well as other tourism activities. Everywhere from New York City to Venice to Barcelona to Amsterdam to New Orleans to Nashville; government bodies are listening to communities and lobbyists and are putting in place blanket bans or otherwise threatening strong restrictions on short-term rentals. Not only this, but mainstream media coverage is often overwhelmingly ‘anti-Airbnb’ when it comes to urban centres.  

The fact is, many highly attractive cities and destinations do have legitimate concerns around over-tourism and the management of the growth of not only short-term rentals but also an exploding tourist population. “Amsterdam, home to 1.1 million people, attracts more than 17 million visitors a year when including day-trippers and Dutch locals.” 

In addition, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) released a study in late 2018, revealing that present trends in air transport suggest that passenger numbers could double to 8.2 billion by 2037. That’s a great many visitors. (Obviously, the recent events around the threat of COVID-19 and the impact this will have on mid to long-term international travel predictions are unknown.)

It’s a little like the analogy of the chicken and the egg. Which came first? Did the demand for new travel experiences and greater lodging options from a burgeoning travelling community create an opportunity for the explosion of Airbnb and the growth of the short-term rentals? Or has the increase in choice and supply of lodging options beyond traditional hotels helped to create greater opportunity for travellers of all income levels to enjoy a destination. Of course, low-cost flights, lowering of travel restrictions, increase in expendable wealth and a desire for greater experiences also have a significant influence.

But perhaps it’s just been easy, as short-term rentals are considered the ‘new kids on the hospitality block’, to make the industry the scapegoat for what actually is an issue that requires a much deeper, more collaborative and a certainly more creative solution than just ‘let’s blame all tourism and housing issues on the rise of Airbnb’.  

In reality, Airbnb and the growth of the sharing economy have democratised travel. As a result of the increase of short-term rentals, more people can access more locations for (often, but not always) a lower price and with greater choice.

The vacation and short-term rental industry has also created more jobs, greater opportunity for entrepreneurship through property management, increased wealth for owners and more tourism dollars spent locally. Legitimized, the industry also contributes increased tax income that can be ploughed back into a community to support infrastructure and sustainable growth. 

When I interviewed Greg Holcomb, VRMA’s Government Relations Director, and Scott Leggat, VRMA Board member and CEO of Local Social Inc last year, we talked, in part, about how simplified it is to look at the issue of regulations and managing growth as a ‘one size fits all’ for each location. Although there are parallels, there should not be a blanket approach to restrictions and short-term rentals. It’s not realistic, nor helpful. 

For instance, I’m very fortunate to live in the beautiful city of Bath. We’ve always attracted visitors who come to see the Roman Baths, enjoy the Georgian architecture, the rolling green countryside and the plentiful shops, dining experiences and outdoor activities. We also happen to have a very good day spa, so the city has become a bit of a mecca for groups of Bachelorette (Hen) parties that descend upon the city on a Friday night and leave a little worse for wear, but much relaxed on a Sunday. 

Analysis of Airbnb and HomeAway showed that the number of short-term lets in the city increased more than threefold from 476 in 2016 to 1,450 in 2019. Many of these rentals are large ‘party apartments’ in the centre of town to accommodate the groups of Hens. 

The friction here is that some of the properties were in fact perfectly good office premises, and so our available stock for attracting new businesses or housing start-ups is lessened (they can’t rent anywhere). The Hens can be disruptive in the neighbourhood (after a late night out). They only ever visit Friday-Saturday so during the week the homes are left empty which further impacts the community fabric. However, we also want them to come and enjoy our city, spend money (in 2019, according to Visit Bath, hen parties contributed more than £66.5 million to the Bath economy) and hopefully return with their partners/families at another time – contributing even more to the visitor economy of the city.

As you can see, the issues are complex. There is no quick fix. But burying our heads in the sand hoping the problem of regulations will go away, or that someone else will sort it out for us, is not the answer. 

As an industry, and as part of the growing professionalisation of property management, it’s imperative that we all take a lead, alongside VRMA, the STAA, the Professional Host Alliance and other industry associations, in the conversations around managing growth in all facets of travel/hospitality that works for everyone. 

This article is adapted from one published in VRMA’s Arrival magazine, Issue 6, December 2020

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