The plight of Barcelona shows the damage Airbnb can do, exacerbating urban inequality and freezing out young locals, says Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff
The banner hung from a third-floor balcony, unfurling itself almost all the way down to the cobbles of the square. Barcelona no est en venda, it read, inlarge hand-painted letters: the city is not for sale. It wasnt the first such slogan wed seen in only an hour or so strolling around the narrow, winding streets of Barcelonas beautiful old quarter last week, and naturally our curiosity was piqued. Something to do with gentrification, or developers maybe? Well, partly. But, disconcertingly, it turned out to have quite alot to dowith people like us, and possibly you too.
Or to be more precise, with the multibillion-pound global phenomenon that is Airbnb. As it happens, Im boringly old school enough to have stayed in a hotel this time, but the airport bus was full of young families chattering about picking up their flat keys via the site that is famous for letting people rent their houses out to strangers. And Barcelona is far from the only place in which Airbnb is accused of turning summer sour.
Amsterdam is heavily restricting short-term lets by residents after street protests against the swamping ofthe city by tourists last year. Its the same story from Paris to Berlin, Venice to Lisbon. Even in Cornwall, atthe height of this summers heatwave, tourist chiefs took the unusual step of asking holidaymakers to avoid some popular beaches after coastal roads became gridlocked, leaving locals struggling to get on with their daily lives. People in Cornwall are more than used to being overrun in August, but lately something seems to be upsetting the eternally delicate balance between grockle and local, and chief suspect seems to be an unplanned, somewhat unpredictable explosion in Airbnb lets on top of the longstanding hotel and holiday cottage trade.
At least in the West Country things tend to calm down in September. Barcelona is a city-break destination practically all year round, which means its struggling with more than just a surfeit of drunken stag parties and queues outside tapas bars. Landlords have realised they can make more money out of short lets to well-off Airbnb users than from renting to conventional tenants who live and work in the city year round, so when contracts come up for renewal its not uncommon to find the rent suddenly shooting up to levels that young Spaniards cant pay. Once theyre forced out of the neighbourhood, the empty flat promptly disappears into whats still sometimes euphemistically known as the sharing economy, although what happens next sounds like the antithesis of sharing. Those lucky enough to own a desirable property get steadily luckier, by pimping it out to the highest bidders. Meanwhile, those who dont have such an asset become ever less likely to get one, as property prices are pushed up across the city. Thus does inequality harden, and resentment deepen, while the failure of mainstream parties to solve the problem drives the young and frustrated ever closer to the political fringes.
The young woman in a Barcelona barbers shop who matter-of-factly explained what the slogans were about, while running her scissors over my husband, had long ago given up on buying in the city where she grew up. But now shes not even sure how long shell be able to rent. The tourists dilemma has always been that descending on idyllic places tends to ruin them for people who live there, but whats unusual in this case isthat the effects run so deep.
So much for the earnestly hippyish vibe of the original Airbnb model, which was supposed to be all about creating a cosy-sounding global community by linking up adventurous strangers in search of more authentic, home-from-home travel experiences. And so much, too, for the idea of democratising the travel industry by letting the little guy make a buck on the side. In some tourist hotspots Airbnb is now morphing from an amateur operation into a slick professional one, with landlords amassing multiple properties just as they once did with buy-to-let, and using agencies to manage their burgeoning empires.
The romantic, if sometimes risky, fantasy of swapping lives with a local for a few nights and seeing the city through their eyes is being replaced with a more corporate, impersonal experience. Sign here for the keys; check out promptly in time for the next guest to arrive. Too bad that what could have been a young couples starter flat is now just another asset to be sweated, and one that probably stands empty half the time.