European tourist magnets hit back as Airbnb turns 10

Airbnb is worth an estimated $31 billion and has a stock of five million accommodation units advertising with it globally in 81,000 cities across some 200 countries. (AFP)
Updated 04 July 2018
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European tourist magnets hit back as Airbnb turns 10

  • Ten years on, Airbnb is worth an estimated $31 billion and has a stock of five million accommodation units advertising with it globally in 81,000 cities across some 200 countries
  • Despite the turbulence it has thrown up, professionals recognize that Airbnb has contributed to the sector’s positive overall development

PARIS: Facing competition from Airbnb, which will celebrate a decade this summer, top European attractions such as Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Barcelona are out to revamp their own offerings.
The move is to keep rental prices in check yet keep supply healthy as Airbnb continues to be a thorn in the side of hoteliers, ten years on from its August 11, 2008 debut as Airbed & Breakfast.
After several false starts, the web-based phenomenon emerged in the public glare of that year’s Democratic National Convention in Denver to offer a competitive alternative to a “saturated” hotel market and, as one of its co-founders said, “a way to make a few bucks.”
Ten years on, Airbnb is worth an estimated $31 billion and has a stock of five million accommodation units advertising with it globally in 81,000 cities across some 200 countries.
Those statistics make it a standout success story of the sharing economy as it responds to “rising touristic and professional demand for independent and more spacious centrally-located accommodation in large cities,” reported France’s urbanism association Apur last month.
The hotel industry is less sold on the success of what has become a big rival eating into its business without being subject to the same legal and fiscal constraints.
Municipal authorities have also expressed “numerous misgivings,” notes Apur, finding Airbnb-style rentals have driven up prices to the extent many major European cities as well as New York and Tokyo have embarked upon a regulatory offensive.
Paris, Airbnb’s number one market globally with some 60,000 rentals, has already faced legal challenges along with rival Wimdu. Authorities have also clamped down harder on owners not respecting legal requirements with some already hit with fines after the French parliament voted though a package of action last month.
Paris, having already last year capped the maximum number of days permitted for a short-term let to 120 annually, also said in April it would sue Airbnb and Wimdu for failing to remove ads from people not properly declaring their properties.
Spanish cities have tried hard to put the squeeze on private landlords by, for example, limiting offerings to ground floor apartments which also afford provision of a private entrance.
Palma de Mallorca is seeking an outright ban after seeing such rentals soar 40 percent between 2013 and 2017.
In Madrid, where some 9,000 apartments are up for rent — around 2,000 of them unlicensed — the radical leftist city authorities are seeking by the end of this year to introduce a 95 percent tax rate for legal rentals.
On the Mediterranean coast Barcelona has also taken up the cudgels amid protests from residents of districts drowned in a sea of tourists ready to party noisily at all hours.
The city authorities now say no new licenses will be granted to single apartments based in the historic city center.
Amsterdam back in December 2016 signed an accord it hailed as “unique in Europe” with Airbnb banning rentals beyond 60 days a year.
Berlin, which has seen real estate prices soar in recent years, had months earlier passed one of the continent’s strictest regimes to hobble further Airbnb expansion entailing the rental of a maximum one room in one’s dwelling with 100,000 euros ($110,000 fines) as a deterrent.
Even so, since May, that has been relaxed to allow renting out one’s entire private apartment.
On June 15, representatives from Amsterdam, Barcelona, Lisbon, Madrid and Paris — with Berlin absent but associated — met to “take stock of the extent of the phenomenon and compare public policy,” said Ian Brossat, tasked with rental affairs at Paris city hall.
Furthermore, a dozen European municipalities are to meet on Thursday in Brussels before holding autumn follow-up talks with EU internal market commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska.
“We are up against doublespeak from the platform (Airbnb) which, on the one hand, says it is going to play it by the rules and yet, on the other, indulges in intense lobbying in Brussels,” Brossat said.
Various rental tourism operators have filed complaints with the European Commission to contest national legislation of France, Spain, Belgium and Germany but for the time being it does not foresee the opening of violation procedures against one of these countries.
Despite the turbulence it has thrown up, professionals recognize that Airbnb has contributed to the sector’s positive overall development.
“I’m very much an admirer. They have done remarkable work in facilitating reservation, trip preparation, and the placing in contact with and very rapid exchange of information with the host,” Fabrice Collet, director general of France’s B&B group, said.
He adds their pricing strategy “has enabled families to travel who previously were not able to do so.”


Influencer invasion as Pakistan launches tourism push

Updated 24 April 2019
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Influencer invasion as Pakistan launches tourism push

  • Cricketer-turned-prime-minister Imran Khan is keen to promote the nation’s tourism potential
  • The push has resulted in an influx of foreign travel bloggers extolling the virtues of its mountains and beaches

ISLAMABAD: They are young, Western, and full of praise for Pakistan: Travel influencers have moved in on the “land of the pure,” but critics warn their rose-tinted filters are irresponsible and sell an inaccurate picture of the conservative, militancy-scarred country.
As security improves, cricketer-turned-prime-minister Imran Khan is keen to promote the nation’s tourism potential, with the government claiming it has eased visa restrictions for many foreign visitors.
The push has resulted in an influx of foreign travel bloggers extolling the virtues of its mountains and beaches, as well as its rich heritage and history, from ancient Indus civilizations to Buddhist shrines and Islamic monuments.
“Pakistan, it was the trip of a lifetime,” food and travel YouTuber Mark Wiens told his four million subscribers.
Polish blogger Eva zu Beck informed her followers it could “become the number one tourist destination in the world,” while Canadian social media influencer Rosie Gabrielle said she wanted her stories to “tell the truth” about the country.
But there are concerns influencer content does not reflect the major challenges, from infrastructure to extremism, that Pakistan is facing as it embraces modern tourism.
Zu Beck, whose clip was even shared by officials, cites government commerce initiative Emerging Pakistan, as well as Pakistan International Airlines as partners she’s worked with, while Wiens credits tourism expo Pakistan Travel Mart for “making the amazing trip happen.”
Gabrielle says her 3,500-kilometer motorcycle trip across the nation was facilitated by a Pakistani association in Oman.
Once seen as an essential stop on the hippie trail, visitor numbers have slumped since the 1970s when the country first underwent sweeping Islamization then descended into a bloody battle with militancy.
Deadly attacks still occur but security concerns are easing, so authorities and businesses are keen to shake the perception it is a hostile and dangerous place.
They are enthusiastic that so-called social media “influencer” advertising, which generally provides glossy snapshots rather than in-depth investigation, can present an alternative vision of Pakistan to a new generation of young and adventurous travelers.
“People believe them,” says Pakistan Travel Mart CEO Ali Hamdani, who helped set up Wiens trip, adding that bloggers’ impressions are regarded as “authentic.”
Yet Pakistanis and seasoned foreign travelers warn such posts on social media do not paint a full and honest picture of Pakistan.
Tourism infrastructure is severely underdeveloped, there are opaque government restrictions on places foreigners can visit, and travelers are often harassed — whether by men bothering women in a patriarchal society; or suspicious intelligence officials detaining curious sight-seers or insisting on security escorts.
“All this ‘Everything is wonderful in Pakistan’ is just irresponsible,” reveals June, an indignant 51-year-old Briton who declined to give her last name, she had been harassed by a police officer during a visit to the northwestern Swat valley.
Influencers are shielded from many issues that ordinary visitors face, adds Zara Zaman, an attendee at a recent tourism summit in Islamabad.
“All of these travelers are also traveling with crews and are protected by more powerful people,” she argues.
Hamdani, for example, acted as a driver for both Wiens and another influencer, Trevor James, during their visits, smoothing out any issues.
Zu Beck and Gabrielle, were able to visit the southwestern province of Balochistan — famed for its spectacular scenery, but also for violent insurgencies, which means few foreigners are able to visit without the blessing of intelligence agencies.
What influencers publish “doesn’t represent the real experience,” warns Alexandra Reynolds, an American blogger on her fifth trip to Pakistan, adding that there is a risk that less experienced travelers will be misled by such content and potentially end up in trouble.
“In a time when Pakistan’s international reputation is so fragile, it is not something that should be risked,” the 27-year-old explains, revealing that she too experienced harassment from security forces during a previous trip.
Another tourist Sebastiaan, 30, says he was detained for 14 hours and questioned by suspicious government agents in the southern city of Mithi last September.
There is also frustration from Pakistanis that Western bloggers have been feted by authorities, while locals with better cultural understanding — especially of sensitive issues such as gender or blasphemy — are sidelined.
“It kinds of makes me angry to have white people represent us. We are not completely done with our post-colonial hangover,” says Zaman.
At the tourism summit a group of the Western bloggers were widely photographed meeting Imran Khan, with no local travel influencers in sight, prompting a backlash on social media.
Despite concerns, the bloggers remain enthusiastic.
Zu Beck, 27, has gained a huge following in Pakistan, where a local phone company has sponsored some of her videos.
She insists: “My job is not to love Pakistan. My job is to make content. But I love Pakistan.”