Is Tourism Contributing to Gentrification?

Natasha Young

Published on
Is Tourism Contributing to Gentrification?

Travel is being revolutionized, but it’s certainly not a victimless revolution. All of the wonderful advancements of modern travel come at a price.

The short-term rental platform Airbnb is one of those rare startups that can honestly be said to have disrupted the status quo. It’s done great things for travelers, homeowners, and apartment renters alike, kickstarting local economies, creating myriad new jobs, generating additional income for locals. Its Experience platform connects travelers directly with local residents, too, for off-the-beaten-path tours and one-of-a-kind experiences, all while creating flexible job opportunities. This amazing advancement in the travel space has not been without its pitfalls, however: some cities across the globe have imposed regulations and fines on the company for violations of short-term rental laws, in some cases greatly reducing the number of rentals available in a city—in San Francisco, for one much-discussed example.

San Francisco view of Golden Gate

San Francisco view of Golden Gate by Crawford Ifland on Unsplash

It’s one thing when a local is able to utilize an innovative platform such as Airbnb ethically; it’s another entirely when wealthy investors take advantage of the platform to make vast sums of money. In many places, it’s become more profitable to Airbnb an apartment/house than to rent it to local tenants, causing a critical lack of housing worldwide, from San Francisco to Lisbon to Dublin and beyond. A study conducted by researchers at McGill University's School of Urban Planning found that in NYC, Airbnb restricted the number of long-term rentals available, “removing between 7,000 and 13,500 apartments from the city's long-term rental market,” thereby increasing the cost of living and setting off a tidal wave of gentrification throughout the city, which was already economically hostile to its lower-income residents. Meanwhile, some hosts were making tens of thousands and, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars from their short-term rentals.

The backlash against this novel housing crisis has culminated in legal actions, from regulations to control the problem to fines against Airbnb for advertising illegal short-term rentals. But as the sharing economy has become normalized around the globe, the dominant corporations have grown rich and powerful enough to punt the legal challenges. Cities everywhere are getting more expensive to live in, and it’s no secret why.

Awareness of such big-picture issues is a necessary discomfort and an essential part of traveling mindfully.

How to avoid being a part of the problem? When booking an Airbnb to stay in, try to find hosts who are genuinely opening up their home to visitors, as opposed to the glossier, revolving-door listings that appear more like a hotel than a homeshare. Try the Experiences on offer through the platform, too, which can help mitigate gentrification by providing locals paid opportunities to share their authentic culture and off-the-beaten-path destinations and activities to visitors. It’s a great way to have an authentic and intimate experience of a place that feed the gig economy and not the big-business tourism economy.

Hotel bedroom with open window

Photo by Sandra Kaas on Unsplash

Another straightforward way is to book a hotel room or a hostel at inner-city destinations instead of an Airbnb. It depends on the place, of course—booking an Airbnb in a low-traffic area, or in someone’s house by the beach, doesn’t leave the same footprint as short-term renting in Porto.

Awareness of such big-picture issues is a necessary discomfort and an essential part of traveling mindfully. Wherever you go, you’re visiting someone else’s place—no matter how majestic or tourist-congested it is, there are lives being lived, people working at their jobs to feed themselves and their families, laboring in service to tourists (such as ourselves). But acknowledging our complicity in the harmful for-profit mechanisms that make traveling so much more convenient than it used to be doesn’t preclude us from enjoying it. 

Natasha Young
Los Angeles, United States
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