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‘Tourism is all-consuming’: How Airbnb’s ethical rival is letting communities decide how much tourism they can take

Fairbnb.coop touts itself as a solution to over-tourism, letting locals decide what's sustainable and helping tourists fund community projects

Hackney's Gillett Square, where Douglas Racionzer says tourism is helping push locals out. Image: Douglas Racionzer

When he goes to visit family in South Africa soon, Douglas Racionzer will be renting out his room. You might think of doing this on Airbnb, or on the sly through Facebook groups so your landlord doesn’t notice. Instead he’s turning to Fairbnb.coop – a rival to Airbnb which has launched in the UK and sells itself as a way to tackle over-tourism while funding local projects.

Racionzer’s room, in Stratford, east London, costs him £600 a month. To cover his costs, he’s planning to rent it out for £30 a night, making it significantly cheaper than local alternatives.

Fairbnb.coop adds a 15 per cent commission, similar to Airbnb, but the difference is half goes to selected local charities and projects. One of these is the Big Issue Foundation, the Big Issue’s charity which supports people who sell the magazine.

“That’s a sustainable income stream for local projects,” Racionzer says.

Racionzer, who works in housing in Hackney, noticed the impact short-term holiday rentals can have on a local area. In fact, the crisis is so acute, he can’t afford to live in the same borough he works in.

Given his profession, it’s an irony he’s well aware of: “Like, what the hell?”

“That’s the process we’re contributing to fighting against. I know it’s countercultural, and I know it’s countercyclical, and I know it’s counter to the capitalist movement of gentrification. But I do think something has to be done. And this is part of that solution”

Racionzer is among the early UK adopters of Fairbnb.coop, signing up as one of the first hosts. If it spreads as its architects hope, it could be transformational.

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“Tourism is this all-consuming industry, where everything becomes touristified,” says Emanuele Dal Carlo, Fairbnb.coop’s co-founder.

“Tourism is a great opportunity, but the resources generated by tourism are often extracted. They seldom stay in the community. Even less often they are re-invested in social projects in the community.”

Fairbnb.coop
Emanuele Dal Carlo, Fairbnb.coop’s co-founder. Image: Supplied

Cornwall is the UK’s most obvious example of this, where the problem has become so bad that the county features on a “no list” of global regions tourists are being asked to avoid.

Yet councils and governments are starting to recognise the problem and make attempts at solutions.

Tourists going to Cornwall have been urged to check if their presence will make the housing crisis in the area worse.

In Edinburgh, new policies are aiming to take thousands of homes out of the holiday rentals market and back to residents, and the council has a plan which would let them veto short term lets.

In Gwynedd, where 16 per cent of sales in a single year were second homes, council tax on second homes will be two and a half times greater than on normal houses, as the council struggles with growing homelessness.

But Fairbnb.coop hopes to provide a grassroots solution to the problem.

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In theory, tourism can be a boon to an area. Restaurants and bars thrive, employment opportunities abound, and the local economy grows.

But left to its own devices, demand can quickly overwhelm an area. Homes are bought up for short-term holiday lets. Rents rise. Shops start to gear themselves towards tourists – as do restaurants and almost everything else. Hospitals get overwhelmed during the summer, and things fall silent during winter.

“You’re in the right place, you make money. Unless you screw up massively, you’re gonna make money. This attracts more investment,” says Dal Carlo.

Fairbnb.coop works, unsurprisingly, a lot like Airbnb. Hosts sign up to rent out their homes on the platform.

The twist comes with Fairbnb.coop’s local “nodes”. It is up to select residents, acting as “nodes”, to decide how much exactly an area can take. Will an influx of holiday rentals overwhelm an area?

Some places might not have limits, but in a small village these rules might be strict, limiting rental properties only to B&Bs.

These nodes are “thinking about their 20-50 people that they know in their small community,” says Dal Carlo.

“We want to find people who want to make the model adapt to their own community.”

The funding of local projects is an example of how tourism can solve a problem it might traditionally worsen, says Dal Carlo.

“I love the idea that we are trying to do something for people that don’t have what we actually sell to lucky tourists,” he says.

“The idea of using houses, even if it’s for good, using an asset that people don’t have access to, is something that really needs to be addressed by all people that participate in this industry.”

Along with Cornwall, Dal Carlo’s home city of Venice features on the “no list”, of places tourists are being urged to avoid. It’s a microcosm of the problems that can take root if things are left to their own devices.

 “What happens, and I experienced this in my own city, Venice, is that tourism becomes a black hole of investment. People who don’t do tourism invest in tourism, people who do tourism reinvest in tourism.

He added: “Venice is like the canary in the coalmine of tourism. It’s such a small, complex and dedicated organism that you can see the detrimental effects of tourism 10 years before. If it doesn’t work in Venice, it’s probably going to screw up the rest of the world in time.”

With its launch in the UK and its charity partners, Dal Carlo wants Fairbnb.coop to help redress the balance. Areas which can handle a high volume of rentals can generate money to help less fortunate areas.

“We don’t think the touristic economy is redistributive enough,” he says.

“It’s year zero, but we have a lot of stuff going on and we’re hoping to grow really fast in the UK.

Registration for UK hosts is open on Fairbnb.coop’s website here.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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