On a recent trip to Girona, in the Catalonia region of Spain, I was bombarded with signs and symbols related to the community's independence campaign. Locals draped Catalan flags over balconies to signal their support for separatism and tied yellow ribbons on street signs to protest the jailing of pro-independence politicians. But there were also signs for another movement - to prevent tourists from taking over too many apartments. In the Old Town of Girona, hanging over a popular tourist street is a large sign that reads, "Every tourist apartment is a home taken away from the local people."
I had run into what is being called "the Airbnb effect," in reference to the home-sharing platform founded in 2008, although it can be attributed to all such sites. Residents of major tourist destinations say apartments turned into Airbnb rentals are limiting available housing, raising rents to unaffordable levels and pushing locals out.
A March 2019 report from the Economic Policy Institute says that "evidence suggests that the presence of Airbnb raises local housing costs" in American cities. With more tourists staying there, the very essence of a neighbourhood may be lost, says Justin Francis, chief executive of Responsible Travel, an activist travel company. Local services such as a dentist's office or a small grocery store move out and are replaced by businesses serving tourists.
Residents, tourists and local governments are starting to pay more attention. "The protests in destinations from local people . . . have really changed the game," Francis said.
Though I wasn't staying in the city, I worried about how my presence was perceived and wished I had researched local tourism issues before going there.
When I returned from the trip, I called Albert Artigas, a Girona local who belongs to the group behind the signs. He said he and other Girona residents formed the organization when they started to see their neighbours move out of historic and beautiful Old Town and landlords turn the homes into tourist rentals. "This is a problem for the Old Town because the neighbourhood is losing its identity to become a theme park," Artigas said.
From 2008 to 2018, the number of tourist rentals in Girona rose from one to more than 700, according to city government figures. From 2017 to 2018, the cost of rental housing rose 19%, according to the real estate marketing company Idealista. In an email, Girona Mayor Marta Madrenas said that while she's concerned about housing issues, rental prices depend on a variety of factors and tourist apartments are only one of them. She said there are less-touristic towns where rent prices are increasing faster than in Girona. Residents and officials in other European cities, including Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona (60 miles from Girona), have blamed Airbnb for cutting the housing supply.
The number of Americans travelling to Europe has increased every year since 2011, according to the U.S. government's international air travel statistics. As I walked through the Old Town of Girona, I saw more tourists than locals on many streets. One of its main draws is the centuries-old Baroque-style Girona Cathedral, where part of Season 6 of "Game of Thrones" was shot. When I saw it, tourists covered its wide stone staircase and filled the surrounding narrow streets, where shops sell "Game of Thrones"-themed merchandise, classic tourist magnets and more. Artigas says these souvenir shops have taken the place of local stores.
"When your streets become the streets that you would expect in a theme park, you are living in a theme park."
Artigas insists he's not against tourism in Girona or trying to stop it. "We all are tourists," he said. He also understands how much cheaper it can be for a family to stay in an apartment rental than to pay for hotel rooms.
"We want them to be aware, if you are in a tourist apartment, you are taking a home away from local people," he said, adding the change needs to happen at the government level, through regulation to control the number of tourist apartments or the price of local apartments.
Until that happens, if you must journey to travel hot spots, there are ways to minimise your impact on local housing:
- Stay in a hotel. These are much more tightly regulated by planning authorities based on affordable housing stock, Francis said. They're also situated with thought given to the impact of tourists on local transport. Francis said hotels can be found in a range of price points; neighbourhood hotels tend to be cheaper than those in the heart of a tourist area and often can provide a more authentic experience. "Remember, one of the reasons Airbnb might be cheaper is the lack of regulation around it," Francis said. "Do you feel comfortable that your cheap stay is going to come at a real cost to the residents?" Clare Weeden, principal lecturer in tourism and marketing at the University of Brighton, encourages travellers to avoid international hotel chains so money goes directly to locals.
- Stay in a guesthouse or traditional bed-and-breakfast. The hosts will often be making breakfast from locally sourced food, Weeden said, supporting the local economy. Traditional bed-and-breakfasts are different from Airbnb because, like hotels, they must be registered and in compliance with tax and labor legislation.
- If booking through Airbnb, choose a place where the host lives. If you want accommodations to yourself, seek out hosts who rent their homes over periods that they're gone. Harold Goodwin, managing director of Responsible Tourism Partnership, said the best way to check whether a location is the host's actual home is to see how many dates are offered over the year. If it's only a few weeks, chances are the host lives there.
- Travel during the offseason when possible. This helps spread out the demand for accommodation, Francis said. Although this is more challenging for families with children in school, he said, offseason can be an ideal time: There won't be as many tourists around, and you'll be able to explore in a calmer, more intimate setting.
- Try out Fairbnb coop. Now launched in a growing number of cities around the world, this nonprofit worker's cooperative takes the Airbnb model and tries to add restrictions to protect local housing. For example, in some places the community-driven platform requires the hosts to be residents of the area and limits the number of tourist properties they can have on the market. Although Fairbnb is still in its early stages, Francis said, "I think they've got a lot of things right."
- Extend your trip to smaller, less-tourist-saturated places outside major cities. This helps take the pressure off the more popular places, Francis said. It can also give you a more authentic view of the country, and these places probably welcome more tourists and the money they bring.
- Hire a local guide to show you around. "Tourism must pay its way," Francis said. The guide will help you avoid inadvertently doing something offensive or disruptive that creates that "theme park" effect in major tourist centers. You will learn the best places to eat and spend your money locally. Research where you go, Weeden said. Check the news to see if over-tourism is a concern in the place you want to travel, and consider changing your destination if you have doubts about the impact of your presence.
- Take fewer but longer trips. This is often pushed as a way to reduce your carbon emissions and meet more locals, but it will also give you the chance to see the impact of both your dollar and your presence, Weeden said. Spending more time in a place will allow you to see how your behavior impacts the locals and what your money helps support and will give you a chance to reflect.
If you take these steps, you'll be following the guidance of travel writer Pico Iyer: "The only question to ask before visiting a place is whether the locals at the other end would rather see you or not."