A quick search for AirBnb locations in and around Buenos Aires spits out hundreds of spots where travellers can stay. The popular online rental marketplace and mobile app beckons visitors with a host of available “homes,” with listings ranging from a beautiful wooded bungalow in Tigre to a warm, sun-drenched apartment in the heart of Palermo. With just a couple of clicks – and the entry of your credit or debit card – your room is reserved. And before you know it, you’re on your way to BA.
AirBnb only arrived in the country in 2011, but Argentines have been quick to take up with one of the movers and shakers of the sharing economy. Some 900,500 travellers stayed in AirBnb locations within Argentina during 2018, the company reported last week.
The US firm, founded just over a decade ago in San Francisco, has shaken up global tourism. Since the company went international in 2011, it’s sunk its teeth into countries like Argentina, taking a big bite. Today, it dominates the short-term lodging market across the globe with four million listings in 65,000 cities, across 191 countries across the world.
There are currently 52,700 listed spaces in Argentina, in urban destinations such as Buenos Aires City, traditional tourist destinations and rural areas across the country. The average rental rate for two guests in Buenos Aires province is US$55 a night, and for a four-guest unit, hosts charge an average of US$81. Small, private rooms in Buenos Aires City, however, can start as low as US$10 a night for one or two guests. Booking is near painless: guests can communicate with hosts and scroll through pages of reviews online.
AirBnb users are travelling the length of the country. In its most recent report, the company said Buenos Aires, Río Negro, Mendoza, Salta, Neuquén, Tierra del Fuego, Misiones, Cordoba and Jujuy were the most popular provinces for winter vacationers in 2018, while the capital, San Martín de los Andes, Ushuaia, Puerto Iguazú and Tilcara were the hottest cities visited.
This jungle of rental properties tends to opens up lodging options in areas where tourists wouldn’t otherwise have access. New tourism options are changing the character of unlikely corners in Argentina, as guests contribute new resources and consumer habits.
Dr. Mercedes Di Virgilio, a social sciences professor at the University of Buenos Aires who has studied the effects of gentrification for more than 20 years, says that the booming AirBnb rental market can substantially alter community dynamics, even though rental homes can’t be cited a direct cause of gentrification.
“[The] forces of gentrification are strongly tied to neighbourhood environments that are attractive for tourists,” she said. “They offer something particular, certain cultural services… the question becomes what attracts tourists.”
Di Virgilio defines gentrification as a “phenomenon of social and residential segregation: central areas of the city are revalued by private and state investment.” With increased property values, the original population ends up being pushed out, she argues, an effect which can drastically change and alter the feel of a neighbourhood.
She said that barrios like Palermo – which began changing as early as the 1970s, predating AirBnb – are developing today thanks to the continued influx of newcomers. She said the growing number of bars, music venues, dance clubs, and gastronomic destinations were proof of that.
“The processes of gentrification are strongly associated with these cultural activities and the development of tourist attractions,” the professor said. “These are all processes that complement each other. One doesn’t cause the other, they exist mutually.”
Along with Palermo, San Telmo, La Boca, and Puerto Madero stand out as hotbeds of gentrification in the City, she said.
“The dynamics have changed. There’s never a moment when the neighbourhood isn’t full of visitors,” Di Virgilio said. “That has changed the day-to-day lives of longtime residents.”
New economic opportunities
The firm has opened up a completely new revenue stream too, and the numbers are not insubstantial. Victoria Bramati, the Public Affairs Manager of AirBnb, estimates that hosts’ income and guests’ expenses during their stays in Argentina generated some 6.8 billion pesos in 2017.
As Argentina struggles with soaring inflation and a dragging recession, cottage industries like AirBnb extend new opportunities to local entrepreneurs.
“AirBnb is a new expression in the labour market and the service industry,” Di Virgilio told the Times. “It’s an indication of huge changes in those sectors.”
Many are benefitting. AirBnb said some 35,600 people in Argentina hosted guests in their properties in 2018, with the average host earning 59,000 pesos over the course of the year.
But not everyone has the patience to host strangers in their home, hospitality and tourism consultant Mariana Alfaro said in an interview.
“Not everyone wants a stranger in their home,” Alfaro, who’s worked with hotels for over 30 years, said. “Leaving your house for someone else to occupy while you’re on vacation, that’s not something the whole world would do.
Hosts in Argentina reported a number of reasons why they rent our their properties via AirBnb in a recent company survey. Fifty-one percent of hosts said they decided to share their space for the extra income, while 30 percent said they used the money from AirBnb hosting in order to make ends meet. A further 47 percent said that the money they earn through the company lets them remain at home.
While some prefer to rent through AirBnb instead of booking a hotel room, Alfaro said the hotel industry isn’t being put out by the online platform, displacing trade. Many travellers are still drawn to the comfort, security and amenities only a hotel can provide, she argued. “The big difference between hotels and AirBnbs is the service,” she said.
To stay competitive with AirBnb’s cheap rates, Argentina hotels are having to change. Many of them are now working to integrate technology and improve service, Alfarot told the Times. She said some hotels are behind the curve on providing travellers the technology that they need.
“It’s more important today for travellers to have stable WiFi than complimentary breakfast,” she observed. “It’s nice to get free breakfast, but if WiFi isn’t included, people are going to find another place to stay. Not all hotels understand this.”
With the firm seeking to expand its growth in Argentina, AirBnb says it’s received a warm welcome in the country, not just from potential hosts, but also from regional officials.
In April last year, the company signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Jujuy province, Bramati said, highlighting the work of the company’s Sustainable Tourism Office, which promotes alternative forms of authentic, local, sustainable tourism in cities worldwide.
“Local governments in Argentina have welcomed us with open doors,” Bramati told the Times.
Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s global head of policy and communications chief, said communities are at the heart of the firm’s operations when he visited Argentina for the Memorandum’s signing in April.
“One of our principles is to work with local authorities on policies that address the issue of commercial activities impacting specific parts of the community,” Lehane said, speaking to the Times.
Asked about gentrification and AirBnB’s response to community backlash over its activities in certain cities, particularly in southern Europe, Lehane recognised “over-tourism” as a genuine concern for communities.
“Tourism is going to be a big part of the economic sector so we need to ask ourselves: Are communities getting the return on investment that they need? Platforms like ours can really drive healthy tourism,” he added.
“We want to support the right kind of tourism that works for communities,” he said.