Friday, 26 April 2019

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Researching Airbnb and Fairbnb

By Suzanne Hansen

The focus of Whitianga local, Stella Pennell’s research for her PhD in sociology widened as a result of her recent three-month visiting post-graduate fellowship at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. 

Stella was during her stay in the Netherlands surrounded by like-minded academics, including her sponsor, Wageningen’s Chair of Sociology of Development and Change, Dr Bram Büscher. Dr Büscher is one of only a few people working in Stella’s specific area of interest, “platform capitalism.”  

The term platform capitalism describes global platforms such as Airbnb - an online marketplace where people rent out their properties or spare rooms to guests, bypassing many of the commercial parameters and taxes that have to be met by fulltime accommodation providers. 

Stella set out writing her PhD on the effect of such platforms on regional tourism hubs like the Coromandel Peninsula. Her time “knocking ideas around” with her international colleagues at Wageningen and her networking at various conferences while in the Netherlands, caused her to form the opinion that, in the context of tourism, “Too much of a good thing might not be a good thing.” 

With the explosion of platforms like Airbnb, tourism markets like New Zealand may need to learn from other markets and decide, “What sort of tourism do we want?”

Stella mentions tourist destinations like Barcelona where the city currently has more visitors than residents, due to the spiralling costs of accommodation brought on by property owners capitalising on homestay accommodation. The city is now chasing “de-growth”  and “de-tourism” by setting up new bylaws which even out the playing field.

“There are also new grassroots platforms like FairBnB, which have emerged in response to the impact of Airbnb and decides together with local authorities how to make the tourism accommodation process fairer, more sustainable and rewarding for the whole community,” says Stella.     

Bringing this into local context, for a town like Whitianga, which swells from approximately 5,000 permanent residents to more than 20,000 people in the high season, who is paying for the infrastructure required to accommodate all the visitors and what is the true impact of their visits? How do families find long term accommodation in an opportunistic tourist market? How do we protect the lifestyle and values that we actually want?

As a result of her fellowship at Wageningen University, Stella is now also focusing some of her research on the concept of “digital subjectivity.” The feedback people see on online platforms is set up by algorithms, which are actually human marketing inventions and are fallible. “An example is Airbnb starting to think that I was Dutch because of my three-month stay in the Netherlands,” says Stella. “I started to receive vacation offers to Rarotonga in Dutch. I have been to Rarotonga before, but I am not fluent in Dutch.

“This is a ripe example of how Airbnb is disconnected to the reality of their customers.”

Platforms like Airbnb, because they are global and there is need for a common language, tend to “dumb down” our unique values to the lowest common denominator. How, in this scenario, are we to appropriately market our intrinsic Kiwi or Coromandel uniqueness and attract the kind of visitors who would enhance and protect our lifestyle? 

Stella says that three months away from home was a life-changing experience, where she had a lot of time to contemplate what really matters to her. “The concept of ‘our place’ is completely intertwined with our identity and our relationships with others,” she says. “While we are chasing being hospitable, we also need to reflect on what intrinsic values we have, why we live in New Zealand or on the Coromandel and identify the unique parts of the experience we want to protect.”

Stella is aiming to submit her thesis in August. She has also nearly finished a journal article that will be published in the near future.

Pictured is Stella outside her office at Wageningen University.

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