Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Traveling with Airbnb

Airbnb, a web site for finding rooms, apartments, or houses to rent in the U.S. and around the world, has taken root in countries like Italy and Tunisia where people are desperate for innovative ways to earn a little extra income. The web site's essential economic virtue is to bring into play underutilized resources, while its key social virtue is to bring together people from diverse cultural backgrounds who would not otherwise meet.

Within Airbnb, there is a definite experiential divide, as we found out on a recent trip to Italy and Tunisia. Within the website, one can rent either a room within a house with access to a bathroom and oftentimes the kitchen, or one can rent a complete domicile. The price and quality range is substantial, creating options for almost any travel budget. We discovered a distinct difference between renting a room within someone's home and a complete apartment. Doing the latter amounts to a fairly standard landlord-tenant relationship. Doing the former embeds you in the daily life of the host to varying degrees. This can give one an incredible window to a local culture and sometimes useful information about how to navigate it. One can also get involved in your host's problems of the day, which can be interesting but also stressful. You will for sure get an experience a conventional hotel cannot offer, and probably one you will never forget.

I can't get into details about our particular encounters because of the public nature of the Airbnb website and it's highly functional system of both host and renter reviews. Suffice it to say we had a wonderful dinner with young student hosts that will stick in our memories forever, we learned about the serious problems of unemployment and making ends meet in two countries, and we experienced the wonders and anxieties of family and child-rearing, having for us a familiar ring, but in a culture not our own. We also met and enjoyed a dinner and very special conversation with a fellow tenant and wonderful young Arabic-speaking American student intern working on a degree in International Studies.   Again, these kinds of experiences a tour guide cannot arrange for you. While cultures vary, with each having problems and wonders of its own, in getting through daily life we are all not so different.

Securing a dwelling through Airbnb, no matter whether it's a room or an apartment, has the added virtue of embedding you in a locality outside of the usual tourist zones and exposing you more fully to the actual daily public life of the city, village, or countryside you visit. One can more easily enjoy the experience of shopping in neighborhood grocery stores, stopping for a coffee or glass of wine in a local cafe and watching the daily goings on, eating a meal in a restaurant favored by locals, walking or exercising in a local park, hiking along a country road or urban trail, and still visit famous attractions using local public transit. This we were able to do readily in Florence, Bologna, Ancona, and Rome, Italy as well as Tunis, Tunisia.

Finally, what's good for connecting one with the local culture is also good for spreading tourist dollars more effectively around the local economy. Instead of dumping your money into the coffers of multinational corporate hotels, restaurants, and tour organizers, your dollars will flow to local home owners, shops, street vendors, and transit systems, to individuals and businesses that will themselves be more likely to recycle the money they receive back into the local economy than the multinationals. This is even the case for a clever pickpocket on a crowded tram that unzipped my front pant's pocket an got my wallet. In short, Airbnb is a back door global development strategy that can help the Italy's and Tunisia's of the world to seek a better economic life.   

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