A big step towards sustainable and cooperative tourism

Last week Commons Network joined a virtual-but-local Amsterdam meeting hosted by FairBnB.coop. We learned from its founders about a new and promising model for sustainable and cooperative tourism. In this blog we will share some of these lessons, highlight promising elements and pose a few questions, clarifying these new developments from a commons perspective.

During the meeting, Jonathan Reyes, one of the co-founders of FairBnB.coop, gave an interesting presentation about the basics of FairBnB.coop, its mission and its model, and explained how FairBnB.coop is intended to work in practice. You can view the presentation slides here.

The mission

The mission could be summarized as providing an alternative model for tourism, replacing key elements of conventional (platform) tourism which have made a big and negative impact on cities and societies worldwide. The first element is to Extractive Economies where value generated by tourism throughout the world is extracted from local economies and neighbourhoods, ending up in the hands of a few, in AirBnB’s case, of some fifty people in Silicon Valley.

The second and third element are Loss of Local Identity and Gentrification. Both relate to communities and neighbors not being in control of city or neighborhood developments, whether in terms of affordability and authenticity or in terms of pollution and nuisance that come with mass tourism.

The model

How does FairBnB.coop attempt to overcome these problems associated with mass tourism, or specifically with a vacation rental platform such as AirBnB?

First of all, Jonathan explained in the meeting, FairBnB.coop is offering a different model of tourism as a blueprint for the future. It aims to tackle capitalist extraction through a cooperative model in which muliple stakeholders have a seat. Workers and advisors are members of the cooperative already, local partners, users and hosts will be in the foreseeable future. Through their inclusion in the cooperative’s assembly stakeholders obtain a formal say in decisionmaking too. In addition, the voting power of FairBnB.coop’s funders is statutorily limited to a third of the assembly’s total votes.

Second, FairBnB.coop aims to give control back to communities. It does so by partnering with local ‘nodes’ and ‘ambassadors’ and including and empowering them in the process of building a better version of tourism locally. Communities benefit financially from being part of the network (or the cooperative itself), as a percentage of the rental price is directly invested in community projects that local partners, ambassadors and potentially also users, select.

How does FairBnB.coop relate to the commons?

We celebrate the arrival of FairBnB .coop and the refreshing new model that it offers for a sustainable kind of tourism. The cooperative model, its wide – at least in theory – inclusion of stakeholders, and increased control by and value for communities, all bear great promise in making a positive impact on cities, economically, socially and environmentally.

In many ways, these elements resemble a commons approach. However, a fundamental question remains, relating to commodification.

From a commons perspective, a given society’s crucial collective resources, like energy, water, space but also housing, should be treated as such and, therefore, maintained collectively and sustainably. A capitalist economy, on the other hand, is often inclined to turning previously non-tradable or non-monetized pockets of society into monetized ones: a process that is known as commodification. AirBnB, in this sense, has been one of the key players in commodifying housing. Where, previously, a house was exclusively a home, AirBnB turned it into a source of revenue. The question in the case of FairBnB.coop is: does it substantially diverge from this process of commodification?

At a very basic level, it does not: like AirBnB, users on FairBnB.coop are encouraged to put a price tag on homes. But, and unlike AirBnB, a different, non-capitalist dynamic is at work here. The cooperative model – with shared ownership and limited investor influence – is not geared towards profits, an IPO or acquisition. In fact, it plows a big part of its profits back into the communities where they were generated. This means that FairBnB.coop is less incentivized to gain more and more profits for (future) shareholders.

FairBnB.coop also applies a framework of rules to rentals on their platform. For example, a ‘one-host-one-home’ policy is in place. Also it intends, through the local ‘nodes’, to ensure it complies with local regulation. Possible remaining questions would be: how does the platform enforce one home per host? And what if local rules regarding vacation rental are weak, would it still do the effort of maintaining a high standard?

Equality or commodification?

A few years back, an interesting conflict of positions arose in Amsterdam when the idea of allowing vacation rental in the social housing sector gained some traction and even made it to the city council floor. On the one hand, the idea seemed to have an equalizing effect: people from different socio-economic classes, also the less affluent, would have the possibility of renting out their houses. The thinking was: Who needs those extra euros more than those in need of social housing?

On the other hand, one could think about the idea as commodification in its purest form, as it expands the capitalist dynamic of putting a price tag on housing into the social housing sector. People from this camp also argued that earning extra euros to pay for essentials like food, clothing and internet, should not be the task of private companies such as Fair- or AirBnB, but of governments. And that those who argued in favor of it, argued in fact for the ‘privatization of social security’.

FairBnB.coop is not perfect, but it is a big step in the right direction. Its alternative model stems us hopeful and we hope to see it changing the world of tourism altogether.