Why Airbnb doesn’t work well in China

The title is eye-catching. A more proper title should be: Something about Chinese city planning that hinders Airbnb’s growth in the 1.3 billion people market.

In case you ask: no, Airbnb’s Chinese copycat or competitor doesn’t solve it any better in this case. Regulation isn’t a problem (yet) for Airbnb in China. But sharing bedroom or short term rental just doesn’t work so well in this case. People do need short term rentals, but I don’t feel solutions that are better than hotels have appeared.

A few words about me: Chinese Airbnb user since June 2011. Listed my space in California, used Airbnb in Turkey and China. I even tried to convince my parents list their apartments on Airbnb until I noticed something different about China, for Airbnb.

I didn’t enjoy my first Airbnb stay in Beijing. I chose one with 10+ reviews (4+1/2 stars average) near Wudaokou (五道口), but the experience was nowhere near the Turkish Airbnb’s I had. So I gave a 3-star review. The 2nd trip in Beijing (on-going as I’m writing this) gives a similar experience, but it’s now more understandable to me: There is something inherent to Chinese city planning that hinders Airbnb’s adoption and user experience in China. I shouldn’t have blamed the host for unpleasant experiences.

Sure, Chinese live in buildings, not caves. But in most Chinese cities, building belongs to xiaoqu, 小区 (literally “small neighborhood”). What’s the difference? Well, it’s not like Sunset, Richmond or SOMA of San Francisco, the Chinese “neighborhoods” are usually walled or fenced, with guards (to check your ID, to ask you to fill in a form, and, for high-end neighborhoods, to salute) and they have entrances that needs one to swipe a card to enter. Usually they don’t allow cars to enter. The only things similar to this in the States that I can think of are Apple campus or Pentagon. You don’t use Pentagon for Airbnb.

The “small neighborhood”s are not as small as one might imagine: for example, one of them, Tiantongyuan, has over 400,000 residents. In Beijing and Shanghai, less crazy ones may still have 10–20 buildings with 20–30 stories. Oh, did I mention that they all looked the same? It’s easy to get lost: it’s just a Marrakech old town in concrete. Neither GPS nor Google Maps works well for this.

If we have a camera following a guy who’s going to use Airbnb in Beijing, here is what we will see: From the airport, he takes a taxi/Uber. The car drops him off at the gate of the “small neighborhood” his reservation is in. He talks to the guard or wait for someone to swipe the entrance card to enter the “small neighborhood”. He was told to go to Room 2507 of Building 12, but all 15 buildings looks the same, and the residents doesn’t speak English. After some struggle he enters building 12, finds the elevator (not necessarily at the entrance of the building, since the building may have left and right wings) and finally finds the room. Alas, it’s quite an achievement for him to make it.

After putting baggage down, he wants to go out to explore the city: well, getting out of the maze is just as difficult as getting into the heart of it.

The complexity hurts both the host and the guest: it’s the host’s responsibility to tell the guest how to get to his place. It’s tough to explain all that over the phone or by text. If getting to the place is too hard for the traveller, it’s likely they have to get to the entrance of the “small neighborhood” and lead the guest to the place, a 20 minutes process. If they are at work then it’s more painful. “Small neighborhood” also makes the ways to automate the checkin process, like installing a smart lock, fail to work.

In my opinion, being an Airbnb host in China is less about sharing, and more about having a full-time job. Hosts either rent a few apartments and try to make a living from this (which makes it more expensive), or have retired parents to be the actual host (in which case communication is harder as the older generations don’t travel that much, or they don’t even know what Airbnb is). As a comparison, many Chinese Uber Drivers uses Uber as their second job.

It should be remarked that all these complexities doesn’t exist if one chooses hotel — hotels aren’t located in “small neighborhood”s. They are just in buildings by themselves. Taxis/Ubers take one to the front entrance and the bellhop is right there.

Given the difficulties, it’s not hard to explain why putting “Beijing” in the search box only returns 456 rentals. That’s too few for a city with 21 million people. Filtering the junk results leaves even fewer results. Those who care about a certain location would only have one or two choices.

In small Chinese towns like Yangshuo or Lijiang, where tourism is the only industry and family-owned hotels and inns are popular, Airbnb may work like it does outside China. But cities all have “small neighborhood”s that kinda repel Airbnb by nature.

In short, “Small neighborhood”s make Airbnb hard to enjoy in China, at least in most cities. Some Chinese city planning adds interesting terms to the equations of Airbnb hosting economy.

P.S. I don’t think “small neighborhood” are the only reason Airbnb doesn’t work well in China. Other reasons include: that Chinese are too busy working, that Chinese people (i.e. potential hosts) are not so good at communicating with strangers (arguably that’s the whole point of Airbnb), that the living conditions of open-minded young people are poor, and that Chinese hotels are cheap (even in Beijing it’s not hard to find $40 hotels while most Airbnb is more than that if you take Airbnb’s service fee into account).

P.P.S. It’s not like Chinese don’t enjoy the idea of sharing economy. Uber is working quite well here, and they are available in more than 10 cities. Uber’s competitors are also booming. There are tons of other companies on this. One that looks interesting to me is 回家吃饭 (“go home and eat”), where housewives or retired people make home-made dishes to share with people. Hopefully I will write about it later.

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