Fairbnb’s model for community-led tourism
with Sito Veracruz, co-founder of Fairbnb

1. What motivated you to start Fairbnb?

Two prominent factors motivated me. Firstly, I am an urban planner, a “classic” urban planner from the Spanish perspective, because I graduated in Law and then did a Master’s in Urban Planning, so I was quite deeply involved with zonification, zoning plans and master plans.
Furthermore, when everything started in 2014, I was living in Amsterdam, as I came here in 2012. Even if you are not an expert, and are just partly interested in this topic, you soon realise that how platforms behave is key to achieving more sustainable, less difficult, better regulated and better managed vacation rental platform activity. When you went to find out more about vacation rental platforms, it was easy to understand that four years ago the problem was the sharing of the data; its release. This was one of the key aspects – there was clearly an issue with the platforms.
At the time, I was collaborating with an advocacy group called Fair City here in Amsterdam. They had a working group on the issue of vacation rental platforms, where we would talk about how to make better regulations for tourism in cities. Eventually, we realised that even if a city changes its regulations, but platforms fail to comply, everything stays the same. Then we started wondering, why not create our own platform? Why don’t we just try? We started thinking about it and here we are, three years later.

2. How would you describe Fairbnb’s mission today and what vision does it advocate for the future of cities?

The mission is multiple, and this is one of the nice things about this project. It is important to understand that after we started working here in Amsterdam, we launched some open meetups and workshops to brainstorm about the perfect, ideal platform, about what it would look like, how it would be. After The Guardian mentioned us in an article, people working in similar projects contacted us and suggested we started working together. One project was already called Fairbnb and they were in Venice, another one was based in Bologna. Today, the vision we developed together is similar and complementary to what we started out with.
I would say that the mission is triple, it includes three aspects. First, Fairbnb is clearly focussed on supporting a better management of sustainable tourism and contributing to it, providing a platform and that can do things differently, get involved in gentrification issues and be an impact-aware platform, very importantly. Secondly, Fairbnb’s mission entails co-involving citizens, partially stopping the extraction of value from local contexts. Keeping the value of a touristic city in the city itself means involving neighbours and distributing access to that value, as localism is key to our project. The third component of our mission is to be part of a broader movement, endorsing platform cooperativism and solidarity economy, showing that the digital economy can be something different. The mission is to provide an alternative that is good and usable, that can finance local projects, and this is also one of our biggest missions, to use money from tourism to finance local projects and to deliver something that works.

3. During the last decade, several European cities – including Amsterdam and Venice, where Fairbnb is active – have increasingly experienced locals’ resentment towards tourism. What do you think of this anti-tourism sentiment?

From my personal point of view, which I think is quite objective, it is totally understandable. I’ll say more, here in Amsterdam, it is not only the citizens who are expressing this resentment. The local government committed to decrease the amount of visitors in the city if they got into office. When they did, after one week, they removed the letters “I Am Sterdam”, which were a symbol, a very important symbol and landmark of city marketing. They said it was because of the amount of people gathering there could trigger risky situations, but still, they removed it symbolically and this is crucial.
This attitude is totally understandable; tourism is increasing and that is a fact, over the few last years the housing market has been crazy because measures to keep prices low are not enough. In the end, touristification is an aggravated form of gentrification – it doesn’t mean that you have new neighbours, richer than you because they come from another social class. It means that all the time you have neighbours that are way richer that you because they spend a lot of money in four days, not necessarily because they come from another social class, as they might earn and spend less money that you do in their own countries. And this influences the life of people. I understand it.
Last year in Spain, people were trying to spread this tourism-phobia. That is good material for news and journalists, but I don’t think that it is going to turn out like that because at the end of the day almost everyone who is claiming to be against tourism is also a tourist. There will be very few people who will say that they refuse to move around because they really don’t like tourism, so I think in the end we’ll have a similar position. We all like tourism, we all like visiting places, what we don’t like is over-tourism.
What is interesting is that for the first time this resentment is having a political reaction too. Here in Amsterdam and in Barcelona and other cities they are reacting and understanding this resentment not as hate against visitors but as a normal reaction.

4. The relationship between tourism and local communities and economies is often one of competition and tension. Is there a model of tourism that can more meaningfully engage with the local as a partner and not as a competitor? What is the model of tourism that Fairbnb aims to support?

Indeed, we want to advance this model where we can support local just partners. The business of tourism involves a lot of money; visitors spend considerably. The problem is, and research confirms this, that a high tourism tax such as Amsterdam’s 7% tax – compared to other cities such as Valencia, which at present does not charge a tourism tax – can cost money to Amsterdam’s municipality. This is because even this high tourism tax doesn’t cover the expenses that tourism implies. And, even if it did cover tourism’s costs (trash, police, health), citizens would not be seeing the good aspects of it but would only be feeling the negative ones.
The positive aspect of tourism are jobs, but we also know that this is low-quality work, and it is not an optimal solution. At the same time, we know that this is something that is going to happen. It’s a complex situation. So, why not involve citizens not only through additional work as we plan to do in the future, for example by paying hosts’ neighbours to open the door for their visitors, but also by engaging the third sector, that is the one which is feeling a big impact.
Even in those places where tourism is potentially good, we want it to be good for good projects, and not only for the investors and entrepreneurs of the place, which we respect and which we absolutely want as our partners. But the project is about spreading the benefits and spreading tourism’s positive impact. I always make impact-assessment a main point.

5. What are the features of your business model that support such an alternative model of tourism?

The features of the business model are quite simple. Firstly, we charge a commission. We are a commission-based project and charge travellers with a 15% commission. Half of this commission is donated to local projects, the other half is kept by us. Our idea for this business model to be attractive is relying on this and on recognising that we need the collaboration of the social projects supported by the platform.
As well as receiving the donations, social projects support us with marketing and everything they can do. We need to work in a system of partnerships because we know that we’re never going to get a lot of investments, and partnerships will allow us to grow everywhere. Commissions and partnerships are the two basic features of our business model.

6. Fairbnb is active in different urban contexts, how does it adapt to different sets of local urban conditions? – What makes Fairbnb’s model successfully transferable?

This is an interesting issue. We are always focussing our attention where there is a problem of over-tourism, but actually the project can work even more nicely in places where there is no tourism at all, or it is not well developed, because the will to bring visitors to your place is nice and powerful. In this sense, we are already working in the province of Bologna, in Valsamoggia, supporting local communities to bring more tourism that is already within the framework of sustainable tourism, having in mind the impact of tourism from the start. As individuating the blurry line between good and bad tourism is sometimes very complex, being aware of the risk and being careful from the very beginning is something we foster.

7. The fact that community-based projects become part of the Fairbnb network, is a very interesting and indeed one of the most ground-breaking features of Fairbnb. – How does Fairbnb incentivise and include these partner projects in its operation? What role do they play?

As far as social projects are concerned, we want to include them in the local nodes (groups of people interested in our project that support us) and we want them to have a voice in the overall cooperative and project. The way to incentivise them is nothing more than their interest in the business project. Of course, it is very important that they share the project’s vision, and in the end they are also interested in participating in the business and making it work. It is a partnership, we don’t want a charity relation, we want a solidarity one.

8. What outcomes does Fairbnb seek to achieve for different stakeholders? What impact do you strive to have for partners, hosts, and members?

Regarding outcomes for members, it’s going to be a long way, it’s a difficult work but we knew that.
Regarding partners, we want them to be part of something, bringing stuff in but also learning and taking stuff out. We all know that we’re not going to make a lot of money. Our salaries are limited and so are the profits of the investors. In Italy the sovventori1 cannot make more than 6%, but we also want to grow with the partners and we want them to grow because of us, mutually benefitting from these partnerships.
Regarding hosts, this is the most interesting and the most difficult part of the process. We want them to eventually become part of the cooperative. Of course, this is not going to be easy because if one person means one vote, then you have the risk that hosts will always be voting according to their needs. So surely we would need to somehow balance the distribution of power.

9.One of the aims of Fairbnb is to make tourists aware of the consequences of their online actions, starting from the booking platform. How does Fairbnb promote responsibility and awareness on the part of the consumer?

This is something difficult to achieve but also very interesting. We researched it with students at the University of Amsterdam, they were doing a Design Thinking course and had to work on this idea, and it made sense that in the end, consumers will acquire responsibility and awareness through the hosts.
At the end of the day, hosts will be recommending you what to visit, where to buy things from, and this guidance that is usually directed at enjoying the city, it should be directed at doing good to the city and the least harm possible. As part of the crowdfunding we will have a workshop on hosting and have this idea, that if you leave the city having a positive impact is better, being less harmful for the environment and eventually good for it.

10. Fairbnb promotes a model of community-powered tourism. How is Fairbnb received by different urban and non-urban communities? What is the response from municipalities and institutions at a local and a global level?

Interestingly, so far, we have been well received everywhere. Coming from activism, we understand activists and they understand us. Even the most radical ones say “We don’t like what you do, I don’t want visitors in my building but I prefer it to be you [rather than someone else], because you do it in a conscious way”.
In areas where tourism is not very present, it is very interesting to see that they see us as a power to attract good tourism, to bring people in. And this is also more or less how institutions perceive us, too, as a possibility to develop new ways for tourism. In over touristic cities we’re more seen like partners for ideas or projects and initiatives. Also, we are not a non-profit project, we develop a business so we cannot receive funding from institutions.

11. So far, what have been the major challenges in developing Fairbnb?

Developing a digital platform without funding is the biggest challenge. The biggest challenges lie ahead of us, they are about to come. They are visitors facing problems whilst travelling, customer service at 4am “I cannot find my host”, all of this is about to come.

12. What are Fairbnb’s next steps?

In 36 days, we will finish the crowdfunding, then we launch in 5 cities, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bologna, Valencia and Venice. On the platform, any day now it will be possible to create a personal profile page and to make reservations in these 5 cities. In June, the platform will start operating and then, with more funding, we aim at spreading to more cities and grow the Fairbnb network.

1. Investors, financial contributors in Italian

Sito Veracruz is a digital urbanist, a project manager and a social entrepreneur specialized in the creation of interactive city tools and shaping the interaction with urban policies. He studied Law and Urban Planning in Madrid, where he lived from 2003 until 2012. He established himself in Amsterdam in 2012, where he soon experienced the rise and effects of vacation rental platforms in the city. This experience led him to start developing the concept of a ‘Fairbnb platform’ in mid 2016, which eventually led to the creation of ‘Fairbnb.coop’.



Volume 2, no. 1 Spring 2019