Airbnb: Will Japan kill the golden goose?

posted on December 17, 2015

Individuals opening their private homes for travelers is nothing new to Japan. During the Edo Period (1615-1868), travelers such as the famed Matsuo Basho, on his journey to the far north, made use of the minpaku system.

While similar networks sprung up independently in many countries, the modern standard and the name - bed and breakfast, B&B or, more recently, BnB - were established in Britain after World War II. Today, the stereotypical “Vacancy” and “No vacancy” signs flapping in the wind have taken to the air. Travelers preferring a more homey atmosphere, a cheaper room, a country chalet - or even a night in a yurt or tent - are turning to Airbnb as they plan out their next trips.

Mutually assured assessment

Through the Airbnb website, travelers can contact hosts beforehand, see photos of the accommodation inside and out, and read reviews of the home and hosts written by other travelers. In fact, the system of reviews - word of mouth taken into cyberspace - is one aspect that distinguishes the system from the realm of traditional B&Bs.

The reviews work both ways, as owners can vet travelers as well. As Chie Davies, who recently added her third Airbnb property, one of two in rural Shiga Prefecture, explains, “Only welcoming good guests is the key.”

Although Davies has had overwhelmingly positive experiences, one bad apple slipped past her screening. A guest from Australia nitpicked about many aspects of her guest house, such as the fact that two mattresses were placed side by side and the pillow wasn’t comfortable enough. His severe demeanor led her to lower the fee for him - after all, the customer is god in Japan - but when it came time to write a review, she wanted to let other hosts know what they were getting themsleves into.

Ironically, the wife of this problem guest had been sweet all along and had written an appreciative review. To eliminate tit-for-tat exchanges, neither the owner nor the guest can view the other’s review until theirs has been submitted to the Airbnb website.

The review system is crucial for an enterprise with scant regulation compared to hotels - or even B&Bs, which might at least belong to an association that provides ratings. The nascent business model, started in San Francisco in 2008, was rocked in 2011 when guests thoroughly trashed a house in the city, smashing walls and stealing everything of value - all while writing cheerful emails throughout their one-week stay. Airbnb initially only offered words of support, but after facing criticism, the firm backed up its words with financial support.

The admittedly imperfect review system has led Airbnb to put together an “extortion policy” on its help page. Both guests and renters are warned not to use the threat of a bad review or promise of a good one to leverage discounts.

The number of properties offering the service in Japan recently eclipsed 21,000 and is rising rapidly. Not coincidentally, the number of foreign tourists is increasing concurrently, with 19 million expected in 2015 — a record.

For a country that bandies about its need for greater internationalization and globalization, Airbnb is a boon. Japanese with enough English ability can not only rent out rooms but also interact with foreign travelers on a daily basis. This, in turn, will lead to more intimate exchanges abroad, where Japanese tourists can see life firsthand from the homes of their Airbnb hosts. That is, unless new legislation kills or culls the golden-egg-laying goose that Airbnb has become for hosts and travelers.

source by japantimes
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