Airbnb’s exit from vacation rentals in China amid Covid-19 closures highlights the country’s isolation

Liu Shaopeng’s Airbnb stays in Japan, New Zealand and the UK were more than just a great vacation: they inspired him to become an Airbnb host himself. For two years, he sublet two apartments in Beijing. He said he loved the platform and made friends with many of the 200 guests he hosted in Beijing. After moving to Shanghai in 2020, Liu wanted to rent a spare room in his apartment, and even planned to offer an Airbnb Experience, a platform signature that involves guiding visitors on a local activity.

Then everything went wrong. A confinement of several months confined Liu to his home. A few days before the end of the quarantine at the end of May, Airbnb announced that it would close its operations in China and remove approximately 150,000 listings. “It’s such a shame,” said the 33-year-old. “The whole country is becoming more and more closed to the world.”

Airbnb’s exit from China and the disappointment of hosts who have used the platform highlights the challenges of operating a foreign platform in the country – and how these platforms provide a unique connection with the outside world. The combination of a strict zero-Covid strategy, tight government control over the internet, and the rise of local monopolies have combined to create physical and digital barriers between China and the rest of the world. For the country’s young people who grew up feeling like global citizens, change has been difficult.

China began to open up to the global economy in the late 1970s, allowing the growing middle class to become accustomed to mainstream brands around the world like Nike, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Shanghai now has its own Disneyland and one of the largest Starbucks in the world. But things have changed dramatically in recent years. The Great Firewall is keeping China’s internet isolated, tighter government regulations are making it harder for foreign companies to compete, and now the zero-Covid policy is making it extremely difficult for anyone to travel in or out. outside of China.

Major tech companies and platforms have also pulled out of the country. LinkedIn, the last global social network available in China at the time, pulled out last year. This month, Amazon announced that it would stop selling Kindle e-readers this month and close its e-book store next year. And Nike is shutting down its popular Nike Run Club app. But even among these names, Airbnb stands out: as a travel site, it was one of the few global platforms that allowed Chinese users to interact directly with people overseas, both online and offline.

“A lot of good things are disappearing from this place,” said Hayami Wang, 26, another Shanghai-based Airbnb user. After the pandemic made overseas travel nearly impossible, Wang rented weekend stays on Airbnb in other parts of Shanghai just to meet new people. “The globalized, open and inclusive world seems to be moving away from us.”

Like many other American technology companies, the San Francisco-based company once dreamed of conquering the huge Chinese market. In 2017, chief executive Brian Chesky announced Airbnb’s Chinese name, Aibiying, a similar-sounding phrase that translates to “welcoming each other with love,” and promised to double its investment in China. In 2019, the company’s Chinese president, Tao Peng, said the country could become Airbnb’s biggest source of guests.

The reality turned out to be very different and Airbnb failed to become mainstream in China. For older generations, staying in someone’s house or couch surfing remain alien concepts, while for younger generations chain hostels are cheaper and easier to get to. Airbnb has also been slow to integrate mainstream mobile payment methods Alipay and WeChat Pay. And local rivals, backed by tech giants Alibaba, Meituan and Ctrip, have fought for customers by offering generous subsidies – a strategy Chinese tech firms often use when trying to establish control over a newly emerging sector. Airbnb has stayed out of this price war, and as a result, rentals in China represent just 1% of its global revenue.

In addition to local competition, foreign tech companies must also comply with stricter censorship, data security laws and, in the case of Airbnb, complicated rules regarding short-term rentals aimed at control Chinese citizens. The company has been criticized for sharing user data with the Chinese government and allowing discrimination against suppressed ethnic minorities.

But Airbnb’s commercial failure has also given it a unique identity in the country, as loyal users view the platform as a niche space where they can meet other young, middle-class city dwellers eager to share personal stories. . As their Chinese competitors increasingly focus on professional B&B chains with hotel-like check-in and cleaning services, Airbnb users said Rest of the world that they made friends, shared emotional moments and formed professional relationships with their hosts or guests.

Summer Xu, a 22-year-old teacher and former host in Beijing, told Rest of the world how she learned to deal with an elderly Finnish host’s body image anxiety, comforted a guest who suffered from postnatal depression and met a gay Taiwanese couple while hosting an exposure tour of art. Airbnb hosts in China, many of whom were designers and technicians, also gathered for sightseeing, crafts and yoga.

Courtesy of Summer Xu

While older travelers in China have long preferred group travel, for younger travelers, traveling independently and meeting strangers has become part of their identity as open and adventurous global citizens. “It represents something new compared to other parts of the world,” said Mingming Cheng, a researcher at Curtin University who studies digital marketing and tourism. “It’s the same with Starbucks. Starbucks is also popular among the younger generation. It’s a bit of a lifestyle identity, rather than the business being better than local businesses.

Airbnb hosts in China like to show off this identity. In their biography, the hosts talk about their love for divination or collecting antiquities. Airbnb “experiences” in China include shooting with cameras, roasting coffee beans, and exploring “wild” parts of the Great Wall of China that have yet to be restored for tourists. Liu wanted to launch an “experience” in Shanghai to take tourists from small Chinese towns to visit the country’s first Costco: a taste of American consumer culture without crossing the Pacific.

Airbnb said it would continue to work for Chinese people traveling overseas. But most middle-class Chinese have been unable to leave the country since the start of 2020, and there is no date in sight when the government will lift strict border controls aimed at maintaining the numbers of Covid-19 to zero. Immigration authorities recently said they would strictly limit ‘non-essential’ travel, at a time when people from many other parts of the world are traveling again.

After hearing about Airbnb’s exit, Wang, the Shanghai-based user and blogger, asked her social media followers to share their experiences with Airbnb. Several hundred people sent in photos and texts reminiscing about their trips abroad several years ago. “Thank you Airbnb for bringing us this dream,” wrote one follower, according to Wang. “But now we all know the tide is going out. Buildings are collapsing. The old dreams were nowhere to be found.

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