Airbnb new clientele a cause for concern

A regular one or two-bedroom apartment would have a fully furnished kitchen, a comfortable bed and bathroom with a heater, a living room with an upmarket set of chairs, a large smart TV screen with Netflix. PHOTO/FILE 

What you need to know:

  • Many youth have turned to Airbnb spaces as an alternative to their own modest accommodations, utilising these spaces to impress and indulge in romantic encounters with their partners.

The influence of the so-called ‘Airbnb effect’ on local housing markets is being propped by an unlikely audience—the Ugandan youth.

An online marketplace for short- and long-term homestays and experiences, the AirBed and Breakfast (Airbnb) has well and truly captured the fancy of young people that dot Kampala’s bougie suburbs. 

A regular one or two-bedroom apartment would have a fully furnished kitchen, a comfortable bed and bathroom with a heater, a living room with an upmarket set of chairs, a large smart TV screen with Netflix. Ordinarily, such an apartment cannot be easily afforded by most young people, many of whom have lately found Airbnb homes as the cheapest way to briefly escape from their not-so-fancy rentals.

In a rapidly changing social landscape, Ugandan youth and aspiring university students are finding creative ways to navigate the challenges of poor living conditions while seeking intimate encounters with high-class partners. Many have turned to Airbnb spaces as an alternative to their own modest accommodations, utilising these spaces to impress and indulge in romantic encounters with their partners.

Although Airbnb accommodations do not openly advertise short or hourly services, a growing number of young individuals have discovered that negotiating with hosts can provide them with the opportunity to rent a space. This can be for as few as two hours, moreover at a relatively affordable price. This arrangement allows them to entertain their romantic interests in a more appealing and comfortable environment than their own homes or hideout rentals.

The trend reflects the desire of these youth to create an impression and prove a point to their partners, despite their less-than-ideal living situations. It also highlights the changing dynamics of modern relationships and the increasing importance placed on material possessions and external appearances.

Airbnb appeal
Interviews with several individuals involved in this practice made clear that the appeal of using Airbnb spaces for intimate encounters stems from various factors. For one, the novelty and upscale ambiance of these accommodations contribute to the perception of a higher social status. This enables the renter to impress their partners. 

Additionally, the privacy and discretion offered by Airbnb spaces is often seen as preferable to the more crowded and communal living conditions experienced by many young people in Uganda.

This emerging trend is, however, not without its controversies and potential risks. While some argue that it provides an opportunity for young people to explore their desires in a more comfortable setting, others express concerns about the potential exploitation of vulnerable individuals and the ethical implications of engaging in intimate activities in rented spaces.

Globally, Airbnb, as a platform, does not explicitly condone or promote these types of short-term intimate encounters. The company’s guidelines strictly emphasise the importance of respecting local laws and community standards. Hosts are encouraged to provide safe and comfortable environments for their guests, with an emphasis on hospitality rather than facilitating illicit activities.

As this trend gains traction among Ugandan youth, it raises questions about the underlying issues of inadequate living conditions and the pressure to maintain a certain image in relationships. It also highlights the need for improved, affordable housing options for young individuals and a broader conversation about societal expectations and values.

In response to these developments, some advocacy groups and community organisations are calling for increased awareness and education regarding healthy relationships, consent, and responsible behaviour.

Cause for worry?
Ms Brenda Kuteesa, a community-based facilitator with Mbuya Community Alliance, guides that addressing the root causes of this trend—such as the lack of accessible and affordable housing—will be more effective in promoting positive social change.

She further adds that the trend has also been fuelled by other factors, including the influence of popular culture, changing social norms and the prevalence of social media platforms. 

“Young people are increasingly seeking unique and visually appealing locations for their social activities, influenced by images and narratives portrayed in music videos, movies and social media posts,” she reasoned.

Airbnb spaces, with their diverse range of properties and personalised aesthetics, fulfil this desire for distinct social spaces.

As the use of these spaces for intimate encounters continues to evolve, the big question that remains is: how will regulators, hosts, and the community at large respond to this emerging phenomenon?

Mr Phillip Mwebaza, a former peer educator under Reach a Hand Uganda’s peer educators academy, says the phenomenon should serve as a reminder of the complex interplay between societal pressures, personal aspirations, and the pursuit of romantic relationships in a rapidly changing world. He adds that this is a key issue leaders must look into.

In the meantime, young individuals in Uganda will continue to seek alternative arrangements, using Airbnb rentals as a means to enjoy themselves sexually. Others will use them as an alternative to their own homes, highlighting the need for a broader conversation about societal expectations, affordable housing, and responsible behaviour within intimate relationships.

Although the Airbnb developments are fast growing in all areas of the country—especially cities and areas with tourism destinations—they are mainly located in the areas of Kyanja, Kiwatule, Kira, Kyaliwajjala, Najjeera, Kisaasi, Ntinda, Naalya, Bukoto, Buziga, Munyonyo, among others.

Generally, the rate range between Shs80,000 and Shs350,000 per night. This depends on the location and level. Most of them, however, do not usually give out an apartment unless you pay for more than two nights. For weekend- long guests, usually a discount is given.

With close to seven million listings under its belt, Airbnb—which is active in more than 100,000 cities across 220 countries and regions—is aiming to get one billion guests annually by 2028.

The disruption occasioned by Airbnb has been met with mixed reviews. Whereas the benefits of Airbnb spaces have been well articulated, empirical evidence from different studies show that they have a devastating impact on housing stock. This is solely because Airbnb, as one study noted, encourages landlords to take threat properties off the long-term rental market for the short-term rental market.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that Airbnb spaces risk putting hoteliers in tourism magnets like Fort Portal, Jinja, and Mbale out of business. Hotels typically employ more people than your average Airbnb space.

Data from AirDNA, a vacation rental research firm, indicates that landlords with Airbnb properties in Kenya, on average, made $308 (about Shs1.2m) during last year’s festive period. Kenya had 14,031 Airbnb listings by last December. AirDNA indicated that 44 percent of the houses listed are one-bedroom, 29 percent are two-bedroom, 15 percent are three-bedroom and nine percent are studio apartments. Only one percent of the rental homes are more than five bedrooms in size.

Airbnb genesis

The Airbnb business was first started by Americans Joe Gebbia, Nathan Blecharczyk and Brian Chesky in 2008. The trio was at the time cash-strapped, and summarily hatched the idea to rent out rooms to visiting tourists and regular guests.

The idea spread like a wildfire from San Francisco, USA, where it started, to the rest of the USA, Europe, and later Africa. 

In Uganda, the housing phenomenon of Airbnb apartments is not clearly known as of when it cropped up. Mr Bernard Ssemakula, a real estate developer, says around 2015, real estate investors copied the idea from Kenya, where it had already proved lucrative.
In recent years, the rise of Airbnb spaces has revolutionised the travel and accommodation industry. In so doing, it has offered unique experiences and convenient lodging options to travellers.  

The simple mathematics of the lucrativeness of Airbnb spaces is premised on the fact that it is easier for one to recoup their investment in such an investment than in a regular rental house, which only pays after a month.

Additionally, one needs not one but multiple rental houses to recover their investment, a burden that an Airbnb owner may not have to suffer to the same extent.

Mr Uthman Kato, an Airbnb owner in Jinja City, says many Ugandans with decent homes have already started renting out their homes to short-time travellers for an unregulated fee. Mr Kato further reveals that he started renting out his house in Njeru, in 2009, to foreign travellers who would come to tour Jinja city and its numerous activities.

“By 2016, I had seriously considered a business out of this Airbnb thing. I think it is less straining yet rewarding in terms of income because I only have to wait for a night or two for me to make my money off one client,” Mr Kato says.

Until recently, most of the clients who occupied Mr Kato’s Kisi Apartments in Jinja have been foreign tourists, organisation staff for team building trips, and a few couples who want to get away from the rather uncomfortable homes in Kampala and elsewhere.