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Private homes offer alternative to hotels
By Yao Minji

A growing number of Shanghai residents are putting their homes on AirBnb and Chinese copycat websites as holiday rentals.

The ad hoc tourism facilities are potential money-spinners for people like Kevin, 25, who declined to give his full name because he’s operating in what is still a gray area in China by hosting tourists without a business license or leasing contract.

“At first I was concerned about whether it would work and whether it would be regulated,” he tells Shanghai Daily, referring to the five residences he leases and then in turn rents out to tourists. “But I feel a bit reassured after staying in an AirBnb place near Tian’anmen Square (in Beijing). If they can do it right there in the heart of the capital city, why should I worry?”

AirBnb and similar websites globally are becoming increasingly popular with tourists looking for cheaper accommodation or homier surroundings in a foreign culture. It’s all transacted online.

Kevin says he has invested about 400,000 yuan (US$64,411) in his rentals, which are all in the leafy, popular former French concession area of Shanghai. He says he expects his venture to start making profits soon, enabling him to expand.

“Asians are very traditionally wary of strangers, and it takes some time for them to invite even friends to their homes,” says Felix Lin, a local freelance tour guide. “Young Chinese, however, are very different. They love traveling, and they have developed a lot of trust in such Internet platforms.”

Both Chinese and expats are involved in AirBnb accommodation. There are more than 1,000 houses in Shanghai and Beijing respectively listed on the platform. Second-tier cities like Chengdu in Sichuan Province have more than 300, and even third-tier cities like Xining in Qinghai Province have a dozen or so.

“I was quite shocked at how many choices there are in China, even in remote Inner Mongolia,” says American backpacker Alice Park. “I really thought I wouldn’t find much here. I hope in the future there will be even more interesting places, like yurts, tree houses and palaces.”

Despite rapid growth, many existing hosts and those who want to join platforms are concerned about how it works in China — the regulations, the cultural differences between Chinese and foreign guests, and insurance issues.

The uncertainty makes most people involved in such online accommodation wary about identifying themselves, lest they become targets in any government crackdown on the practice.

“I thought about doing it here, but I’m really not sure about regulations,” says a Shanghai-based Italian businessman calling himself only Maurizio. “I don’t know whether it’s really allowed or not, or if I risk getting into trouble.”

The American site sends its own photographers to take photos of the places listed online.

Potential guests need to submit passport and credit card information for verification. No street addresses, e-mail addresses or phone numbers are revealed in the online communication between hosts and guests.

The AirBnb platform is available in Chinese, and some Chinese operators now are copying the format.

“It’s a gray area in China,” says an American AirBnb host in Shanghai. “Most of my fellow AirBnb hosts also don’t want to be in the media. Ideally, there will be some kind of policies eventually to make clear legal rights and responsibilities as hosts. Right now, there aren’t really any regulations about this in the US either.”

Her parents are AirBnb hosts in the US, where they are protected under the site’s guarantee program. That assures compensation from the site’s insurance company in case of damage, theft or other losses resulting from bookings.

The site lists the countries where hosts are protected by insurance. China is not one of them.

“I checked the insurance issue before deciding to post our design studio on the website,” says Shanghai-based South Korean designer Vandy Han. “It doesn’t cover China, and I thought about it for a bit, but then decided to proceed anyway.”

Han and his Serbian architect girlfriend Jeka say they want to share their Bund-view studio with visitors. Cost: 800 yuan a night.

“The main purpose of doing this for us is to meet interesting new people,” says Han, who insists upon meeting guests who book his studio, which has sleeping and cooking facilities.

Like Han and Jeka, many hosts do care about the security of possessions in the places they rent out.

“It’s not really illegal, and the hosts may suffer some consequences in the worst scenario,” says Zhou Jiayi, a property attorney and partner of the Shanghai Zhongda Law Firm.

“Shanghai requires leasing contracts, whether long- or short-term, to be registered,” she says. “Most of these hosts don’t sign contract with their guests, which leaves them more vulnerable legally.”

Zhou adds that hosts may be held responsible in cases where guests conduct illegal activities in their rentals, and she suggests they make a list of specific dos and don’ts for guests to sign, giving them some leg to stand on if problems with the law occur.

“There have been some unhappy experiences, but I accept them as collateral damage,” says Kevin. “Overall, the experience has been great, and it has also changed some of my prejudices.”

When he started renting his places last September, the Zhejiang native decided not to accept Chinese guests because he says he was worried about bad manners.

“It did happen on occasion,” he says. “One guest checked out leaving the place in shambles, and that hurt because I had put a lot of heart into interior decorating. But the majority of Chinese guests have proven to be just as mannered as the foreign ones, so I have changed my view of them.”

An anonymous American host on AirBnb says she rents to both Chinese and foreigners in Shanghai.

“They can be very sweet, friendly and understanding,” she says of Chinese guests. “They are used to old buildings, and they aren’t as picky about things like hot water or a well-drained shower.”

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