One late night in the summer of 2018, not long after opening a guesthouse on Airbnb in Dali, Huang Xiang got a phone call from a guest: she couldn’t find her boyfriend in the old town because he had lost his mobile phone. After being turned away by the local police, she turned to Huang for help. Huang raced out of the guesthouse and rode her moped through the town’s lanes and avenues until she finally managed to locate the boyfriend on a busy street.
Huang wanted to be one of the best hosts on the platform, the kind who was willing to help a guest solve any problems. “I traveled a lot before. I know that a warm and responsible host could leave a deep impression,” she said. “I want to be that kind of host.” She worked hard on improving her guesthouse, winning several awards from the company.
But after four years of hard work, Airbnb announced Tuesday that it will close down all China-based services, including rental listings and experiences, from July 30.
Airbnb entered China in 2016. It spent big to win over Chinese customers until 2020, but post-pandemic, the company has counted on other regions for growth. According to April data from market research firm AirDNA, as of the end of April, around 500,000 of Airbnb’s over 6 million active listings were in China.
Huang said she’s “frustrated” to learn that she “needs to start all over again.”
Huang moved to Dali from Beijing in 2016. After a year working as a bartender, she rented a villa and spent four months renovating it into a guesthouse with a transparent glass roof, a bar with karaoke, and a courtyard full of flowers. After that, she listed it on platforms including Ctrip, Fliggy, and Meituan, but found that the bookings from Airbnb consistently accounted for 70% of the total amount. The house gained more exposure on the app especially during the summer, when the rice paddies were at their most green and beautiful, Huang said.
In its early days, Airbnb offered something unique, hosts said: a version of hospitality that really felt like the community of creative people seen in the company’s ads.
Huang Xiang’s guesthouse in Dali, Yunnan province, 2019. Courtesy of Huang Xiang
“The reason why we do better on Airbnb might be that our guesthouse’s size and style match Airbnb’s style,” Huang said. “Guests from Airbnb are always more willing to communicate and are better at planning their travels. But those from other platforms are more likely to regard the homestay as a hotel. They treat the host like a concierge and talk about the ‘front desk.’”
Alex, a Beijing-based host who used a pseudonym for privacy reasons, echoed that Airbnb offered a unique feeling of community, where people sharing a similar outlook on life can connect with each other. “Some of them are tattoo artists, some are foodies, and some are designers. These are the coolest, most playful, and most imaginative people in China,” Alex told Sixth Tone, adding his experience of being a guest inspired him to list his spare room on the platform in 2016.
But in the last few years, Airbnb has become more of a typical business at the cost of its vibe, Alex said. “As Airbnb became better-known, more ordinary tourists started to use Airbnb to book rooms. They aren’t used to homestays, and focus on the price more than the experience or connecting with people,” Alex said.
Hosting has also been commercialized as the platform grows. A former Airbnb host surnamed Zhang told Sixth Tone that as Airbnb got bigger, real estate investors took over the listings. “For these situations, even though the tourists book houses on Airbnb, they only need to put in the digital password and can check in by themselves; they don’t see the owner the agent during the whole trip, let alone find connections or community,” Zhang said.
Zhang said that although Airbnb has grown a lot, it is still the best platform to find unique and special places to stay. Zhang shut down her guesthouse in 2020 because of crackdowns during the first wave of the pandemic, while Alex is also getting out of the business.
Huang told Sixth Tone that the revenue of her guesthouse in 2021 slumped by 50% compared to before the pandemic. “There are few people around us who can hold on. They are all running away from this industry,” Huang said.
Left: Comparison of the house before and after renovation; right: Huang’s husband (left) renovates an exterior wall with a friend, 2018. Courtesy of Huang Xiang
But, Huang says, she intends to keep the doors open and find customers on her own.
“Although the experiences and reviews that we have accumulated over four years will be gone, we met many lovely and well-educated guests, and became good friends with most of them… Airbnb’s decision to withdraw from the Chinese market is regretful, but it’s a new challenge and a new start for us,” Huang wrote in a WeChat post on Tuesday. She also attached several pictures: a screenshot of the announcement, the main page of her house in the app, and a picture of red bougainvillea planted four years ago when she opened the guesthouse.
Huang said she plans to pivot to marketing on social media platforms such as WeChat and Xiaohongshu, which have e-commerce functions but can only be accessed through private channels. “My main takeaway from this is that we cannot only rely on the big platforms,” Huang said.
Editor: David Cohen.
(Header image: IC)