When in 2015 I landed in New York as a student and a single mother with a 14-year-old son in tow, I only had one way of affording sky-high New York rents: renting out my apartment’s master bedroom to AirBnB guests. For one whole year men and women from all over the world traipsed through my lounge and into my bedroom, teaching me all I know about hosting.
The young French woman who took a chance on a brown woman with an unpronounceable name and no prior reviews or bookings left me a lovely note detailing all she liked about my place, along with a couple of very constructive criticisms. Get a full-length mirror, she told me – all guests will need one. The clock in the bedroom ticks too loud, perhaps replace it with something that won’t give sound sleepers insomnia. A lesbian couple from New Jersey suggested I make a duplicate set of keys, then personally drove me to the nearest Home Depot for it. But there was also the middle-aged French lady who thought I wasn’t paying her enough attention, she had thought staying at an AirBnB would mean the host would keep her company but there I was sitting on my laptop trying to finish my school work while juggling cooking and a teenage son. Not what she had in mind when she thought of booking an AirBnB, instead of a hotel.
Back in Pakistan I thought of booking an AirBnB for a short trip to Islamabad. The capital poses a particular problem: I don’t care for its five star hotels enough to pay the exorbitant price, and the guesthouses don’t provide enough psychological security to a solo female traveller, full as they are with 98 percent male occupants and there is rarely even a female receptionist. Someone struck a note of caution, “I don’t think AirBnBs are safe for a solo woman,” so left with no choice I again ended up at my cousin’s house in Islamabad. But then I met Resham, who told me she goes to Islamabad frequently and stays at a great AirBnB. “My sister found it for me, and though it is a room with three people occupancy and it has bunk beds, the place is so clean and the hosts so nice that now I don’t stay anywhere else when I go to Islamabad.” She doesn’t feel insecure as a woman, she says, even when she goes there alone, and often she takes friends along. “They take our NICs because they are now properly registered and have to submit a list of guests to the police each night.”
Also read: (Infra)structural issues
Other people I ask for their AirBnB experiences in Pakistan also give universally positive reviews, and I am frankly surprised, considering how many people around me keep saying these things are too dicey here and not to be trusted, thanks to the general perception of lawlessness and lack of regulation.
In the Northern areas, the AirBnB model has been adapted by a homegrown App called ‘Let’s Home’. It connects locals in more remote areas to travellers who want to explore place without any hotels, and it has been picking up. Aneeqa Ali, founder of the tour organising company, The Madhatters, says, “There is huge potential in this market, and it can help in developing infrastructure in new destinations with minimum investment. But homestays can’t be regulated like hotels, since they can’t afford to pay the same fees, etc. So they need to be given their own identity.”
One problem with them right now is that foreigners need an NOC to stay at homestays and that is neither an easy nor a clear procedure.