Airbnb booming in Brussels, but is it safe?

About 315,000 overnight stays in Brussels are made outside of hotels. The digital sharing economy is hitting the traditional hotel business hard, and Airbnb is one of the biggest players. According to the Brussels Hotels Association (BHA), the capital is offering over 5,000 Airbnb's at about a thousand different addresses. But is this new formula safe?

Airbnb started in San Francisco in 2007. Today, the company has a net value of 13 billion US dollars, offering 550,000 beds in places all over the world. The only countries where Airbnb is completely inactive are Syria, Iran and North Korea, writes Alain Porreye in his dissertation 'Airbnb in Brussels, debunking the air bed'.

In several years’ time, the number of Airbnb users in Belgium has no less than tripled. Recent figures show 20,000 accommodations at 5,207 Belgian addresses, rented out by 3,700 hosts. Brussels houses a fifth of these. BHA speaks of 5,000 Airbnb beds in the Belgian capital, which is a lot compared to the number that the traditional hotel industry offers: 17,677 rooms in 2013.

Dangers and shortcomings

Renting a room with Airbnb is easy, comfortable, and seems cheaper. But what are the downsides? For one, there is a rating system not only for the accommodation, but for the guests as well. So if you were in a hurry to catch your train and didn't have time to clean your room, you might get a bad rating and your chances of being able to rent a top room grow smaller.

Secondly, even though payment happens seamlessly over the website, the host can cancel the reservation last-minute, leaving you looking for a room at the eleventh hour. Especially business(wo)men can't afford to lose time like this. And it isn't cheaper either, writes Mr Porreye. An average Belgian Airbnb costs 83 euros, this is more than you will spend on a similar offer with a direct payment to a hotel or on booking.com.

There is also no general hygiene and fire safety policy at Airbnb. What if you burn your hands on a malfunctioning stove? This differs from address to address. The insurance claim can get pretty messy, and the judicial vacuum is raising an eyebrow or two among tourist legal aids. Moreover, the website's insurance won't cover theft, for example when someone robs the apartment while you're staying there. BHA is asking for a stricter (fiscal) regulation of Airbnb.

Aside from all the dangers and downsides, you will get some advantages that the traditional hotel industry doesn't or can’t offer in the same way. One thing is that you often have a kitchen(ette), allowing you to go to the local supermarket and cook yourself, which is cheaper and sometimes even nicer. Then there’s the freedom, cosiness and privacy aspects that you don’t quite get with a hotel. It’s like having your very own apartment in the city you’re visiting. Plus, the local host will tell you all about the trendy spots and restaurants in the neighbourhood that the average tourist might pass by. That is, if you get to see him or her.