Small towns can’t handle the sharing economy tourism boom

In the teeny-tiny village of Joshua Tree, California, population 7,000, there are more than 200 vacation rentals on Airbnb. Travelers can also rent a vacation getaway through VRBO and HomeAway, or “camp” on someone else’s property through HipCamp. Just this month, a new option for the tech-minded traveler popped up there: small pods that nature-lovers can rent that include access to outdoor showers and a communal kitchen.

Joshua Tree has always attracted tourists because it borders the magnificent Joshua Tree National Park. But in the age of Airbnb, it’s starting to feel overrun by visitors. And it’s not alone: It’s become so easy to find a place to stay in once remote small towns that permanent residents are feeling overwhelmed by the influx. The successful adoption of share economy start-ups has made it too easy for the tourism economy to grow to scales that small towns can’t support.

In recent years, visitors to Joshua Tree National Park have soared, and last year the number of visitors hit a record high, surging by more than 27 percent to over 2 million.

“The short-term rental market is out of control right now,” said Mark Lundquist, the local field representative for the village from the San Bernardino County government. Lundquist believes the sharing economy has contributed in part to the influx of visitors. Whereas before visitors might have been forced to find a new vacation destination if all the local hotels had booked up, now admirers of the region’s famous stark landscape have a bevy of alternatives.

Over the past year, Lundquist told me, feeding that demand has put a strain on local resources. The local home buyers’ market has all but dried up as property owners put their places on short-term rental sites instead of up for sale. Long-term rental units are scant. Perhaps worst of all, it’s starting to feel like a tourist town.

And in Joshua Tree, it’s not even peak tourism season—that isn’t until the fall.

Many words have been written about how sharing economy cities are changing major cities. But sometimes technology’s biggest impact occurs in the places farthest from our minds, in places like Joshua Tree for which the scale of startups like Airbnb was never really intended.

“Tourism is good for the locals as far as the dollars coming in,” Lundquist told me. “But there is a break even point. It’s causing us infrastructure shortfalls and it’s costing us a lot of money. It comes to a point where tourism becomes a loser.”

In Joshua Tree, there are simply more visitors than belong.

In May, I worked with the technologist and Airbnb data guru Tom Slee to investigate Airbnb’s effect on the small Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. In Reykjavik, which has a population of 120,000, five percent of the local rental market now belongs to Airbnb. It has made finding a place to live there next to impossible.

Since then, both Slee and I have heard from even smaller communities reeling from the impact of sharing economy startups. In coastal Lincoln County, Oregon, population 46,000, Slee’s data crawl of the Airbnb website found 435 vacation rentals available through the site. While that number may not seem shocking on its face, it’s had a sizable impact. For one, that’s nearly as many listings as areas many times its size, like Savannah, Georgia with a population of 140,000. And, in a rural area where most people own their homes, it accounts for a significant percentage of the few thousand units otherwise available to rent.

“Although we do not get the same attention as large cities, we struggle with the same issues of displacement, lack of workforce housing, and rising rents as a result of unchecked growth of vacation rentals,” Rachel Cotton, a Lincoln County resident pushing for stricter regulations.

Like Joshua Tree, Lincoln County has always been a place popular with visitors. But in making such destinations easier to access, sharing economy start-ups have disrupted the delicate balance between those who live in a place and those who travel there. By making them as easy to find as entering a few terms into the search bar, these start-ups have unleashed a tide of tourism with which the infrastructure of such places just cannot keep up.

“I do believe that vacation rentals have increased the number of people who are visiting this town,” Joshua Tree resident and business owner Christine Pfranger told me. “Before the many vacation rentals, the only opportunities people had to stay overnight were to camp in the national park or to stay in one of the three hotels. Vacation rentals are great for business but bad for the town”

Of the 10 houses near her own, Pfranger said five of them are now full-time vacation rentals. Friends have had a hard time finding homes to rent.

This influx of different people every weekend who are now in our space and damaging the desert is such a big fat depressing bummer,” Pfranger wrote in an open letter to the community that went viral within the community on Facebook. “My home is no longer the sanctuary it once was.”

Lundquist said that its not just the housing market that’s been hurt by the influx of share economy-savvy visitors. “People are taking native plants home. People are taking tortoises,” he said.

The city now has to provide services for several thousand more people than actually live there, on a regular basis. And the visitors, he said, don’t seem to have the same respect for the local environment.

“It’s common for long-time-residents to talk about how they no longer visit the local restaurants or the national park because everything is too busy,” Pfranger told me. “We feel Joshua Tree is being loved to death.”

For now, Joshua Tree just requires short-term hosts to register as businesses. San Bernardino County is currently working on developing a law to apply specifically to short-term rental properties like Airbnb, but that law is not expected to be done for at least eight months.

Since Airbnb is the largest vacation rental platform in most of these places, I asked the company whether it might consider limiting the number of rentals in small towns overburdened by tourism.

“Airbnb fights economic inequality and brings real economic benefits to people and communities and we’re proud to help people in cities large and small pay the bills and stay in their homes,” a spokesperson told me. “We’ve also worked closely with local leaders and we’re committed to helping cities solve their housing challenges.”

Old wisdom holds that you cannot visit a place without changing it. Just as you cannot walk though the woods without leaving something of yourself behind, it seems that is impossible to make a town of 7,000 people easily accessible to the world and not change something essential about its character. The question here is whether that change is for the better or worse.

“I am not unhappy about the extra business, don’t get me wrong,” Pfranger told me, “but we were getting along fine with less.”

For Pfranger, it was the slow-pace of life that attracted her to Joshua Tree in the first place. But that way of life is now at risk.

“Now we feel that the small town aspect of Joshua Tree is dying,” she said. “We are being forced to deal with the many boom-town issues that we never predicted.”