Airbnb won't find a home in China anytime soon

It's never easy for American businesses to make it in China. Cultural differences, government interference and the sheer cost of competing in a market that dwarfs the US have frustrated companies ranging from Walmart to Uber. However, those stumbles aren't dissuading Airbnb. This week, the home-sharing pioneer announced that it's changing its local brand name in China and doubling its investment there.

By any measure, the opportunity is immense. In 2015, Chinese travellers spent nearly US$500 billion (S$700 billion), and the number is expected to more than double by 2020 as the country's middle class expands. But capturing a major piece of that market will require Airbnb to navigate a far more tangled thicket of cultural issues than what confronted Uber and other tech companies in China. And judging by its efforts so far, it probably won't be up to the task.

In theory, China should be one of the world's biggest and best markets for home-sharing. The Chinese took 2.2 billion domestic trips in just the first half of last year, up nearly 10.5 per cent year on year. Yet China has only four hotel rooms for every 1,000 people, compared to 20 in the US. And thanks to a housing boom, about 50 million empty homes are scattered across China just waiting (in theory) for paying visitors.

But that doesn't mean the Chinese will jump on the opportunity to rent out their properties or stay in someone else's home. The biggest barrier is establishing trust between owners and renters. In recent years, Chinese consumers have been hit by scandals ranging from tainted food to dodgy medicine. They complain of poor-quality goods and misleading marketing or labelling. And they're highly suspicious of small vendors. So renting a room from a stranger advertising on the Internet won't come naturally.

Home owners, meanwhile, have their own concerns. Many vacant properties are purchased as investments, and most affluent home owners - especially those with desirable vacation rentals - will hesitate to open their doors to poorer tourists, who constitute most Chinese travellers these days and who would be the most likely to forgo a hotel. That reluctance is only heightened by the near-constant stream of news reports about misbehaviour among Chinese travellers at home and abroad.


Airbnb co-founder and chief executive Brian Chesky at the launch of the brand's Chinese name in Shanghai on Wednesday. The company faces many barriers in China, including cultural ones, in growing its home-sharing business. PHOTO: REUTERS

Bridging this gap in trust will be difficult. But there's some evidence that local companies - which are more familiar with local customs and concerns - are figuring it out. For example, Tujia.com, China's biggest home-sharing site, takes the ambitious approach of managing each of the 400,000 properties on its site (or hiring a third party to do so). That includes hotel-like services, such as housekeeping, as well as conducting due diligence to confirm that listings are accurate. That doesn't just improve the experience for renters; it also expands the number of properties available by giving owners - many of whom live far away from their investments - less upkeep to worry about and more peace of mind.

Airbnb, with its paltry 80,000 listings in China, hasn't made any such effort, focusing instead on self-starting younger travellers. Where Tujia arranges for home cleaners, Airbnb's new investments are focused on curated "experiences", such as tours of local landmarks, that can be purchased alongside a room. That kind of thing won't be enough to overcome the cultural barriers inhibiting home-sharing in China. And so far, there's little evidence that Airbnb is savvy enough to come up with a more appealing approach. On Wednesday, shortly after the firm announced its new Chinese brand name - Aibiying - social media users were widely mocking it as nonsensical and hard to pronounce.

It's not all bad news for Airbnb. China's growing tourism market means even a niche player focused on adventurous young travellers has a big opportunity. Equally important, outbound travel is growing, and Airbnb's three million global listings remain the best home-sharing option for Chinese who want one, a fact conceded even by its Chinese competitors. However, when it comes to winning China's local home-sharing market, Airbnb should probably check out early.

BLOOMBERG VIEW

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2017, with the headline 'Airbnb won't find a home in China anytime soon'. Print Edition | Subscribe