Scottish islanders launch Airbnb rival in fight against second homes crisis

Local group hopes to take on tech giant and help keep hold of tourist revenue

Rhoda Meek knows the power of Scottish islands working together. During the first lockdown she created a website for more than 360 businesses from Arran to Ulva to sell their wares while the pandemic prevented visitors.

Now she and her neighbours have launched a holiday lettings website that aims to take on Airbnb and ensure that more of the islands’ tourism revenue stays local.

“I was increasingly aware of the challenge posed by lack of affordable housing for islanders and the proliferation of short-term lets, and the difficult balance between the need for tourism and the damage that can be done,” explains Meek. aims to ensure that more of the revenue generated by tourism in the islands stays local, with profits from the commission-based structure to be reinvested in small businesses, community and housing projects.

On the east of Tiree, an island in the Inner Hebrides where Meek lives, she estimates that 40% of the houses sit empty during the winter: “It’s just not sustainable for keeping communities in fire fighters and care staff. We have to start somewhere.”

But she is likewise a pragmatist: “It will take time to change that situation and involve action at a local and national government level. But, in the meantime, the letting market exists.

“People have sunk money into houses then can’t afford to let them on a long-term basis. And with short-term lets now the money is leaving the islands, and often leaving the UK. Our goal is to use the current market to generate revenue which can be used to the benefit of our communities, particularly in relation to affordable housing and long-term rental options for residents.”

Meek admits she was nervous about floating the idea, given how controversial the subject has become, but says that so far the idea has “struck a chord” with islanders.

She has also sought input from housing groups across the islands, and from younger residents, “to make sure we’re not working at cross purposes”. On South Uist last month, for example, a house was for sale to islanders or first-time buyers only following a spike in second-home ownership as remote working during the pandemic made the islands an option for city-dwellers who were able to pay more.

Yvonne Murray, originally from Lewis but now working in Worcestershire, is keen to sign up after buying a small cottage on Harris earlier this year.

“I could see the property prices on the islands going up and up after lockdown, and as a first-time buyer, I didn’t want to miss the boat,” she explains. “As a young person, I want to live and work in the islands but until the internet connectivity is good enough it’s just not possible”.

She currently uses Airbnb to rent out both her new property and her father’s house on Lewis – he moves out to a caravan behind the garage in peak summer season to supplement his pension.

The new platform will be “totally invaluable”, Murray believes. “The commission is going back into the community and I’m behind any young upstart company challenging the big boys.”

Last year, analysis by the Guardian showed that Airbnb has become so prevalent in Great Britain that some parts of the country now have one listing for every four properties, fuelling concern that the rapid expansion in short-term lets is out of control and depriving local residents of much-needed homes.

Identifying hotspots in both rural areas and inner-city neighbourhoods, across England, Scotland and Wales, the analysis found the highest incidence of Airbnbs was in Edinburgh Old Town, where there were 29 active listings for every 100 properties, while the north-west of Skye had the second-highest concentration, at 25 listings per 100 properties. At the time, Airbnb responded that the findings are based on “unreliable scraped data and flawed methodology”.

Responding to what many in the Highlands and islands frame as a crisis, last month the Scottish government set out legislation requiring all local authorities to establish a short-term lets licensing scheme by October 2022, after residents across Scotland raised significant concerns about the impact of short-term lets, including noise, antisocial behaviour and the impact on the supply on housing.

And in July the Holyrood government pledged £43m to build affordable homes on the Western Isles amid fears of population decline.

Whilst isleHoliday is a direct response to this, Meek also hopes that – by encouraging islander hosts – the new platform will shift the dynamic between locals and tourists.

This aspiration comes after a series of flashpoints in recent years: thoughtless camper van traffic blocking and littering narrow rural roads, an influx of visitors who were not always mindful of local Covid concerns following lockdowns, and most recently furious islanders complaining about tourists taking up space on already over-stretched ferry services.

“This allows us to start a dialogue with people coming to the islands, to send them information about passing places, phone signal, local charities before the arrive,” says Meek. It should make people think slightly differently about visiting: yes these are gorgeous places but they are also living, breathing communities.”


Libby Brooks

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
In desirable Southwold, locals rise up against blight of empty holiday homes
Property investors accused of squeezing the life out of picturesque Suffolk resort and distorting economy

Nosheen Iqbal

24, Jun, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Airbnb owners caught ignoring travel ban to let out holiday homes
Booking sites urged to step in after Observer research reveals many doors are open for half-term breaks

Suzanne Bearne

14, Feb, 2021 @10:10 AM

Article image
Cawsand joins St Ives as the new frontline of Cornwall’s war on second homes
After a court backed a bid by St Ives to limit new homes to locals, parishes across the county are prepared to follow its lead

Dan Glaister in Cawsand

20, Nov, 2016 @11:35 AM

Get tough on second home owners, rural adviser tells Brown
The government is being urged to put controls on incomers so the Cornish can escape from 'squalor' into affordable housing, reports Jasper Gerard

18, Nov, 2007 @10:46 AM

Article image
How Airbnb took over the world
In just 11 years, it has grown from nothing to a $30bn firm. But critics say Airbnb’s rise has come at a huge cost to urban life – and cities across the planet are trying to find ways to rein it in.

Harriet Sherwood

05, May, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Wealthy to lose tax breaks on second homes

Government targets second-home owners to raise funds and reduce number of empty properties

Daniel Boffey, policy editor

29, Oct, 2011 @11:07 PM

Article image
Staycation boom forces tenants out of seaside resort homes
From Cornwall to Kent, people are driven out of popular destinations where landlords favour short lets for tourists

James Tapper and Suzanne Bearne

30, May, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘In St Ives, we’re facing the financial cleansing of the town’s people’
As St Ives prepares to vote in a groundbreaking referendum to restrict second homes, there’s a surge of support for the change on the cosmopolitan harbourside

Dan Glaister

03, Apr, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
Padstow's locals are priced-out of Cornish resort by tourist boom

Flood of money into second homes in Padstow drives residents away, mirroring trend across rural areas

Conal Urquhart

17, Aug, 2013 @11:23 AM

Article image
Airbnb faces worldwide opposition. It plans a movement to rise up in its defence
The room-rental website, now worth $30bn, faces a critical year as city authorities clamp down

Shane Hickey and Franki Cookney

29, Oct, 2016 @9:02 PM