UBER GREW UP, BUT AIRBNB IS STILL PRAGUE’S ANNOYING TEENAGER

The Internet’s disruption of hotels and taxi services began in earnest ten years ago. That’s when the start-ups Uber and Airbnb went global and fed into the belief that we stood on the cusp of an entirely new digital era. It became cool to say how bored you were of corporate hotels, while ride share platforms cut the cost of a taxi ride to the airport in half.

By sheer coincidence, this week provided insights into how things have progressed since 2013. For starters, Uber has won a tender to provide taxi services for Prague’s airport. The move takes effect in January 2023. Frankly, the tender conditions it had to meet sound great for customers leaving the airport. Guaranteed prices, non-cash payments, 24-hour service, maximum 5-year old cars, basic English skills. Also, you won’t have to use the Uber app to call your ride.

Uber’s operational manager for the Czech Republic Štěpán Šindelář sounded almost statesman like in his reaction to being chosen. “We know how fundamentally important quality transport from the airport is not just for Prague but for the entire Czech Republic. In this way, we can influence the view foreign visitors have of our country right from the beginning, which is a big responsibility.”

It’s a big change from the days when Uber drivers were nervous about bringing you to the airport (for fear they’d get beaten up by “real” taxi drivers. Winning the airport concession means its drivers can do their business in a legitimate environment.

So, Uber’s all grown up now and has found a useful role for its tech platform in society. Meanwhile, Airbnb is still an enfante terrible — a rebel without any socially beneficial cause. In Prague, its only real function appears to be to continue to make it possible for low-quality tourists to have a cheap place to crash after a night of bar hopping.

And things appear to be getting tougher for owners of the estimated 12,000 to 15,000 flats currently offered on the various platforms. Novinky.cz ran an interview with Petr Městecký, chairman of the dramatically named civic group Bearable Living in Central Prague. He claims city officials are finally cracking down on Airbnb apartment owners who try to rent to tourists unofficially.

“The first summons to end such businesses have gone out,” he says. “I know of five such cases, so it’s getting underway.”  It all stems from a court ruling last summer that found that short-term rentals were a business and would have to be operated accordingly. The problem for most Airbnb entrepreneurs is that their apartments don’t meet a whole range of conditions required for commercial rental use (such as hall width, evacuation routes, evacuation elevators and personnel). Local officials now appear to have the methodology to deal with suspected Airbnb operators, including the ability to demand owners to prove they aren’t offering short-term stays online. In some cases, says Městecký, officials simply go online, pretend to rent an apartment and meet the owner that way. Those to refuse to stop renting out their flats in that way risk a fine of up to CZK 500,000.

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