According to the data by the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia (SORS), in the first four months of 2016, Belgrade was visited by 242,422 tourists, the majority of which arrived from abroad – 180,265. Considering the fact that around 5% of the tourists choose private accommodation, the conclusion is that 9,000 guests opted for this type of accommodation in the said period. There are no precise data on the number of tourists who book accommodation through online platforms.
- All the research by the Tourism Organization of Serbia (TOS) that was conducted on local tourists, and that will soon be conducted on foreign guests as well, shows that an increasing number of tourists get information on Serbian destinations online, rather than through conventional media – says Sadra Vlatkovic, PR manager of TOS for eKapija.
She adds that it is not know so far to what extent services like Airbnb participate in the development of tourism in Belgrade.
The offer of houses and apartments on the website is varied, and most of the real estate is rented in the old part of the city. The prices range from EUR 10 a night to EUR 200 for luxury houses and apartments in the city's center. The average price of accommodation is EUR 36. The fact is that that amount of money can't buy hotel accommodation in the very center of Belgrade. On the other hand, hotel accommodation is indeed cheaper, but mostly offers less comfortable rooms with multiple beds. Airbnb service brings various other benefits, among others, late check-in options and more authentic travel experience.
Although the TOS data show that most tourists come from the region, those who rent out through Airbnb say that guests from all over the world knock on their door.
- We have guests from America, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands... We often welcome business people and travelers who are taking a tour of the region, with Belgrade as the first stop to, say, Budapest. The average stay is around 5-6 days, although there are guests who stay for up to two weeks – says Jovana Kovacevic, who has been renting out a two-room apartment in the center of Belgrade for several years now.
Our interviewee points out that the rental prices have dropped recently, since the offer is three or four times bigger now.
- When I started, I refused to go below a certain price which was acceptable at the time. However, you need to be flexible now, because tourists have numerous options at their disposal. This is especially true of the “dead period” in November, the beginning of December and in February.
Jovana pays rental taxes, since she uses the services of agencies like Basco and Rentastan, who keep books for renters. She finds guests through Airbnb mostly and then directs them to these agencies.
- Renting out apartments is not an illegitimate practice. You can use Airbnb and operate in accordance with the law. I'd rather pay service charges to agencies and so earn slightly less, than constantly worry whether I will be caught by the tourist inspection.
eKapija's interviewee emphasizes that the rental business should be approached as any other business, that is, certain rules must be followed.
The law and the renting two separate concepts?
Legitimate renting was until recently a kind of an oxymoron in Serbia, best illustrated by the number of complaints by tenants about the opening of hostels in residential buildings. The decision to ban the opening of hostels without the agreement of the tenants' assembly came into effect on May 6, and the city manager said on that occasion that such objects had been opened by “whoever wanted to, without any set rules”. Will the renting out of apartments in Serbia with the aid of Airbnb fall into a similar “legal limbo”?
- Services like Airbnb are targeted by legislatures in all countries, and are even banned in some of them. This is an accommodation sales channel in the so called gray zone. Most often, there are uncategorized and unregistered accommodation objects on which owners don't pay taxes – says Aleksandar Senicic, director of Yuta, for eKapija.
According to him, another problem in Serbia is the insufficient number of tourist inspectors, which is why the control is weaker than it needs to be.
Airbnb, as he says, plays a great role when it comes the arrival of foreign tourists to Serbia, but it's hard to determine the exact number of reservations made through this online platform.
Senicic also points out that accommodation reservations through Airbnb are not necessarily the best option. - However, it's hard to find travelers who will confirm this, because, as everyone knows, everyone wishes to boast about finding the best and the cheapest solution for every occasion, including travel.
- In my case, it's around EUR 400-500 a month, depending on the season. Before I started renting out apartments to tourists, I had a long-term lessee from Serbia and a monthly rent of EUR 250 – says Jovanka Kovacevic.
Although renting may bring in revenue higher than the average salary in Serbia, to those permanently employed who wish to double their earnings, this is an almost impossible mission.
- Renting out apartments is a constant engagement. It often happens that guests will change the time of the arrival, and it is necessary that you meet them and show them into the apartment. Flexibility is Airbnb's main advantage. Also, the apartment needs to be cleaned before and after each new guest. If you include the price of cleaning the apartment in the total price, renting out becomes a real business – explains our interviewee.
She emphasized that this type of money making is not an ideal option for the unemployed either. - Inevitably, over the years, there are “good” and “bad” periods. The influx of cash, therefore, is not guaranteed, since it depends to a large extent on foreign tourists' demand. You can certainly fill out your home budget by renting out, but there are months when you earn very little, and the real estate maintenance expenses, like utility and electricity bills, remain.
There's no doubt that renting out apartments through Airbnb is becoming increasingly popular, but whether this business is lucrative or not depends on the apartment's location and the tourist season.
Competition still stiff
Subsidies issued by the state to tourist agents for bringing in foreigners haven't awoken much interest. Senicic points out that this doesn't mean that agencies aren't interested in the practice, but that they need time to adjust to it.
- Subsidies are a great reason “for” to give more attention to this aspect of the business, but also a strong message sent by the competent Ministry and the state that they count on tourism industry in the future. The weak realization of subsidies so far isn't and shouldn't be the reason for cancellation, because time is needed for all the subjects to get used to working in an organized and ordered system, which will in the end surely positively affect the private sector as well, but also the balance of the state – says the director of Yuta.
According to the TOS data, the largest number (75%) of foreign tourist in Serbia last year used hotel accommodation. That Airbnb is not threatening to smother Belgrade hotels is shown by the fact that new hotels are being built in Serbia's capital. Let us remind that Belgrade will get its first five-star hotel, Hilton, in the coming period. In Vracar, a popular neighborhood for renting out apartments, TESLA Smart Stay is being built. In the city's center, a Marriott has already been built, whereas New Belgrade will get a luxury St. Regis within the Belgrade Waterfront project.