But like other global tech firms with an eye on China, Airbnb faces challenges. Chief among them are domestic versions of the site, including Xiaozhu and another rival, Tujia, that offer more local listings. To counter Airbnb’s advantage with cosmopolitan Chinese who may have used its service in New York, Paris or Tokyo, the competitors are taking big steps to educate other skeptical Chinese about renting out — and crashing in — a spare bedroom.
The cultural barriers are significant. In a country where a home is for family or for investment and tourism is still relatively new for many, the idea of posting homes online for random guests to rent takes some getting used to.
“There is a manager behind every property,” said Kelvin Chen, the chief executive of Xiaozhu. “We still need time to educate our users.”
Airbnb offers the latest gauge of whether an American technology company can make it in a politically and commercially thorny market. The government blocks Google, Facebook and Twitter. Uber and the online arm of Walmart bowed in the face of intense domestic competition and sold their businesses to local rivals.
Perhaps mindful of its regulatory scuffles in the United States and Europe, Airbnb is taking a careful approach in China. It has worked out agreements with Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent. It has also teamed up with officials in cities like Shanghai to promote tourism.
Crucially, like LinkedIn, another international hopeful in China, Airbnb complies with Chinese laws requiring it to keep Chinese data only on domestically based Chinese servers. That could expose it to requests from the Chinese surveillance authorities to track any of its users. Last year, Airbnb sent a message to its users in China informing them that data would be stored in the country.
For Airbnb, which has only about 80,000 listings in China, its more than three million listings around the world put it in a strong position to cater to the millions of Chinese who travel overseas each year. It also has outreach efforts, like informational events for hosts and occasional promotions offering free photography for hosts with apartments they want to rent out.
Local rivals are going further to teach skeptical Chinese how to be good hosts and good guests. That helps in a country where horror stories of trashed hotel rooms and bad traveler behavior abound.
Natasia Guo, a longtime Airbnb host and entrepreneur in China, said most visitors tended to be younger, while the odd middle-aged guest did not seem to understand how the service was supposed to work. Of one 40-year-old guest, she said: “He treated my place like a hotel. And the reason I say that is he started smoking in the room.”
“I think he was using one of our bowls as an ashtray,” she said.
Xiaozhu, which has about 140,000 listings, seeks to reassure hosts against such problems. It also works with the internet censorship department and the public security bureau, which helps weed out users with a criminal record. For the benefit of guests, it offers its own cleaning services as well as training events to teach hosts how to get along with customers and decorate their homes.
Tujia, a competitor with more than 420,000 listings, more directly manages many of the apartments it showcases, either itself or through management firms. In some cases, it works with property developers sitting on unsold units. For those it does not manage, it conducts inspections and also maintains a blacklist of problematic guests. Many of Tujia’s users stay for a longer period of time or use the properties for vacation.