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Traveller safety key to Airbnb pact - Details next year

Published:Friday | December 16, 2016 | 12:00 AMSteven Jackson

The Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) wants to work with Airbnb, the fastest-growing booking provider, to find a mechanism to monitor and, if necessary, remove listings for lodgings that put travellers at risk.

It could mean, for instance, that hosts signing up for the home-sharing service might not be able to list rooms with couches described as beds. Or popular inner-city communities known to travellers as historic reggae zones, might, in future, find difficulty renting rooms due to perceptions of crime.

But all of these are issues up for discussion next year.

"Safety, security and seamlessness are critical elements to secure the destination. When a visitor comes here, the destination has a responsibility for their safety and security. And if anything happens, they can sue which they do," said Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett in an interview with the Financial Gleaner on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, JTB and Airbnb signed a memorandum of understanding to facilitate the start of "serious discussions" next year. Bartlett downplayed issues of the Government regulating or taxing room listings on an e-commerce platform. Sources say, however, that the Government may consider the feasibility of imposing a minimal fee rather than a tax, in the future.

"We want to make sure that the destination is not at risk by substandard offerings, so we would have an interest in ensuring that they remain fit for the purpose. It would put the onus on Airbnb to ensure that it is listing properties that are in good condition for renting," said Bartlett.

"We don't want to regulate these rooms, but we want to make sure the destination isn't tainted," he said.

The tourism minister sees the pact with Airbnb as a real opportunity for the democratisation of the hospitality sector beyond the big players.

"It adds diversity to our accommodation offerings, providing economical, easy-to-find lodging that attracts individuals who might not normally be able to afford to travel. It creates income opportunities for people who need them, allowing ordinary Jamaicans to earn from tourism when they rent their homes/rooms to visitors," he said at the signing.

"Travellers choose Airbnb to experience destinations not as tourists but as locals. This is a boom for community tourism."

Bartlett described Airbnb as a competitor and a disrupter for the traditional hospitality industry, with usage by over 100 million persons in more than 34,000 cities in 191 countries around the world.

In Jamaica, there are 2,300 active hosts and 4,000 active listings scattered across the country. Airbnb's home-sharing service has reportedly brought some 32,000 tourists to Jamaica in the past year.

"This is not necessarily a bad thing. The disrupters in the shared economy - Airbnb, Uber and Lyft - should be embraced and not feared," said Bartlett. "I think we should face the fact that these technology-driven firms are here to stay."

steven.jackson@gleanerjm.com