Hotelier warns against Airbnb free-for-all
Robin Russell, chairman of the St James chapter of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA), is cautioning the Government against promoting a free-for-all model for property owners who subscribe to Airbnb, the United States-based global accommodation rental company.
According to Russell, the general manager of the popular Deja Vu resorts on Jimmy Cliff Boulevard in Montego Bay, such an approach could have a far-reaching negative impact on Brand Jamaica, if not managed properly.
“Everybody is selling Brand Jamaica, so if anything goes wrong, it will not be some house in Ironshore, Montego Bay, or a community in Westmoreland … it will be Jamaica,” he argued.
“So there needs to be even a minimum of safety standards.”
Said Russell: “If you are charging me US$1 per night, then Airbnb operators should also pay that levy, because even though it started as an enabling digital platform for the ordinary man to rent a back room, it has exploded into something bigger than that.”
He added: “The market is changing, so there are pros and cons to it. Using Airbnb means that you are going directly to the customer, instead of using a tour operator, so it has its benefits.
“Now large, medium, and small operators are using the Airbnb platform and that is what competition is all about, but my biggest fear is that it exposes Jamaica to certain risks.”
Efforts to get a comment from Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett were unsuccessful, as he was off the island, and Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke has not responded to a request for an interview.
However, Mark Golding, opposition spokesman on finance, said he did not support a levy on the newcomers.
“Unless there is an immediate problem that is serious enough to warrant regulation, I would say let the Airbnb industry grow organically without any adverse action,” Golding told The Gleaner.
Speaking at the International Realtors Conference in December, Wayne Cummings, an executive member of the 117-strong association, revealed that several large players are operating their properties as Airbnb accommodation and charging as high as US$5,000 (J$670,000) per night for a villa.
“Some of those persons are hiding under the guise of being a home resident, and that is something that we have to grapple with,” Cummings had said.
“The difference is the US$5,000 villa in Tryall. Let us be very clear: Some of us are hiding, some of us very big people,” he said. “What I don’t appreciate is when you have persons who are renting their rooms for US$2,000, US$3,000, and US$4,000 per night, and then they say, ‘No, we are a little, small hustle.’”
... Most major players in industry found on Airbnb
When The Gleaner made checks on the Airbnb website, most of the major players in the local hospitality sector had postings of their properties on show, interspersed with a raft of luxury villas, homes and a few unappealing properties.
Creative descriptions are used to conceal the real identity of some of the five-star properties, while only serious enquiries can access more information on the luxury villas.
Prices range from as low as US$18 per night for an apartment with kitchen in a rural community to US$75 for an apartment on the Hip Strip or overlooking the Sangster International Airport, or a two-bedroom condo at US$150 per night.
Major hotels maintain their standard cost of US$150 to US$180 per person; while luxury villas such as properties at Tryall Club in Hanover are available at between US$1,600 and US$5,195 per night.
When The Gleaner made contact with Tryall Club, Aram Zerunian, the managing director, was said to be in meetings. However, a reservation agent advised that, while the properties are advertised on Airbnb, this is being done by tour operator partners, Luxury Retreats.
“All the villas here are individually owned, so we work directly with the owners,” the agent said. “We are the ones who are holding the inventory for the properties … we don’t work for Airbnb, we work for the club.”
But for one small hotelier, who asked that his identity be withheld, nothing is expected to change, especially with a general election looming.
“It’s a free market, so everybody is advertising on Airbnb, but the Government must decide, because I am being forced to compete with players who have no overheads, while I have my expenses every month,” the hotelier said.
“It is a catch-22 situation, because some of these big hotel operators also own villas that have been developed and placed on the Airbnb platform, and politicians on both sides of the fence are now Airbnb property owners, so I don’t expect anything to change any time soon, especially with an election so near,” he added.
“The Government and the Tourist board will not act until something happens, that puts us in a negative light, internationally, but there are some things that PR campaigns and marketing campaigns cannot fix.”