Holiday rentals – where to from here?

Holiday rental hosts around the country are eagerly awaiting clarity on the state of confusion that exists in this market.

The government’s amended Lockdown level 3 restrictions stated that all hotels and establishments – except accommodation establishments not formally accredited and licensed, such as private homes for paid leisure accommodation – were allowed to open if they are providing accommodation for people travelling for the purpose of business permitted under Level 3, for international tourists who remain in South Africa, or if appointed as quarantine facilities. Therefore, no accommodation establishments are allowed to open for leisure purposes.

The point of contention seems to be the reference to “home sharing” which, whilst it was the initial focus of Airbnb when it first started, is certainly no longer the case. Airbnb has become a lot more diverse than that; yet it appears as if our government still does not have a clear understanding of what the likes of Airbnb are all about. According to Wikipedia, Airbnb offers “arrangement for lodging, primarily homestays, or tourism experiences”.

The question is: Are these regulations a subtle means to focus on the formal, graded and licensed establishments at the expense of all holiday rental hosts? In times like these, when having a family on their own in one place might be safer than trying to practise social distancing in a hotel, it seems as if the ministry and those opposed to the Airbnb industry are using this to their advantage and trying to justify why it shouldn’t continue to exist.

The official response from the Airbnb SA team is that the regulations sound confusing and that they have reached out to the ministry to provide some clarification. “If we take the grim view of what we are seeing then it’s possible that the government is asking the majority of Airbnb hosts not to host and we think that’s unfair. How can a hotel open and not a self-catering accommodation option, for example? From a health perspective that’s difficult to explain.”

On Thursday 9 July Airbnb’s SA representatives had a meeting with the representative from the Department of Tourism and the only feedback we have received at the time of writing is that there is “no change” to the regulations as currently stated. The only positive aspect is that Airbnb were not asked to shut down the booking platform, as happened in the UK over Easter and in Hawaii, amongst others. So listings remain bookable but only for business and not leisure travellers.

One cannot but wonder how much of this is also driven by the ongoing issues that graded establishments and hotels have with the entire Airbnb, and the rest of the online booking portals.

Social media is awash with comments for, and against, the existence of “ungraded or home-based” rental facilities. Yet spend some time researching and you will quickly see how many graded and formally accredited establishments have also listed their accommodations on many of the online platforms which the naysayers are supposedly against.

The reality is that the days of being able to afford the higher costs of staying in hotels or graded establishments are over for many local travellers, and will be for some time to come. International travellers always have the exchange rate benefit, so cost is not a driving factor for them.

For now, however, the focus can only be on attracting SA-based travellers. Besides the ‘local’ experience of staying in self-catering accommodation, which is what the Airbnb-type platforms offer, it is absurd to expect holiday rental hosts to just shut up shop and stop operating.

One does not have to be a medical practitioner to know that it is a lot safer for a family group to be staying in one house on their own that staying in multiple rooms in a hotel where the risk of contamination is unquestionably higher. Somehow this logic is lost on so many people.

Whilst many do agree that regulation of the informal holiday-rental industry should happen, the government made a half-baked attempt to do so at the end of 2018 and to date there has been more dust and hype about this than anything else.

If regulations are going to succeed to satisfy all parties, they will certainly need to be properly debated and articulated, as has been done in many countries around the world, and with sensible and appropriate input from Airbnb’s own experience of working with governments on a global scale.

In the meantime, the hard-hit accommodation sector in the Overberg continues to try and survive daily. Proof of the carnage is clearly visible in the huge increase in the number of Airbnb properties that are now available for long-term rentals and the increase in the number of houses for sale. This is certainly a trying time for all in this sector and one can only hope that common sense will prevail, sooner rather than later.