As an information junkie who probably spends too much time researching information on various topics, I stumbled across a 22 page letter dated 10 June 2019. Sent by Airbnb’s Regional Policy and Campaign Lead for Europe, Middle East and Africa to the Director General of the Ministry of Tourism, on the hot topic of proposed regulations around short-term rentals. This appears to be a fairly well-hidden communication which is critical to our understanding of the various viewpoints on the matter.
The letter is focused on the Tourism Amendment Bill, which proposes changes to the Tourism Act #3 of 2014 that will impact the core services provided by hosts on the Airbnb platform and is a comprehensive commentary of Airbnb’s view.
Having already worked with more than 500 governments around the world on measures to help hosts share their homes and follow the rules, Airbnb welcomed the opportunity to do the same in South Africa. They made no bones raising serious concerns as to the current wording of the draft Bill and its significant potential for unfairness and for disadvantaging a large part of the South African population.
Their view is that a collaborative economy increases consumer choice and helps thousands of regular people to make a little extra income to help make ends meet. By providing a clear regulatory framework – highlighting regulatory best practices and removing unnecessary and unjustified barriers to entry as well as growth – they view South Africa as a potential leader in this space that could harness the tremendous economic, social and environmental benefits of the collaborative economy and spread its benefits fairly to all residents, regardless of background and race.
Airbnb made one thing very clear: while they support the fair and proportionate regulation of home-sharing and experiences, regulations must be designed in a way that are unbiased and appropriate to the type of activity that is being regulated. Not to mention that the regulations must open doors instead of closing them to more citizens.
Their concern around the current wording of the Draft Bill, in conjunction with a number of public-facing comments made by the Ministry, is that the Ministry is considering regulations that are based on several misunderstandings of home-sharing and experiences, and their significant contribution to South Africa. This is a topic which I have written about a number of times so that all interested parties get a proper understanding as to what Airbnb is really all about. It is way more than simply a mechanism by which one facilitates short-term rentals.
In Airbnb’s opinion, the current wording of the Bill can introduce fundamentally unfair approaches which may disadvantage residents who are currently benefiting from platforms like Airbnb and making a difference to their neighbourhoods. An example of this is the definition of “short-term home rentals” which is very broad, with no clear explanation of what constitutes a “temporary basis”, or to which specific short-term home rentals it applies.
Furthermore, it provides for the Minister to introduce “thresholds” with respect to all short-term rentals without making a distinction between different categories of activity, or without determining to what those thresholds will apply. This will create uncertainty for the host community and could result in measures that are disproportionate and not related to local realities and challenges.
Airbnb clearly states that it supports policies that enable innovation in authentic and healthy tourism, that brings travel to the forefront of the economy, with participation from South Africans across geographic and community divides. They promote fair and equitable regulation which supports the right of home-sharers and experience hosts to continue welcoming guests from all over the world, benefiting their local communities as well as the South African economy.
A key point in their communication is that regulation should be fair and equitable on a model that one size does not fit all. In the same way that a small bed & breakfast does not follow the same regulation as a hotel, so home-sharing cannot be subjected to the same regulation as a bed & breakfast. Determining what should apply to all and what should apply only to certain categories, encourages fair treatment of the different realities and diversity in the market. Regulation should thus depend on the type of activity, rather than the platform on which the service is listed.
Airbnb cautioned against approaches that disregard the very real and already thriving home-sharing and experiences community. This would be detrimental to the destination, as South Africans have really embraced this opportunity and millions of guests have experienced the vibrant reality of South Africa beyond the picture that is traditionally presented to tourists – and keep returning for more.
They also caution against attempting to protect existing players in the market (e.g. hotels) since the absence of simplification and clear rules that apply to them, combined with the introduction of measures that will make the destination less accessible, will ultimately have the opposite result and end up hurting even those the legislation was aiming to protect.
Whether the Ministry of Tourism will in any way take the contents of the letter seriously remains to be seen and we can only be hopeful that Airbnb’s experiences worldwide will bring a sense of sanity to the minds of those proposing these Bill amendments.
The full content of the letter is downloadable at: