The turning tide?

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Is Airbnb revolutionising the Caribbean tourism industry? As the number of Caribbean listings on the property rental site surges beyond 40,000, Joe Shooman investigates

The sunset blazes across the sky, setting the clouds aflame. You sip an ice-cool rum punch. Palm fronds frame the picture as sea and sky meld into one perfect magnificence. There is nobody else for miles. And you have nothing to do but swim, sip, relax. You are alone in your own personal Caribbean paradise…

Sounds like a fantasy or the life of a multi-millionaire. But, actually, this sort of spectacular solitude is becoming a possibility for those with smaller bank accounts who have made a booking on Airbnb.

Hosts with most
Founded in 2008, Airbnb is changing the landscape of the hospitality industry. This online hospitality marketplace connects travellers to hosts who have accommodation to spare. In plain terms, it means that anyone who owns a property can rent out a single room, rooms or the whole place. It creates another layer of room stock from existing residential homes, and it is increasingly gaining a foothold in the Caribbean.

Hugh Riley, Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, says the phenomenon has been greeted with a mixture of “hope and caution”. “The ‘sharing economy’ – the industry phrase popularly used to describe the Airbnb model – places the hosting responsibility directly into the hands of a local population willing to open their doors to visitors in exchange for sums that are sometimes lower than the price of traditional accommodations,” Riley says. “But price is not the only appeal. Visitors in the sharing economy are often afforded a local flavour. Many Caribbean people are exceedingly proud to demonstrate the kind of people-centred, authentically local vacation experience the brochures have boasted about for years.”

He continues: “The challenge is to sensibly examine all aspects of this growing phenomenon, protect our image and our economies, and encourage our people to participate fully in the massively important tourism industry.”

With so much extra room stock coming online, there are unique challenges for the traditional industry, says Colin Piper, CEO and Director of Tourism for Dominica. “We initially looked at it as a competitive threat, primarily because it was not a level playing field – Airbnb lodgings were not liable to pay occupancy tax or, in some cases, VAT. Government needs to put process in place to capture this.”

Natasha Anderson, St Vincent & the Grenadines’ Marketing Officer, has seen a big increase in the number of local properties available on Airbnb in the past year, and she expects this to grow again. She believes that Airbnb brings a mix of positive and potentially negative aspects to the accommodation mix. “The property does not have to fit a prescribed standard – any type of property can be offered,” she notes. “However, reviews from both customers and businesses ensure a more balanced view. This scenario enables both guest and host to have a cultural exchange, which can lead to better understanding of other cultures.”

Colin Piper notes that, in Dominica, Airbnb “has spread the tourism dollars to all parts of the country and allowed more entrants to benefit”. Agnes Francis, Executive Chairperson of the St Lucia Tourist Board, agrees. “It allows residents with accommodation, restaurants and tours to be in direct contact with potential customers,” she says. “This means that accessing the economic opportunities which tourism provides has become easier, and many residents, irrespective of location, can put their homes or rooms up for rent, earning incremental income.”

That said, the absence of consistent regulations could be a worry. “That can not only mean poor or inconsistent products or service quality, it can also pose health and safety risks to visitors,” Francis says. “This could provide negative publicity to a destination which is heavily reliant on tourism, and in turn, seriously impact on the performance of the entire tourism sector.”

Hoteliers are eyeing the new competition. Annette de Verteuil is Manager of the Coblentz Inn in Port of Spain, Trinidad. A potential issue she points to is the tightrope Airbnb properties might walk between lower rates (due to lower overheads) and lower standards. “Airbnb should send a representative to view the properties to ensure that the host meets basic safety requirements and check the standard of the place,” de Verteuil says. There are obvious differences between staying in an Airbnb and a traditional hotel, she adds: “A hotel can offer security, 24-hour front desk assistance, safety features, fire alarm systems, a licensed bar/restaurant.”

This is echoed by Joaquin Cruz, Director of Marketing at the San Juan Marriott Resort in Puerto Rico, who says that the Marriott model differs from Airbnb in crucial ways: “It’s about experience: we want to show value to the experience the customer is going to have. [Hoteliers might look at] breakfast or parking or Wi-Fi – which is a given now that people breathe it like air. It’s all about how value is added to your offer so people look at the amenities they can have [in a hotel] that you don’t have with Airbnb.”

Cruz says that he became aware of the Airbnb factor in 2015. “We started noticing that apartments were starting to show on the booking engines of third-party websites such as Expedia and Booking.com, along with hotels. [The sites said] they were losing market share if they didn’t put the Airbnb properties on their sites. That’s when we said: wow, this is big… The lower-tier hotels tend to drop rates, the secondary hotels then start dropping rates. That affects us indirectly.”

Here to stay
In essence, Airbnb is operating as a short-term rental in the real estate industry rather than a member of the hospitality industry. But the site, which now features properties in nearly 200 countries, is here to stay.

“It’s not going away,” Cruz says, “because there is demand for it. Puerto Rico is still coming out of recession, and there are empty properties. One of the ideas is, if an owner has a second home, and they’re worried about losing it [to repossession], then they can put it out there and try to get some revenue out of it.”

The industry as a whole has had to react quickly, with many countries signing Memoranda of Understanding formalising partnerships with Airbnb, setting up strategic alliances that will hopefully boost tourism and encourage new types of travellers to visit the region.

“The Caribbean Tourism Organization took a measured approach,” Hugh Riley explains. “Our responsibility to our members was to find the facts, get the truth and determine the challenges as well as the opportunities. We started by listening carefully to our hotel partners, our citizens, a variety of hosts, guests and policymakers in cities where the sharing economy has taken hold. And yes, we listened to Airbnb. In fact, we brought senior representatives of Airbnb into the Caribbean, specifically to declare their intentions in regard to the Caribbean and to hear the concerns of our audiences.”

Riley continues: “We also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Airbnb, largely because from the very beginning the company demonstrated a good-faith intention to cooperate with our member countries. Airbnb and the Caribbean Tourism Organization set the stage for Caribbean countries to interact directly with Airbnb in a general way, and then to privately discuss the peculiarities of individual destinations with Airbnb.”

Anderson recalls the reactions of the Vincentian community to Airbnb’s visit. “The response of our members was overwhelmingly favourable,” she notes. “The caution hasn’t gone away, but our members appreciated the opportunity to ask tough questions, get specific answers and learn from examples inside and outside the Caribbean.” Anderson does, though, raise concerns over tourism standards and notes that there could be future tax implications for the Vincentian who chooses to rent out a room in their normal dwelling.

St Lucia has established a new entity, Village Tourism Inc, to work alongside communities on their product. “The goal is to create greater opportunities for employment and income generation from the tourism sector within communities, to reduce urban drift and the attendant problems,” Francis notes, summing up the challenges and opportunities for ordinary people in the Caribbean.

From a full-service hotel with a spa, concierge and all the trimmings to a basic-but-beautiful beach hut, there has never been a greater diversity of accommodation on offer across the region. The Caribbean experience is now limited by only the travellers’ imagination. The hospitality industry is now open to anyone who has a spare room.

5 Fabulous Caribbean Airbnbs

01 Spring Bay Villa
Where? Ragged Point, Barbados
What? One-bedroom ocean-view apartment with private pool and balcony on the rugged south-east coast.
Reviewers say… “We have no complaints and are stoked to have had our honeymoon here! The place is better than the pictures but [hostess] Melba is what makes this place great! Our experience was phenomenal.”
How much? Around US$179pn

02 Lush Life Villa
Where? St John’s, Antigua & Barbuda
What? Bright and breezy one-bedroom villa with high ceilings, beach access, private pool and Caribbean views from the patio.
Reviewers say… “You do not need to bring a book… all we could do was sit and stare at the view, the ever changing colours of the water and sky. And then those sunsets! A breathtakingly beautiful location.”
How much? Around US$70pn

03 La Vapeur Estate Eco-cabin
Where? Paramin, Diego Martin, Trinidad
What? Private wooden eco-cabin, beautifully designed in glass and wood with views of both the forest and the sea.
Reviewers say… “If only you could give this place six stars! A little piece of paradise, we arrived worn out and we left fully recharged after a week in this beautiful space.”
How much? Around US$80pn

04 Kalinago Hut
Where? Eden Heights, Castle Bruce, Dominica
What? Off-grid living on a peaceful hillside in an authentic bamboo-and-hardwood dwelling with home-grown grass for the roof.
Reviewers say… “Beautiful and secluded location. Warm and open hostess. Excellent food for breakfast and dinner. Loved the experience of open air living and cooking.”
How much? Around US$56pn

05 Forest Cabin
Where? Georgetown, Demerara-Mahaica, Guyana
What? Cosy Treeline Loft cabin situated in the splendid Pandama Retreat and Winery, a 20-acre area with nature trails, a black-water creek and pristine environment.
Reviewers say… “What a beautiful location! It was so wonderful to wake up amidst the trees and hear the many birds. [Owner] Tracy was an amazing cook and both she and [her husband] Warren were warm and welcoming.”
How much? Around US$50pn

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