Regulating Airbnb a challenge that must be addressed
Surging demand for the accommodation provider makes it imperative that a legal framework be set up for it and for other online businesses
Technology moves at such a swift pace that regulators are usually several steps behind, struggling to come to grips with the changes. There is nothing wrong with a wait-and-see approach, time often being necessary for the market to find its level and for potential disruptions to become apparent. But excessive delays and ignoring trends can never be an option, as Airbnb and Uber have shown. Advances in technology cannot be shut out, so authorities must make every effort to protect consumers and find a fair balance with existing businesses.
Both of the US-based online services have been operating for more than seven years and also in Hong Kong for several, giving enough experience to determine how best they should be regulated. Uber has riled taxi owners and operators, while Airbnb has been blamed for a drop in hotel room bookings and prompted safety and security worries in neighbourhoods where its rental flats are located. In the absence of updated laws, authorities have been using existing regulations to clamp down. But the threat of arrests and fines are no deterrence to those who use such websites or apps; the convenience, cost-effectiveness and other perceived benefits they offer has made them too popular to block.
Airbnb poses a particular regulatory challenge. Initially established as a platform to enable people with a spare room, flat or house to rent short-term accommodation to travellers, it is now being used as an alternative to hotels, guest houses and property agents. Some landlords have turned to the website as a more profitable way of renting properties. Unlike for affected industries that are losing business, there are no requirements to abide by regulations, meet standards or pay taxes and fees.
There are more than 6,000 listings on Airbnb in Hong Kong and the number is ever-rising.
Travellers are increasingly turning to it as a cost-effective and more authentic way to experience a destination. Some contend residential areas rather than non-descript hotels in zoned locations give a better feel for a city. But nearby residents do not necessarily like strangers wandering about, nor does an ordinary flat offer the safety and security required of a hotel or guest house. Cities the world over are grappling with the problem and different solutions have been adopted. Creating a new class of private rental accommodation with length of stay limits, as Amsterdam has done, is one approach. Failing to legalise is not an option, for the sake of consumers, hosts and existing industries.