Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Businesses that stand to benefit  from the government’s plans to regulate short-term home rentals, including those on the popular online platform Airbnb, have backed its proposed regulations saying it would help level the playing field.

While Airbnb initially focuses on small-scale, informal short-term home rentals, formal accommodation establishments such as hotels and B&Bs can also list on the popular platform.

Airbnb has been expanding its offering to add extra search categories for users who are specifically looking to rent a hotel room, B&B or luxury properties as it moves towards a full-service travel-booking company.

In April, the government published the Tourism Amendment Bill for public comment. Should it come into law, short-term home rentals will be regulated under the Tourism Act and the minister of tourism could then specify various “thresholds” in terms of Airbnb rentals in SA. This could include limiting the number of nights that guests can stay and how much money a host can earn. The department of tourism is of the view that this would level the playing field by ensuring that “everyone gets their fair share”.

On Monday, the Tourism Business Council of SA, which represents the interests of small and large businesses in the sector, dismissed suggestions that regulating Airbnb in SA would stifle growth of the tourism industry.

In an interview with Business Day, the council’s CEO, Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, said regulating the online platform would level the playing field and allow all stakeholders to compete fairly. This, he said, would benefit the tourism sector by allowing more players to enter the market and compete on price. Tshivhengwa argued that tourists would also benefit from the competitive pricing and access to more secure establishments.  

Critics of the bill argue that the regulations could put off potential visitors, hurting the tourism sector, which has been earmarked by the government as a key jobs driver.

In his state of the nation address in February, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that SA was looking to double its international tourist arrivals from 10.5-million to 21-million by 2030. SA has the largest travel and tourism sector in Africa, contributing  about R426bn to the local economy in 2018.

According to research by the World Travel and Tourism Council, the sector is responsible for 1.5-million jobs, or 9.2% of total employment in SA.

Tshivhengwa said proposed regulations would not harm the sector. He said SA always offered a variety of accommodation options at competitive prices even before Airbnb entered the market, and this would remain the case even if the regulations are promulgated.

The proposed regulations are “not about Airbnb”, Tshivhengwa said. They are about ensuring that all tourism accommodation establishments compete fairly.

“At the moment those utilising the Airbnb platform are not subject to any regulations and some violate municipal zoning bylaws” because they are not registered as BnBs or hotels. “Airbnb is regulated in other countries,” Tshivhengwa said.

“We believe in the shared economy and are not trying to eradicate Airbnb. We simply want to safeguard the interests of tourists and hosts in SA,” he said, adding that the tourism industry has adapted to the advent of technology and fully supports the development of technology in the industry.

Tshivhengwa said the council would soon be tabling its formal submission in support of the bill.

Last week the DA-led Western Cape provincial government said it would oppose the proposed regulations, warning that they would kill tourism.

“Over 2-million people have made use of Airbnb alone in this country, and if regulations make it more difficult for travellers to access this kind of accommodation, they will simply vote with their wallets and go elsewhere,” Western Cape economic opportunities MEC Beverley Schäfer said at the time. “We cannot allow this to happen.”