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David Jessop

THE BUSINESS OF TOURISM - The disruptive now becomes the new normal

David Jessop, Hospitality Jamaica Writer

The problem with disruptive technology is not just that it disrupts what we have become comfortable with, but that it has unpredictable consequences that can go far beyond what was intended.

Take Airbnb, a simple idea that is a form of matchmaking between travellers and individuals with a spare room or rooms. It offers a visitor somewhere that is cheaper than a hotel, while providing a genuine sense of place and experience of the country they are visiting. So successful has this simple idea become that the company, which only started in 2008, now has around two million listings globally in 34,000 cities and 191 countries.

Although still in private hands, analysts suggest that Airbnb is now worth around US$30 billion, a figure close to the combined listed valuations of Hilton and Hyatt, the next most valuable hospitality companies in the world, at roughly US$30.5 billion.

Airbnb's growth in the short-term vacation home-rental business in the Caribbean has been "explosive" according to the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. Earlier this year, it reported that the company now has around 25,000 listings, with the most being in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Cancun, Martinique, and Barbados.

NEW PROBLEMS

It has, however, created a political conundrum in the Caribbean. While governments recognise that it is enabling many citizens, as hosts, for example, to pay off their mortgage or to be able to improve their standard of living, it has raised new problems for both politicians and the industry.

Typically, Airbnb offerings do not pay taxes, are not regulated in the same way that hotels are, and do not participate in joint marketing programmes. They also present fiscal challenges to governments, which observe that by increasing visitor numbers, they indirectly place pressure on public facilities that taxes pay for. In addition, there is evidence that they are reducing capacity on airlines for higher-spending hotel visitors and suggestions in some locations that nearby property prices are being pushed up as investors, as opposed to owners, sense commercial opportunity.

But whether tourism professionals and governments like what is happening or not, Airbnb and its competitors, like budget airlines, have expanded the Caribbean's tourism offering to increasing numbers of consumers, especially millennials, by making the Caribbean affordable. Moreover, according to most studies, Airbnb local visitor spend is significantly greater and has more impact than that of hotel or cruise visitors as they make purchases directly into the domestic economy.

In a response intended to embrace the disruptive, Aruba has recently established the first partnership between Airbnb and a Caribbean country. On November 7, the company and the Aruba Tourism Authority signed an agreement that enables the Aruba Tourism Authority and Airbnb to address a range of issues, including taxation, host accommodation standards, and regulations to ensure that they are in line with Aruba's tourism policy. "The goal is to remain competitive and create balance. A healthy mix of on-island accommodations is crucial to the success of Aruba," a statement from Rosella Tjin Asjoe-Croes, the CEO of Aruba's Tourism Authority, said.

MORE OPTIONS

For its part, Airbnb, which reportedly hosted 13,000 international guests in Aruba and saw its hosts there earn, on average, US$4,400 in 2015, said that the collaboration will give those visiting Aruba "more traveling options while promoting sustainable tourism as part of the local economy".

Jamaica is expected to be the next country to sign a similar agreement following recent meetings between Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett and Airbnb officials in Kingston.

What these and other decisions being taken by cities and governments around the world indicate, in some cases through legislation without Airbnb's involvement, is that the disruptive, consumer demand, and economic need in the shape of those owning the host properties is causing tourism, a largely conservative and protectionist industry, to have to embrace the incomers. In short, the disruptive is about to become the new normal. 

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