TREPIDATION. That’s the word that instinctively rolled off Clyde Cameron’s tongue when asked how he felt about the Government’s plan to formalise the short-term real estate rental market. He’s eager to hear the details of any change that will have a direct impact on his main source of income — welcoming guests to Olcam Lodge villa in Runaway Bay, St Ann.
There is no way, Cameron stressed, that the basic pension he gets from his years of working in England is enough to maintain the three-storey house his late father left in his care. Cameron initially began opening it up to holiday guests, but after he retired and moved to Jamaica he began offering the two top floors to guests all year round. News of the impending rules for properties listed on Airbnb and other short-stay platforms has him convinced his life is about to change.
“I’m wondering what they intend to do. Is it gonna make it harder? It sounds like something that’s gonna make it harder for us,” Cameron told Jamaica Observer LetsTravelCaribbean.com in an interview last week.
Speaking earlier this month on the sidelines of the Jamaica Hotel & Tourist Associations’ (JHTA) flagship event, Jamaica Product Exchange (Japex), Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett said discussions were underway to have the lucrative Airbnb segment of Jamaica’s tourism sector, which raked in more than US$100 million last year, become part of the “formal system”. It was among several issues, the minister said, he had raised with Cabinet a day earlier.
Bartlett couched the need for regulations as part of a wider thrust to ensure that visitors are safe.
“The development of this particular business model, and also this broader layer of economic activity — like everything else — will have to get into the formal system because, for one, the destination assurance strategy that we are embracing has to ensure that the visitor who goes anywhere in Jamaica is safe, secure, and has a seamless experience,” the minister said then.
But Cameron had a challenge accepting that argument. He pointed out that while he has never had any security issues at his property, there have been incidents at properties that are already within the formal sector.
Managing director of Gourzong Realty Group, Garfield Gourzong also told LetsTravelCaribbean.com there has never been any security issues at any of his clients’ short-stay properties on the north coast. He is also eager to see what the regulations will be like. According to Gourzong, all of his clients who list short-stay properties are just regular people trying to earn extra money. And they know it is in their best interest to keep their guests safe while protecting their investment.
“Some are not even quite middle class, but the majority of my clients are middle class,” he explained.
The realtor is hoping whatever new rules are put in place, they will not be so stringent that they drive small players out of business. It’s a view shared by both Olcam Lodge villa’s Cameron and JHTA President Robin Russell.
According to Russell, JHTA advocated for the short-term rental market to be formalised long before the popularity of homestay platforms like Airbnb.
“There’s no true growth if it is outside of the formal sector but there are different levels to how you participate in the economy, and what we’re saying is: ‘It cannot be onerous on small businesses,’ ” he said.
But he is equally strident that there must be rules in place.
Arguing that any incident at a property will harm Brand Jamaica, the JHTA head wants to see basic safety guidelines put in place for those now operating informally.
“Is there a telephone to call an ambulance? If somebody gets cut, is there a first aid kit? Is there an emergency list of numbers that people can call? And these are not things that are going to necessarily cost the Airbnbs any money, but are they prepared to deal with an emergency if it should happen? If a guest should fall down and break a foot, what are the procedures that should be followed?” he asked.
Both Cameron and Gourzong acknowledged that these measures are reasonable but noted that, as far as they are aware, many properties have some of these measures in place. They also pointed out that the structure of Airbnb, in particular, wherein customers can leave reviews, ensures that it is in owners’ interest to keep guests happy and safe.
Like many Instagram users who view the plan to regularise the sector as merely a way to tax the “small man”, Cameron is convinced it is all a ploy to funnel more funds into State coffers.
However the JHTA’s Russell has no problem with that approach as he believes that if all players pay taxes it will give them all a fair shot at competing.
“Here’s the truth,” he said when asked if larger players view short-stay properties as a threat. “If all Airbnb [listings] were the little man, the answer would be no. But Airbnbs are at all levels of the playing field now — you have from multimillion-dollar villas to the basic one-room property.”
Russell also pointed out that some villas are located next to smaller hotels, and while the hotels pay taxes, the villas do not.
“I’m not saying that the formal sector is trying to put down the Airbnb sector. I’m saying let’s just level the playing field accordingly because it’s not only big players who compete against Airbnbs, there are also small operators — and those are the persons that are really being hurt,” he urged.
Russell stressed that the JHTA sees the value of the short-stay market, which brings a new demographic of tourists to Jamaica. He is looking forward to the day that those now operating informally will regularise their status and become members of the JHTA.
“They’re not the enemy; we want them to be a part of our sector. But, just like everything else, the only way to do it is for people to regularise themselves and do it legally. And do it in a way that they can grow,” Russell urged.