Everything from “pearler’s cottages” to “charming bungalows in paradise” are up for grabs in Airbnb’s growing offering from the West Australian resort town of Broome.
But traditional tourism businesses in the town are pushing back against the underground economy, calling for tough legislative reforms from a parliamentary inquiry on the brink of tabling its report.
Ross Forbes-Stephen manages a complex of villas near Broome’s famous Cable Beach.
He said the business was losing tens of thousands of dollars a year as the number of properties on booking sites like Airbnb and HomeAway soared.
“I’m representing 13 mum-and-dad-type investors here who are losing probably 10 to 15 per cent [in income] a year to Airbnb,” he said.
“Not that we have a problem with competition per se, it’s just that it’s not a level playing field.”
Mr Forbes-Stephen is one of several Broome tourism operators who have taken their concerns to the WA parliamentary inquiry.
The committee is expected to release its final report, including recommendations to tackle online booking platforms, on September 26.
Mr Forbes-Stephen said his main concern was the listing of entire houses and apartments, as opposed to local residents renting out rooms in their homes to holiday makers.
Not a ‘genuine share economy’
In July, there were 219 Broome properties listed on Airbnb and 70 per cent of them were entire homes or apartments, according to figures released by the Australian Hotels Association (AHA).
The AHA said the total number of listings in the town had increased from 166 in April 2018.
In a 2018 media release, the AHA said: “Instead of being a facilitator in a genuine share economy, home sharing platforms are enabling some property owners to mimic and compete with the licensed accommodation industry without meeting a regulatory compliance regime”.
Some Broome businesses said they were being asked by customers to “price match Airbnb listings” while at the same time having to fork out the higher power, insurance, and council rates associated with running a tourism business.
“As part of our commercial rates, we pay a 12 per cent levy that goes to the shire to promote Broome,” Mr Forbes-Stephen said.
“These properties that are listed on Airbnb get a free ride from the promotional efforts of the commercial tourism sector.”
Mr Forbes-Stephen supports a push by the Shire of Broome for laws that would require online platforms to ensure their “hosts” have complied with planning and building regulations before their accommodation is listed.
He said the approach would “place the onus” on the websites to ensure that accommodation was certified.
Under shire laws, properties that are not approved to operate as tourist accommodation risk a fine of $200,000 but the laws are rarely enforced.
In a statement, the local authority said it had only had one written complaint about an unregulated operator last financial year and it had been resolved with the property owner ceasing operation.
The shire said it would soon be launching a campaign to raise awareness among Airbnb owners and would also be approaching online platforms to request the addresses of properties so it could follow up with owners who may be in breach of bylaws.
‘Benchmark’ Tasmanian laws
Legislation recently introduced in Tasmania is being held up as a “benchmark for other states and territories” by Australia’s peak industry group, Tourism Accommodation Australia.
In a nutshell, the Tasmanian reforms mean that hosts have to supply a permit to operate to the online booking platform before they can be listed.
Accommodation used as the primary place of residence by the owner is exempt.
Airbnb offers ‘authentic’ tourism experience
Broome tour guide and business owner Chris Maher said whatever the WA parliamentary inquiry came up with, it would need to be simple and low cost. Otherwise it would harm what he believed was a valuable, growing sector in Broome — its “sharing economy”.
“I don’t think too many people would have a problem if the regulation was easy to abide by,” Mr Maher said.
“If it was overly onerous, I think that would be quite damaging for Broome.
“If you took the sharing economy away, I think that diminishes Broome.”
Mr Maher said Airbnb properties offered an important buffer at the height of the tourist season when the town was full, as well as an alternative tourism experience to the resorts and hotels.
“Airbnb provides an opportunity for those people who want to have a more authentic experience, to experience what it is like living in a place,” he said.
“[For example] what a Broome house might look and feel like and what Broome people are like.
“You get that opportunity of living in a space with people, meeting them, understanding them [and] you get great tips on local things.”
In a statement, Airbnb said it was “eagerly awaiting” the tabling of the WA parliamentary report but warned that an onerous registration process would ultimately mean less choice and higher prices.
“Airbnb is helping working and middle-class families earn extra income to pay the bills and afford the family holiday,” their statement said.
“Our community also injects more than $150 million a year into the WA economy and supports close to 800 jobs.
“More Airbnb guests coming and staying in Western Australia means more jobs in local cafes, shops, and pubs.”