Home-sharing services like Airbnb are becoming a hit among Malaysians. But hotels are urging the Government to regulate such services, claiming that rental of private apartments and studio units is illegal. Noting such calls, the Government is currently discussing how to address the matter.
LIVING rooms instead of hotel lobbies. Apartment units instead of hotel suites. This is the trend today.
More Malaysian holiday-makers are choosing to rent private properties as accommodation on their trips, instead of booking hotel rooms.
They do this using home-sharing services like Airbnb and Singapore-based HomeAway, which offer travellers the option to stay in a local host’s property.
Ranging from single rooms to entire apartment units, guests can book their accommodation from hosts, who list their property on such websites to be leased out for a fee.
Sometimes, the fees are even lower than the room rates offered by hotels.
This is one of the factors that drive the popularity of such services, with the San Francisco-based Airbnb having over two million property listings for rent from local hosts in about 191 countries around the world.
In Malaysia, home-sharing services are also gaining traction among travellers and homeowners, who want to earn some income from offering short-term rentals.
However, the hotel industry in the country is claiming that such services are eating into their business, with some estimating about 5% to 15% of their business being diverted.
Hoteliers are also saying that consumers are not fully protected under such arrangements.
Likening home-sharing services like Airbnb to Uber in the taxi business, hoteliers claim that the hosts are not subjected to the same regulations imposed on hotels and do not need to pay taxes or collect the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
As the industry calls on the Government to regulate such services, the Tourism and Culture Ministry says discussions are ongoing to address the matter while the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Ministry is open to feedback on the issue.
Malaysian Association of Hotels president Sam Cheah sees the growing popularity of such home-sharing platforms like Airbnb as a threat to the hotel industry.
“It isn’t a level playing ground because the hosts who are offering their properties for rent are not subjected to the same requirements, including safety standards,” he says.
Cheah points out that the hosts can afford to offer lower rates because their operating costs to run their businesses are smaller.
“They pay domestic usage for quit rent and utility bills. They are not required to adhere to safety requirements such as installing proper fire protection,” he adds.
Cheah explains that hotels also have public liability insurance and protect consumers in the event of negligence or fire.
“We are obligated to protect our customers. But there is no such policy for home-sharing hosts,” he says, urging consumers to be aware of such risks.
Cheah also points out that it is illegal for homeowners to operate a business for tourists and travellers when the property is meant for domestic dwelling.
“It is unfair for residents who are neighbours of such hosts as they will have strangers walking in and out of the premises,” he says.
These tourists will also be using the swimming pool, gym and other facilities meant for residents.
However, Cheah says the association, which consists of 881 member hotels, cannot discount or prevent such a business model from being practised.
“But the Government should regulate such businesses to protect tourists and make it an even playing field for hotel operators,” he says.
If left unchecked and unregulated, Cheah foresees the Government will have a problem dealing with the projected 36 million tourist arrivals by 2020.
“If we do not regulate Airbnb and other home-sharing services, we wouldn’t be able to monitor the industry. We wouldn’t know if we have an oversupply or over-development and businesses may lose out.
“It is just like Uber and GrabCar in the taxi industry. You cannot stop them but you have to regulate them. Then it makes sense,” he says.
Echoing Cheah’s call to the Government to impose regulations, Malaysian Association of Hotel Owners secretary Anthony Wong calls such home-sharing services illegal as hosts are not licensed to provide lodging and insurance for guests.
“It is amounting to making private arrangements and guests who are hurt during their stay are unable to claim insurance for any mishaps.
“As legal entities, hotels have permits to comply with. Our operating costs are expensive and we pay taxes,” says Wong, adding that hotel rates are also competitively priced.
He claims that the emergence of such services and illegal homestays have caused hoteliers to lose about 5% in revenue.
Acknowledging the concerns by hotels, Tourism and Culture Ministry secretary-general Tan Sri Dr Ong Hong Peng says the ministry has received complaints from the industry on the emergence of home-sharing platforms.
“This issue has been acknowledged and discussed extensively by the Special Task Force on Service Delivery and its working group.
“This working group is represented by government agencies such as the ministry, Malaysia Productivity Corporation, the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Ministry and the police,” he tells Sunday Star.
Dr Ong adds that the question of regulating home-sharing platforms and conducting enforcement on homeowners under such services comes under the purview of local councils.
In the meantime, the ministry has its Malaysian Homestay Programme, which offers a unique experience to tourists.
“The programme enables tourists to stay and interact with local families who act as hosts.
“Under this programme, families and their houses register with the ministry after completing the homestay training module and following the guidelines,” he explains.
But Dr Ong points out that this is different from merely offering accommodation as it is a community-based tourism programme which offers tourists a lifestyle experience of rural villages.
In 2015, Malaysia attracted 25.7 million tourist arrivals, a decline of 6.3% compared to 27.4 million tourist arrivals in 2014.
For the first quarter of 2016, Malaysia registered an increase of 2.8% in tourist arrivals, which Dr Ong perceives as a positive outlook.
“A strong growth in arrivals is expected for the remainder of this year,” he says.
Former Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan, who was just replaced in a Cabinet reshuffle on Monday, says it is still too early to decide whether to regulate homeowners involved in home-sharing services.
“This will require extensive discussion. The ministry welcomes feedback from stakeholders on this matter, including hoteliers, and will be more than happy to listen to their concerns,” he says.
The issue of regulating or even banning Airbnb and other home-sharing marketplaces is of growing concern.
Recently, it was reported that New York State in the United States may make it illegal to advertise apartments on Airbnb if a Bill is made into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Meanwhile, the German capital of Berlin has stopped tourists from renting entire apartment units using Airbnb and other similar websites. The move bans homeowners from leasing their property to tourists without a city permit.
Japan released national guidelines for home-sharing services, making properties only available for rent if guests stay for a week or longer.
Other places are more receptive towards home-sharing platforms, including London, which amended housing legislation that makes it legal for locals to rent out their homes through websites like Airbnb.