Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) and Airbnb sign partnership agreement

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Alicia Nicholls

The Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) has today signed a partnership agreement with one of the most visible faces of the global sharing economy, Airbnb. This is according to a Press Release on CTO’s website posted today February 7, 2017. According to the release, the agreement, which establishes a basis for mutual cooperation, is “to develop a set of policy principles and recommendations on the sharing economy for Caribbean governments and other stakeholders.”

The Agreement was signed by CTO’s Secretary General and Chief Executive Officer Hugh Riley and Airbnb’s Shawn Sullivan, public policy director for Central America, the Caribbean at the CTO’s Headquarters in Barbados.

Airbnb is a peer-to-peer online accommodation platform which was founded in 2008 in San Francisco, California, USA and has over 2,000,000 short-term rental listings in over 191 countries worldwide. A cursory search on Airbnb reveals thousands of listings from across the Caribbean, ranging from modest studio apartments to luxurious villas. Airbnb is just one of several virtual spaces where persons list for rent, or rent, vacation accommodation. Some other similar platforms are Homeaway, VRBO and Owner Direct.

Based on the information outlined in the CTO press release, the prospects for mutual cooperation covered by the CTO-Airbnb partnership agreement appear quite promising and include:

  • Sharing of data and studies with policy makers
  • Identifying ways to make the sharing economy more inclusive
  • Broadening the benefits of tourism to non-traditional actors
  • Attracting new stakeholders and focus on providing amazing and unique travel and cultural experiences to visitors
  • Providing to the CTO an economic analysis of Airbnb’s positive impact on local economies.
  • Based on this, briefing key stakeholders on the value of a peer-to-peer review mechanisms

Why is this timely?

This formalised mechanism for mutual cooperation  between Airbnb and the Caribbean’s regional tourism development agency is an important development and is timely for several reasons. Firstly, peer-to-peer platforms like Airbnb have become important players in the global accommodation sector. As millennials comprise an increasing share of global travel demand, there has been a shift towards a more authentic tourism experience, with a preference for self-catering accommodation (such as villas, apartments and condominiums) being part of that shift.

Secondly, it can be argued that peer-to-peer accommodation platforms allow for a more inclusive tourism model as they allow anyone from a retired person who has an extra room to rent to an expat with a vacation home to rent it for only a very minimal cost.

Thirdly, this demand shift toward self-catering accommodation has not gone unnoticed by the traditional hospitality sector (hotels) which have blamed the shift for weaker revenues and occupancy figures. These concerns are not unique to the Caribbean. A 2013 study (last updated in November 2016), which sought to estimate the impact of Airbnb on the Texas hotel industry found, inter alia, that the impact on hotel revenue was non-uniform, with lower priced hotels and non-business traveller catering hotels being the most affected. As far as I am aware, no similar study has yet been done for the Caribbean. The data sharing pursuant to the MOU could make such a study a possibility.

Fourthly,  traditional accommodation players complain that online market places are competing on an unequal footing. For instance, whereas a hotel has to comply with regulations and pay taxes, depending on the country a person who lists a villa or guest house on Airbnb for rent is not yet captured under the tax net and there may not be regulations for those types of accommodation.

Fifthly, as villas and some other non-hotel accommodation remain unregulated, there are concerns about potential reputational risk to a tourism destination should a guest have a bad experience in a villa or apartment rented through Airbnb or through any other means for that matter.

Given the above, this cooperation agreement is a welcomed and forward-thinking step as it will lay the framework for greater data-sharing to allow policy makers to estimate the size and contribution of the tourism sharing economy and to use this data to make evidence-based policy decisions for supporting and regulating the non-traditional accommodation sector. It will also set the framework for joint collaboration for promoting the Caribbean, bearing in mind shifting consumer tastes towards a more authentic tourism experience, and ensuring that the region’s tourism industry is inclusive and redounds to the benefit of all stakeholders.

For further information, please see the CTO’s official press release.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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