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The new tourism concept which is bringing visitors to vacation in places like Trench Town and Portmore in Jamaica and seen as a threat by some traditionalists in the hospitality market has won a powerful ally in the Caribbean’s leading hotelier, Gordon “Butch” Stewart. Stewart said he was particularly thrilled by the fact that ordinary people who have an extra room, almost anywhere in Jamaica, for example, could make additional money by renting it out to visitors through Airbnb, the California-based online marketplace that is enabling people to lease or rent short-term lodging from a mobile phone or tablet.

“Airbnb is an extraordinary opportunity for individuals who find themselves with a vacant house or a room that is clean and safe in virtually any community to make much-needed additional income,” said the Sandals Resorts International (SRI) founder and chairman in a full-throated endorsement of the new concept yesterday.

Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett

Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett

Airbnb, derived from the term airbed and breakfast, does not build or own any lodging but acts as a broker bringing together guests and hosts, and is currently managing over three million lodging listings in 65,000 cities and 191 countries. Its success is driven by phenomenally low prices for even high-quality accommodation.

Last year an estimated 32,000 visitors came to Jamaica through Airbnb, with some choosing to stay in unconventional places like Trench Town and Denham Town, communities in the sprawling slums of Kingston’s west end, as well as Portmore, St Catherine. The home-sharing accommodation service here has some 2,300 active hosts and 4,000 active listings scattered across the island, and the market is growing.

Trench Town is a draw for fans of the Third World’s first megastar and reggae legend Bob Marley, whose music originated out of its squalid conditions, rising to dizzying heights in places like Buckingham Palace, England, where it is said reggae is loved by Prince Charles.

Gordon Butch Stewart

Gordon Butch Stewart

Airbnb promoters said the company was established after two schoolmates — Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia — moved to San Francisco in 2007 and soon found they could not afford the rent for their apartment. They came up with the idea of putting an air mattress in their living room and turning it into a bed and breakfast “to make a few bucks”.

The following year, Chesky’s former roommate, Nathan Blecharczyk, joined as the chief technology officer and the third co-founder of the new venture. They put together a website which offered short-term living quarters, breakfast, and a unique business networking opportunity for those who were unable to book a hotel in the saturated market.

Today, through Airbnb, one can rent an apartment or a hotel room for a night, a castle for a week, or a villa for a month. Even owners of private jets are renting out their aircraft during downtime and these rentals are available at any price point set by the owner.

Stewart’s embrace of Airbnb runs counter to the position taken by some traditional players in the hospitality industry who see the new entrant as a threat to their business, fearing it would drive down prices and hurt the tourism product. Airbnb has been challenged in courts in some countries, including the United States and Australia, but continues to prevail.

The Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA), the umbrella organization for the hospitality industry here, gave Airbnb a cautious endorsement, but with a strong caveat: “…There are certain risks which will need to be managed in order to safeguard Jamaica’s tourism product and the sector in general,” cautioned Omar Robinson, the new JHTA president.

“These include, among other things, quality assurance and security. It is important that guests do, in fact, access the services and facilities which are advertised on the Airbnb site. Additionally, the safety of tourists to the island is paramount, so persons offering accommodations on Airbnb must ensure that they provide the requisite security. With that, our legislation may need to catch up in developing a framework for the management of this growing segment of the industry,” Robinson added.

Bob Marley

Bob Marley

Stewart, who stressed the importance of accommodations being “clean and safe in well-cared homes”, urged Jamaicans interested in participating to ensure that their guests are safe and to do everything to enjoy their communities. He said people who could benefit immediately were those who had extra room or rooms that might have been vacated by children who are off to college or to work elsewhere.

“It is up to the homeowners and communities to make sure that their stay is well worth it. That will ensure that Jamaica gets a good name and repeat visitors,” he told the Jamaica Observer, of which he is chairman. “But there is no reason we should not be able to benefit from this wonderful opportunity, given our reputation for hospitality.”

He compared Airbnb to Uber, which allows owners of motor vehicles to operate as taxi drivers in their after-work hours, a concept which has spread rapidly across the globe.

Stewart has company in Jamaica’s Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett, one of the early converts who wasted no time in jumping aboard the Airbnb train. Last December, Bartlett signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the hospitality company after being convinced it would help to grow the industry here.

Bartlett described Airbnb as one of the “disruptive innovations” which are using technology to drive the creation of new economic opportunities, saying they are sweeping the world and impacting all sectors, including tourism. Jamaica had to face the fact that technology-driven online marketing and networking firms, like Airbnb, are here to stay, he said.

He noted that some of these innovations are driven by students who, though burdened by student loans, still wanted access to the finer things of life, such as travel.

“This is driving the innovations, using big data to great effect and fashioning partnerships to share resources. Airbnb is part of this new business model. We in tourism have to respond to these innovations by making our models resilient,” said Bartlett.

“I believe great things will come from our partnership as we cooperate in areas of common interest, including marketing Jamaica as a tourist destination; promoting sporting events as well as our festivals and other cultural events; and fostering responsible home sharing,” the tourism minister said.


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