YHA Australia blasts Airbnb blackmarket as a fire hazard
Backpackers Nicole Doyle and Melissa Esposito relax on the roof terrace of the YHA at Sydney’s Rocks. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Australia’s $4.4 billion backpacker industry is at risk from the explosion of “illegal” accommodation on Airbnb, as the ‘sharing economy’ flouts fire safety and overcrowding rules, the sector’s pioneer has complained.
YHA Australia and the Backpacker Operators Association of NSW say it is unfair that hostels complying with strict fire regulations, tightened after the Childers tragedy that killed 15 people, are being squeezed by commercial operators using Airbnb to let apartments.
YHA chief executive Julian Ledger has called for prosecutions and a crackdown.
“There is strong evidence that far from simply facilitating the use of empty spare rooms, Airbnb actually enables landlords to bypass government regulation and in effect run illegal hostels,” he has told a NSW parliamentary inquiry.
YHA, a non-profit organisation, has offered budget accommodation in Australia for 75 years.
Robert Henke of the Backpacker Operators Association dismissed the argument that the sharing economy was cutting red tape.
“The thing with regulations is, they are usually a response to something that went wrong in the past. You can’t forget that, or it’s an accident waiting to happen,” he said.
National tourism data shows strong growth in international visitors staying in rental apartments (up 14 per cent) outstripping growth in hotel stays in 2015. In NSW, backpacker hostel stays fell 1.8 percentage points.
Mr Henke said that while February was always a strong month for tourism, hostels had been affected over the past year as young travellers with smart phones opted for Airbnb instead.
“In the middle of last year a lot of operators were hurting. You can never attribute it to one single thing, there was the Australian dollar… but Airbnb plays a role. There are more beds on Airbnb than in the backpacker industry,” he said.
A NSW parliamentary inquiry into short-term holiday letting has received more than 200 submissions on both sides of the Airbnb debate, and will hold its first public hearing on Monday.
Of the 16,149 Sydney listings on Airbnb this week, 61 per cent were entire apartments or homes, and 38 per cent rooms, according to InsideAirbnb, a website critical of the service.
A third of Sydney hosts had multiple listings. The top Sydney host is a real estate agent with 152 listings. Most listings are in the inner city, eastern and northern suburbs.
Mr Ledger said YHA have taken a keen interest in the impact of Airbnb on the tourism industry and have watched battles taking place in cities such as New York, Amsterdam, Venice and Los Angeles.
He fears a community backlash against the 596,000 backpackers that visit Australia annually, if city residents grow angry at constant noise, and wear and tear on apartment buildings not designed for year-round tourism.
“I don’t have a problem with someone letting their spare bedroom. I do have a problem with someone with 20-30 apartments running a commercial business,” he said.
Airbnb has told the inquiry its hosts accommodated 420,000 guests in Sydney in the past year, contributing $540 million to the economy.
Eighty five per cent of Sydney hosts rented their primary residence occasionally to earn extra income “to make ends meet”, Airbnb’s submission said. This averaged $7000 a year, hosting 51 nights.
“That’s just nonsense,” said Mr Henke. “That’s no longer the business model. Sixty per cent is purely commercially run for short-term accommodation.”
The City of Sydney wants commercial operators using Airbnb to be regulated, but exemptions for families who let out the spare room on occasion.
Airbnb has called for the Baird government to make a ruling that allows individuals to occasionally rent out their homes, with councils given flexibility to make their own decisions about how to regulate professionally managed holiday homes.
Rented apartments (37 per cent) and hostels (33 per cent) vie closely for patronage within the backpacker tourism market, according to Tourism Research Australia.