Airbnb's Challenge to Caribbean Resorts

A few months ago Airbnb entered into a partnership with the Bermuda Tourism Authority that involves marketing and the exchange of fees. Then, in December, it signed one with the British Virgin Islands. Remarkable, because Bermuda and the BVI are nothing if not upmarket destinations. What's more, Airbnb has now signed memorandums of understanding with 16 Caribbean governments, creating a new era of cooperation between those governments and a company that not so long ago was frequently accused of tax evasion.

And not just tax evasion. When I emailed a friend about this topic, he replied, "We're admittedly a little soured on Airbnb these days because of its destructive effects on local rents, overcrowding, and other issues in many areas that are already high-rent like New York City, San Francisco, Paris, and others. Has anything crossed your radar about how that might affect the Caribbean?" 

It sure has. "Airbnb helps make our region more competitive and spreads the benefits of the tourism industry across traditional and non-traditional segments of our communities,” says Hugh Riley, Director General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Which is to say, Caribbean governments (unlike municipal authorities that have placed restrictions on short-term rentals in New York City, San Francisco, Paris, Barcelona, and other cities around the world) welcome Airbnb because of its ability to funnel income directly to people of modest means who have never profited much from the tourism industry. 

Have You Ever Been Experienced?

So how does Airbnb top this spree of MOU's that, in effect, make it not just legal but warmly welcomed? With its new Experiences program, which offers the kind of tours and cultural encounters
many travelers could only have arranged through hotels in the past. At present the sharing-economy pioneer offers Experiences on four islands in the Caribbean region: Bermuda, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. There’s no reason to assume Airbnb will stop with those four islands, either, so who’s next: Barbados? The Dominican Republic? Curacao? 

At SOTIC 2018, the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s State of the Industry Conference, keynote speaker Stephen McGillivray, CMO of the Travel Leaders Group, predicted, “Airbnb will find it to their advantage to work with travel agents.” After all, he added, “You see Uber doing it — and Lyft.” Certainly, stranger things have happened. 

The View from the Resorts Business

And it makes you wonder: As Airbnb offers more and more of the perks visitors to Caribbean islands have traditionally gotten from resorts and villas, to what extent will it replace those more conventional places to stay?

Crystal balls are always in short supply, but the question reminds this reporter of a panel at the 2017 New York Times Travel Show, during which the moderator asked an executive in a resort company how he would fend off the threat of Airbnb. The panelist replied that he wasn't concerned. “Airbnb accommodations,” he declared, “do not include a lazy river.”

For more on hotel trends in the Caribbean, see this article in Recommend magazine. 

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