Singapore

Airbnb says safety their top priority

Worries over side effects of home-sharing have dogged sector

The Singapore Airbnb host is not raking in the big money.

In fact, he earns only about $5,120 a year.

On average, he receives guests for just 45 nights each year.

"There is a thought that this is a full-time occupation," Airbnb's Asia Pacific regional director Julian Persaud told The Straits Times last week.

"(But) the average amount of time our hosts are renting out is like three or four days a month."

Revealing its Singapore numbers for the first time, Mr Persaud said that the reality of its Singapore operations is a unique one, where home rentals shorter than six months are deemed illegal.

Because of this, home-sharing businesses have had to tread a fine line - as opposed to other markets where hosting has become a lucrative business, with many earning high four-figure monthly earnings.

Despite this, Airbnb, one of the biggest players in the market, has about 7,000 property listings here as of last month.

Some 242,400 visitors have also checked into Airbnb lodgings here in the past year.

The San Francisco-based firm also set up its regional headquarters in Singapore in 2012.

But concerns over the side effects of home sharing have plagued the sector, with residents raising concerns about safety and noise from transient tourists in their backyard.

Hotels have also questioned hygiene and safety standards of unregulated accommodation.

And Mr Persaud stressed that safety is the "number one" priority for Airbnb.

"The most important to us is the safety of our community. And if we don't have that, we don't have a business," he said, adding that the portal has a slew of measures to mitigate any potential issues. These include a verified identification process for guests and hosts and reviews for both parties.

In June, it also rolled out a new Neighbour Tool which allows neighbours of hosts to flag any concerns they have about Airbnb listings.

When asked for the number of reported cases via this tool in Singapore, Mr Persaud said it was "negligible".

He added that problems arising from Airbnb arrangements are generally rare.

Of the 17 million tourists who used Airbnb last summer, there were fewer than 300 urgent customer service calls, he said.

Mr John Kim, president of Texas-based vacation rental site HomeAway, also said that complaints about disturbances from guests are "very much the exception".

HomeAway, which comes under parent company Expedia, lets hosts rent out only whole homes.

Public sentiment is likely to feature prominently in the debate on whether home sharing in Singapore will be given the green light.

Last year, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) ran a public consultation to see whether there was a need to review short-term rental rules for private housing.

It said in May this year that it needs more time to study the matter as views are split.

Those in favour of short rentals argue that it can help boost tourism and cultural exchanges between hosts and guests.

Noting that 78 per cent of Airbnb listings are outside main tourist areas such as Orchard, Mr Persaud said home rentals can bring tourist dollars into other areas.

LOOKING FOR CLARITY

"We're very keen for them (the URA) to kind of push forward and make a ruling on it because I think our guests and hosts and community of Singaporeans that want to rent out their homes on an occasional basis... are looking for clarity," Mr Persaud said.

The Government has hinted that there could be room for regulations to co-exist with home sharing here.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong told The Straits Times in October that while he understands the misgivings about home sharing, attitudes may change and Singapore is not closing the door on it.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the APEC CEO Summit in Peru last month that old rules may no longer be relevant to disruptive economic activities such as Airbnb, but stressed that regulations are still necessary.

Mr Persaud said he hopes his company can adopt a collaborative approach with regulators here.

He said: "We know that in Singapore it's kind of a unique situation of the housing stock (where public housing forms the majority of homes).

"It's very different from most of the world actually in terms of that and we're very cognizant of that.

"We as a company and as an organisation have a broad mission where people can belong.

"And... the last thing we want to do is to promote any sort of issues in the local community."

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