NOMPU SIZIBA: The government is to set to regulate Airbnb and other home-sharing apps in South Africa. The Tourism Amendment Bill states that short-term home rentals will now be legislated under the Tourism Act. The bill empowers the Minister of Tourism to determine the thresholds regarding these short-term rentals.
To explain why this latest regulation is being implemented, and how it’s going to be effected, I’m joined on the line by Blessing Manale, spokesperson at the Department of Tourism. Thanks very much for joining us yet again, Blessing. What is meant by the tourism minister being able to determine the “thresholds” in relation to short-term rentals?
BLESSING MANALE: Well, we see the introduction of that as a major debate that has always taken place exclusively. Now it’s going to be open. But what it basically means, in layman terms, is that the Minister of Tourism has now been empowered by law to say that, in order to operate, that law should apply to the person who operates an Airbnb or such a shared home-stay product. The law will also apply to the provider of the shared-service [like Airbnb’s platform], and will stipulate that in order to operate legally in South Africa, there will be a threshold on, for example, the number of nights a year a private property can be rented out. And to do that the following information is needed. That’s basically what the act wants to empower the minister to do.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Blessing, why was it felt that there was a need for this particular regulation?
BLESSING MANALE: Well, there are a number of reasons and the fact of the matter is that we cannot not do anything. The business exists, technology is making people consume products in one way or another, and we cannot not regulate. So, because we’ve got other parties, like a major industry, on the one hand, saying, “We’ve invested in bigger facilities, we are losing money”, we floated the idea of thresholds.
But then you’ve got the rural areas and urban areas who do not have densities of water, who are saying, “Our product can’t make money because people cannot stay in my village for more than one day, because the hotel is as good as their home”. So we are managing these kinds of things so that, if I want to go to a rural area with a nice house that’s an Airbnb, I can stay there. But I also do not convert my house into a hotel without paying all other levies, taxes and that, and meeting the payment requirements. That’s what it is.
NOMPU SIZIBA: So Blessing, what’s going to happen in practice? The people who are registered on Airbnb to rent their homes, do they now have to let the Department of Tourism know that that’s the case? How are you going to police these people across the country?
BLESSING MANALE: Let me start by saying we are far, far away from there, honestly, with the bill, and I’m not diverting. Briefly, we’ve got 60 days to comment. When Parliament opens, it will ask what regulations we are proposing. Once we have agreed on the principle, we will move on to the administrative details. It means that yes, you’ll have to register. Once you start changing and using your property for any other purpose, you have to raise the issue with the municipality in addition to the Department of Tourism. But Airbnb, for example, in their interactions has said it will share this information with any governments easily because it’s in the best interests of [the business] and governments.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Some may argue that this is way too much government interference. Shouldn’t the hospitality market be subject to demand and supply, and those who perform best will get the repeat business?
BLESSING MANALE: The example I’m giving is – if you don’t regulate it, it means that you might not even be put to grow, for example, under-endowed destinations where they don’t have accommodation.
So we are actually saying this is an instrument to support areas where they don’t have accommodation – where people want to go there for more than one night. But we are trying to protect. And I think it’s a balance that no one else has been thinking [of], and therefore industry to simply say let the things be, because the other extreme uses make it even illegal to run an Airbnb. And that comes from sometimes even the big players that are literally proposing a monopolisation.
So a balancing to make sure that we cannot make it illegal. Make sure that when it is legal to say we can run the tax, we can make sure that there are minimum thresholds in terms of night stays. And then people grow. But people also want to go into Airbnb because it has another service that’s got that kind of support – some crafts. But even my craft importers, for example, want to stay two nights in South Africa, and I cannot force them to a hotel 200 kilometres away from where the old women are crafting. So there are dynamics that people just don’t want to enter into. It’s convenient to just look at it as hotel-night-money, and it can’t be.
NOMPU SIZIBA: No, it’s a tricky one. So the public is able to comment on the bill – is that right?
BLESSING MANALE: The public will comment on the bill. We are now calling for written comments. We just believe that written comments are not good enough, we’ll go out into interactive sessions, seminars, through workshops. If you take the budget, the media we can have debates on air, we’ll write opinion pieces, and we’ll have all kinds of consultations. But within 60 days we want to bring the views coming from the length and breadth of the tourism stakeholders, and those that stand to benefit.
NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s going to be very tricky, isn’t it, because there are always conflicting interests. With us living in such a high unemployment country, some people may actually be using this as a means to earn money and live; and, if they feel like they are being restricted in that ability, that could also be problematic.
BLESSING MANALE: Well, it is eventually very problematic, but the worst thing is that the bigger players are saying that, “No, we will lose jobs because we can no longer employ people that are not guaranteed that there is a demand for service, because people are now going to Blessing’s house where it’s him and his firstborns that are rendering the service”. The extreme is we will bleed jobs in the formal sectors. The poorer communities are saying, “Shield us from this kind of meltdowns by allowing us into diversifying economic activities”. Other people are saying that there are people who actually, when we want to transport skills into Gauteng, for example, for a month, what do I do in my house? So some skills are starting certain places because my company cannot afford to send me into another province for a month, but we can afford a homestay.
So let’s look at the bigger picture. It’s an innovation that we must not shutdown without engaging, and this is the space to engage.
NOMPU SIZIBA: I’m sure there is going to be a lot of engagement on this one, Blessing. Thank you so much for your time, as always.