Airbnb's 'local experiences' initiative treads fine line

Sketching and photography trails were some of the unique local experiences that home-rental platform Airbnb put on offer on Monday last week.

Users may book these experiences, which cost between $80 and $185, through its website or app.

But both the guides and users risk running afoul of the law if money is exchanged, according to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) Act.

Ms Ong Ling Lee, director of travel agents and tourist guides at the STB, told The Straits Times only licensed tourist guides are allowed to provide paid guiding services to tourists. Guiding services include providing any direction, information, description or explanation to tourists in connection with a place or point of interest in Singapore. First-time offenders can be fined up to $5,000 for flouting the rules.

The Straits Times understands that the hosts are Singapore residents who wish to share their interests and expertise with travellers or other local residents.

There are some exemptions to the rule, said Ms Ong. For example, individuals who are engaged or employed by owners of premises to provide guiding services do not need licences. Operators of such premises, which include museums and other attractions, can also provide guiding services without a licence.

This suggests that businesses like Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle, which offers a tour of its pottery kiln on Airbnb, may be within the STB's rules, as the host's family owns the business and premises.

Airbnb's Singapore website currently lists 10 activities branded as "Experiences".

Responding to queries from The Straits Times on whether Airbnb had worked with the local authorities before the launch, a spokesman said: "We are committed to working together with the Singapore Government and our local community to provide safe and positive Experiences to both locals and travellers."

The chairman (inbound) of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore, Mr Samson Tan, said the potential of the initiative is difficult to project and may be limited by the fading of traditional trades.

Read also: Airbnb boss shows he has mad skills in making soon kueh

Said Mr Tan: "Tourists want far better experiences like trying out our world-class attractions."

Last month, a new law that makes short-term rentals such as those on Airbnb illegal without permission from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) was passed in Parliament. But National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said the URA is studying the option of creating a new category of private homes that will be allowed to provide short-term rentals.

This article was first published on Mar 22, 2017.
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