Siem Reap’s established hoteliers are concerned that holiday rentals advertising directly to users via the web are not playing by the same rules
A campaign from US-based accommodation rental site Airbnb to increase the number of Cambodian listings on the peer-to-peer accommodation website has sparked fierce debate in Siem Reap’s tourism community about the so-called “sharing economy”.
In recent years, Airbnb and other websites such as HomeAway, Roomorama, Vayable and Uber – which cut out middlemen such as transfer services, hotels and travel companies to allow users to book directly with locals offering transport, accommodation, tours and experiences – have become increasingly popular.
In late 2014, Airbnb employed a Cambodian-based “host acquisition specialist” to recruit accommodation hosts via social media and a series of meet-ups. In recent months, advertisements for meet-ups have told potential hosts they could “Earn extra income simply by opening your doors to guests from around the world. Whether you have a spare room, a couch, or are thinking of renting your home – we’ll help you get started!”
Accommodation offered on Airbnb ranges from rooms in residential homes and homestays all the way up to standard hotel rooms and luxury private villas.
They are attractive to travellers seeking local, social and peer-to-peer travel experiences, insight into the everyday life of and engagement with locals, as well as extra space, privacy, flexibility and the comforts of home.
These newer forms of travel and accommodation operate on a smaller scale than mass tourism products and are therefore considered more sustainable. They also offer the chance to “give back” and contribute to local communities in formal and informal ways.
Martin Dishman, a hotelier of 30 years and owner of a stylish boutique hotel in Siem Reap called Hotel Be, is now offering accommodation in a villa in a nearby village, where guests receive the same services as hotel guests, as well as access to a fully equipped kitchen to cook their own meals, an in-house chef, and a food delivery service – the best of both worlds.
“We provide an opportunity to see how rural Cambodians live, while still being close to town,” Dishman said. “Two of the staff are from the village, the hotel supervisor has a house near the property, and should guests wish to, they can go on a walk with staff to meet villagers.”
Airbnb’s Singapore-based spokesperson, Lena Sönnichsen, said Asia was a growing market for the company and Siem Reap was very much a part of that trend.
“The number of inbound travellers into Siem Reap that stay on Airbnb is roughly tripling every year, as is the number of listings in the market,” Sönnichsen said. “However, this growth is coming off a very small base at the moment.”
However, Jeff Strachan, owner of intimate boutique property, Maison 557 said that, while he loved the idea of the sharing economy and the model that sites like Airbnb and Uber offer, he had concerns.
“The sharing economy is exciting and allows access to markets for many businesses,” Strachan said. “However, those businesses still have a responsibility to behave within the framework of the country in which they reside. As soon as you place your home or holiday rental onto a peer-to-peer site, you are in effect becoming a business. My concern is regulation, licensing and good governance.”
Several other hoteliers, who declined to go on the record for this story, expressed similar concerns, also adding that there was already a glut of accommodation in Siem Reap, and small hotels suffered during low season.
Christian De Boer, general manager of Shinta Mani Resort and Club and head of the local hoteliers association, said he believed there was room in the market for everyone but there had to be a level playing field.
“Individuals operating holiday rentals need to register as businesses, get their licences, treat and pay staff fairly, pay taxes, and follow the same regulations relating to health and safety that hotels do,” De Boer said.
Deborah Saunders, owner of River Garden Hotel, agreed there was space for both categories of accommodation, but that a more regulated marketplace would reduce the amount of “cowboys” setting up businesses, who cut the value of the market price down so low they make it challenging to compete.
Five Siem Reap holiday rental owners contacted for this story declined to comment, as did Airbnb’s Cambodia-based Host Acquisition Specialist, Philippe Ceulen.
On the issue of responsibility, Airbnb spokesperson Sönnichsen said that when new hosts decided to list their homes on Airbnb, “our site reminds them to first review their local rules”.
Elizabeth Becker, an award-winning journalist and author of Overbooked: The Global Business of Travel and Tourism, who was in Siem Reap a few months ago for a UNESCO and WTO conference on tourism and culture, had a different take on the issue.
“This is not about the sharing economy at all,” Becker said. “This is about corporations avoiding laws. In the US, there are entire communities that are furious because people are buying up places to rent. You work so hard to zone this and zone that, regulate that, and all of a sudden a corporation comes in and pretends it’s a sharing economy and blitzos your neighbourhood.”
Becker said she was uncertain that holiday rentals were more sustainable. Nor did she believe the impact on local communities were always positive.
Her sentiments have been echoed in cities around the world, from New York to New Orleans, Venice to Barcelona.
Locals resent the changes to the character of their neighbourhood resulting from unregulated holiday rentals that have driven up rents, causing small businesses such as grocery stores to shut down, only to be replaced by souvenir shops.
“In the historic quarter of New Orleans, they are up in arms over all the illegal rentals, which is also the downfall of Venice. Venice is disappearing – count the grocery stores, they’re gone,” Becker said. “They have ruined communities very quickly. It’s not simply a tax issue.
It’s not so innocent and it’s not so sharing.
“The group that keeps getting lost are the local people and they are getting so angry,” Becker said. “If you believe in law and justice and regulations for harmony, you can’t go around regulations. And if you want to have a sharing economy, accept the rules that go with a sharing economy. The balance has not been reached. You have to respect the local community.