Luke Martin

commented on The Sharing Economy – Revolution or Evolution for Tasmania? 2015-01-08 14:27:10 +1100 · Flag
As a representative of one of the so-sectors named above as having expressed ‘discomfort’ with the implications for our industry from the otherwise glorious new opportunities promised by the new age of the shared economy, I think I might just offer a couple of points that seem to be too easily dismissed in this whole argument.

For starters, speaking on behalf of the Tasmanian tourism industry we have absolutely no issue with Airbnb as a marketing service or distribution model. A number of established and legitimate tourism operators are using this service, and as a marketing and booking agent, seems to work for some and not for others.

Now, are we – as suggested by Greg Barns – protectionists, trying to restrict new operators from entering our industry and shift the market through a new digital solution, or any other type of effective market strategy.

Anyone who knows anything about tourism will know that it is perhaps the one economic sector above all others that absolutely relies upon – and, indeed, actively champions – innovation, entrepreneurism and new investment in order to stay fresh and contemporary in the market. Tasmanian tourism will live and die on the basis of new operators continuing to enter the market with interesting, different and exciting products and experiences appealing to different segments of the visitor market.

The issue is, whether we like it or not, there are existing regulations and lawful planning requirements and costs that existing operators comply with and absorb into their business every day of the week.

Land tax, fire permits, commercial power bills, public liability insurance, business insurance and the upfront capital cost of developing an accommodation business in a correctly zoned area are all costs that quality, committed accommodation operators must absorb into their business.

And we’re not just talking about the ‘big end of town’ hotels here, but the vast majority of our accommodation operators, who are small, owner-operator run hosted and self contained accommodation.

Rather than being some broad digital revolution for the masses, AirBnb in fact provides the capacity for only a relatively small group of new operators to avoid these costs, providing them with a direct competitive and financial advantage over their competitors. This is simply unfair.

The answer to this dilemma proposed by TasICT in their policy statement released this week – if I am reading it correctly – is basically to deregulate the established industries and sectors to enable the marked adjustment emerging from the new ‘shared economy’.

I’m not sure if this is just an ideological stake in the ground, or a serious proposition, because, too me, its just not realistic.

From an accommodation perspective, amending local government planning schemes to legitimate short-term commercial accommodation in residential zoned areas – which would essentially resolve the Airbnb issue – would provide for open-slather visitor accommodation everywhere.

But the unintended consequences of this will be when some entrepreneurial types start buying up the remaining affordable residential properties around Battery Point, Bingalong Bay and Bruny Island to be converted into high end commercial guest accommodation.

From my perspective, I obviously wouldn’t object to that outcome for tourism gains – but ask the local residents and communities about the ‘disruption’ this would cause to the neighbourhood they know and love.

In our planning system we have distinctions between residential zoned areas and commercial & mixed-user areas for a reason – and for any government or council to further blur the line will have implications much broader than any one industry.

Similarly with Uber and Taxis. We can all lament the closed market of the taxi industry, but the reality is it exists. Government controls the market through the sale of plates, and many people in that industry have equity in the plates they own. For many independent taxi operators the equity in their ‘plate’ represents the total value of their business, the sale of which they are banking on when they leave the industry.

Deregulating the taxi industry might seem like a perfectly rationale, practical and inevitable outcome for the benefit of the consumer. But the reality for the people engaged in that industry would be dramatic, as would the cost to government in compensating for the devaluation of the plates they have profited from over decades.

And with food. How does one maintain the integrity of the existing food handling regulatory framework that the overwhelming majority of the public still highly value for safety and peace of mind, if we simply turn a blind eye to entrepreneurial home chefs commercialising home cooked meals?

Where’s the distinction between a home chef using EatWith, and a home-based food producer marketing their products through their own website, where the market still ultimately expects some degree of quality assurance and safeguards?

The age of the shared economy might well be before us, and regulations will inevitably adjust to the shift being generated in the market. But from my end, the removal of existing regulations over these markets is the most difficult way to facilitate this.

Defining the scope of the shared economy, and answering the questions of where the new economy meets the established economic base is the challenge.

For accommodation, Councils can enable commercial accommodation in residential zoned areas through their planning schemes without allowing open-slather restructuring of our most desirable areas.

Ironically, we might find the most practical way to facilitate the adjustment for the shared economy in Tasmania might be through regulation!

Luke Martin
Tourism Industry Council Tasmania