As in pretty much every community, Airbnb — the online company that allows people to turn their homes or properties into overnight rentals for travellers — is an option at the Lake and, at least for now, town council has no plans to impose regulations on the service.
The subject of Airbnb has come up at various council and committee meetings in recent months, often in reference to Sunfest and the anticipated influx of visitors to the area.
At the Finance and Administration Committee and Economic and Sustainable Development Committee meetings in June, Mayor Ross Forrest stated the town will take its cues from the provincial government when it comes to regulating Airbnb.
“The province is looking at it before all the municipalities start making their own judgment. Let the province take the first kick at it. So every municipality isn’t coming up with it’s own,” he said. “I just think that they are going to find out way more information on it than we could find out on our own if we were to make a decision on this for now… I think we should wait.”
Jim Humphrey, president of the Cowichan Lake and District Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Tourism Industry Association of BC, told the Finance and Administration Committee to expect a plan from the province to be announced at the Union of BC Municipalities upcoming annual convention in September.
Humphrey said Airbnb has the potential to cost some municipalities thousands of dollars in missed tax revenue opportunities. He also said because Airbnb does not inspect its clients’ rental spaces, the potential for negative experiences for visitors is very real.
“We want [tourists] to leave our area saying ‘God that was a lot of fun’ or ‘That was great.’ We don’t want them to leave saying, ‘Well jeez, I go ripped off. Or I got this or I got that, or I got bed bugs or whatever,” said Humphrey. “So we’re working on something the municipalities can roll out.”
A simple search for Lake Cowichan on Airbnb’s website garners “300+ Rentals,” however upon closer inspection that number appears to be rentals from all over Vancouver Island. But there are 19 around Cowichan Lake itself (four in Honeymoon Bay, six in Lake Cowichan and nine in Youbou).
The Gazette reached out to local Airbnb hosts, however, all those that responded to messages declined to be interviewed for this story.
David Kidd, co-owner of Kidd’s Bed and Breakfast in Lake Cowichan, said he’s ambivalent when it comes to Airbnb’s presence at the Lake, especially since he and his wife have used the service themselves while traveling. He said concerns about quality control and a lack of property inspections for Airbnb listings is understandable, although he pointed out the company encourages customers to leave online reviews of the locations where they stay.
“Where it’s a big problem here is in the possibility to circumvent the rules, not to get a business licence or not to pay taxes if taxes apply,” he said, noting that Lake Cowichan does not have a tourism tax.
“The bigger concerns for me are the restrictions the town has in its bylaws,” he said, pointing to what he sees as the highly restrictive areas where bed and breakfasts are permitted in the town. Currently, if homeowners outside these areas wish to turn their properties into bed and breakfasts, they need to apply for rezoning and if that is successful, they must apply for a business licence.
“So people would be inclined to go under the radar as far as the town is concerned and just sign up with Airbnb.”
Kidd said it’s tough to say whether or not the town should regulate Airbnb, but it would be desirable if similar guidelines applied to those rentals as they do for licensed B&Bs.
But Kidd does not feel threatened by the presence of Airbnb at the Lake.
“We’re busy enough so it’s not really impacting on us,” he said. “It’s a bit like motels, also, because by and large the audience is different. It’s sort of self-selecting. There’s not a whole lot of crossover.”