If you haven't heard of Airbnb, chances are you've been living under a rock or in a coma. The popularity of the online accommodations site has taken off — on P.E.I., the number of Airbnb listings has doubled to 300 from 154 just in the last year.
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And why not try to grab a slice of P.E.I.'s lucrative tourism market? More than one million people visit the Island of just 146,000 souls every year — and they need places to stay.
"It makes it [regulation] more difficult. We're trying to maintain a standard on Prince Edward Island. Tourism is very important to us," said Heath MacDonald, P.E.I.'s minister of tourism, noting tourism generates $400 million and 2,500 direct jobs annually.
His department's "compliance officers" tell MacDonald that out of 300 listings on Airbnb in P.E.I., 56 are not licensed with the province — and he'd like that to change.
"We've just got to educate them," he said. "Some of them may not even realize they have to be licensed."
Help with the mortgage
The popularity of Airbnb has allowed some new entrants into P.E.I.'s real estate market.
Suzanne Scott and Joey Seaman recently purchased a three-storey heritage home in downtown Charlottetown, renovating the third floor as a one-bedroom Airbnb rental to help pay their mortgage.
Scott knew they had to be licensed with the province and made it a priority, calling it "the most important step." She admits new entrants into the tourism rental business can find the licensing process somewhat persnickety.
Their unit is also listed on VRBO — Vacation Rentals By Owner — but they prefer Airbnb.
"Airbnb is great, just for the use of it. It's really user-friendly," said Scott.
"It's got a great mobile app that we can handle inquiries and messaging guests through our phones. And it's just become so popular now that I think a lot of people are using it."
Hosts are built-in concierges
Scott runs her pottery studio from the property, which guests can visit while they enjoy beer from the local brewery her husband co-owns.
"That's the big benefit of it too, you've got this local person who can give you the inside scoop on the place," Scott said.
They present visitors with a folder of information that includes their own recommendations on where to visit — "try to give them more of like an Islander experience, not just a touristy experience," she said.
Their apartment sleeps two to four people and rents for $175 a night in July and August, less in the off-season. In winter, they rent it by the month to students.
"We have so many tourists coming to P.E.I. that need places to stay, so I see no harm in people deciding to do it and make a little extra income," said Scott.
Scott and her husband use Airbnb exclusively for their own travel, recently returning from a beach house rental in Columbia that she raved about as a truly authentic experience.
Getting in the game
Todd MacLean and Savannah Belsher-MacLean are excited to get in on the Airbnb trend — they just purchased a large historic property in Hazelbrook, P.E.I., and are planning a major renovation before hosting guests.
"We've got the energy and the drive and think the time is right," said MacLean.
"It does seem like everyone is realizing tech-savvy travellers want to save on accommodations while also having a feeling and culturally-rich taste of what it might be like to live in the places they go."
Last fall, the couple travelled extensively throughout North America marketing MacLean's book Global Chorus, and used Airbnb to find most of their accommodations.
"We just adored this feeling of being immersed in the culture of where we were," said MacLean.
The couple also intends to become licensed through the provincial government.
Do your homework
Tourism officials have been contacting unlicensed hosts to "lead them down the right path to be legal," refraining from fining people, MacDonald said.
"People want to open up bedrooms and that sort of thing, but again, their safety is an issue as well," MacDonald said.
MacDonald notes the licensing of tourism accommodations is important for financial reasons too — generating $400,000 annually for his department.
"If they're really interested in the industry, they'll work towards achieving those legislation, regulations," MacDonald added.