For foreign tourists to Japan, staying at traditional ryokan inns is a popular way to enjoy their trips, but home-sharing services are growing as an alternative form of accommodation.
Legally speaking, some home-sharing services fall in a gray zone because existing accommodation rules were drafted before such services began on the Internet.
Following are questions and answers about home-sharing services in Japan.
What has prompted the rise in home-sharing services in Japan?
The rising popularity can be traced to the fast-growing U.S.-based agency Airbnb Inc., which mediates between “hosts” offering to share their homes and “guests” seeking to stay in them.
Founded in 2008, Airbnb provides its services from its website, which has about 50 million users and lists 1.5 million homes in more than 190 countries. In Japan, 16,000 homes — a threefold increase on last year — are registered with the service, the firm said, while the number of foreign tourists who used the service in Japan shot up fivefold in the same period.
Tokyo-based venture minma Inc. launched a similar site called Roomstay in April, while another, Tomarina, is run by Tokyo-based Tomareru Inc.
The growing demand for home-sharing may be attributable to the rapid increase in inbound tourists, as many users who book stays via Airbnb are foreign travelers, according to the company.
In 2013, the number of foreign tourists exceeded 10 million for the first time and is still growing. The country is expected to see about 19 million visitors this year.
What advantages are there in home-sharing?
By staying at local homes, “travelers can enjoy real local experiences as if they were living there,” instead of the perspective travelers have when staying in hotels, Airbnb said in an email.
Hosts can benefit by offering vacant rooms for profit.
Airbnb’s global research shows that 70 percent of homes registered on its site are located outside hotel-concentrated areas. Thus the economic effects of tourism can be distributed over wider regions, the company said.
How does home-sharing fall in a legal gray area?
The Inns and Hotels Act states that those who accommodate guests for a fee on a regular basis must obtain permission from their local government.
Those violating the law can face a maximum ¥30,000 fine or up to six months in prison.
In fact, a British male who failed to receive such permission was reportedly arrested in May for earning profits from people who stayed at his home. Media reports said authorities had warned him many times.
In that sense, people who register their homes to matching websites, including Airbnb, could be operating such services illegally if they don’t have permission from authorities.
Airbnb said it asks people who seek to become hosts to follow local regulations. Asked if the firm checks to ascertain if its listed hosts have legal permission to operate, Airbnb would only say it asks them to follow the rules.
Meanwhile, Hideyoshi Koyanagi, a spokesperson at Tomareru, said Tomarina made sure that hosts had permission.
Tomarina has about 500 listed homes, mainly in country areas and catering mostly to Japanese customers, he said.
Koyanagi added that the current situation was unfair, as some other service operators seemed to not apply the same diligence. He said the government should publicly announce whether or not it intends to crack down on people sharing rooms illegally.
An official at the health ministry, which oversees the Inns and Hotels Act, said even though some people registered with home-sharing services may be violating the law, it is a hard issue to investigate.
This is because operators of such services are only middlemen that are not regulated by the Act, so authorities cannot directly ask those service operators to give out information on who is listing their homes, the official said.
What downsides are there to home-sharing?
The All Japan Ryokan Hotel Association, which has 16,000 registered members in Japan, said home-sharing can be risky to travelers because safety and security are not backed by law.
Masato Kiyosawa, executive director of the association, said that to accommodate visitors, hotels need to clear various requirements, including sanitary conditions and disaster prevention preparation.
For example, hotels must have a front desk and rooms must have fire-proof curtains.
It is doubtful all of those who share their dwellings through home-sharing websites have cleared such standards, he said.
In addition, authorized hotels must make guest lists and copy visitor passport numbers. This helps authorities keep track of who stayed where in the event, for example, that tourists have an infectious disease or are a terrorist threat.
It is also unclear whether people who profit from sharing their homes are paying taxes properly.
Troubles can also arise between hosts and guests, who are unknown to each other. Yet Airbnb said guests can check detailed profiles about hosts and their places and other people’s reviews before booking, while hosts can also do the same, which improves safety and security.
Is the government planning changes to home-sharing regulations?
The central government has only just begun looking into the home-sharing situation in Japan, so it is unlikely regulations will be relaxed anytime soon.
But even government officials see home-sharing as a viable alternative to address the growing need for accommodations as concerns grow over a lack of hotels amid the explosive growth in inbound tourism. For their part, home-sharing services hope the rules will be changed to fit the new way of traveling.
“We ask our hosts to follow the laws and regulations if they want to register their homes, but it is unclear whether the existing rules apply to those who share their places only occasionally” rather than regularly, said Airbnb. “We’d like to communicate (with the authorities) to make rules that reflect the trend of home-sharing and is simple for the general public to understand.”
In some countries and cities, including France, Portugal, London, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, rules have already been changed to adapt to the growing trend of home-sharing.
The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and Paralympics Committee has chosen Airbnb as an Official Alternative Accommodation Service.