Government staff are booking into locally listed Airbnb properties as part of investigations into guesthouse licences.

Airbnb. File photo: Ivan Radic/Flickr.

The Office of the Licensing Authority (OLA) told HKFP last week that premises used as short-term rentals had to meet fire and building safety standards and required a licence.

Last year, it made 686 inspections, leading to 25 prosecutions and 11 convictions among cases involving online booking platforms overall.

Number of Inspections3 1194 3561 682868686
Number of Prosecutions464414525
Number of Convictions413212511
Enforcement figures relating to unlicensed hotels/guesthouses with hosts soliciting lodgers via online platforms. Source: Office of the Licensing Authority.

Airbnb, which continues to operate in the city, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

An OLA spokesperson told HKFP its staff pose as clients when necessary. “OLA has carried out proactive inspections, web browsing (by searching information and intelligence on suspected unlicensed hotels/guesthouses through websites, mobile applications, social media, discussion fora, etc.) and instituting enforcement and prosecutions, including conducting inspections and surprise checks and collecting evidence by posing as clients, i.e. decoy operation, when necessary,” they said.

The OLA did not respond as to how much it budgeted for overnight stays, and whether Airbnb – or similar online booking platforms – were illegal.

‘Very uncomfortable’

One HKFP reader, who had listed their residence on Airbnb for several years, said they received a letter threatening a HK$500,000 fine and up to three years in prison after officials booked into the property.

Airbnb. File photo: HKFP screenshot.

The Airbnb host, who did not wish to be named owing to the legal case, said they felt uncomfortable about what the government called a “decoy” operation. “[I]t was based on an undercover government official who had booked our place and stayed there to gather the evidence they needed. This obviously feels very uncomfortable – you think you are hosting genuine guests who want to come and enjoy your hospitality, not undercover agents trying to prosecute you.”

airbnb gov't letter
Photo: Supplied.

“Airbnb have been no help,” they added. “They put all the onus on the host to ensure they are in line with the guesthouse requirements in Hong Kong, but as far as we can tell it’s close to impossible to get the license approvals you need.”

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.