Belfast’s Airbnb explosion - 70% surge on guests numbers
While 2018 may come to be known as the year of the hotel in Belfast, it has also been a record year for Airbnb in Northern Ireland.
The online accommodation booking service revealed that the province has become one of its fastest growing tourism destinations in the UK, with 230,000 guests using the service in the 12 months to June 2018.
That represented a 70% surge on the 132,000 guests welcomed the previous year, generating £68m for the economy, according to Airbnb.
Maurice Kinkead is chief executive of the Eastside Partnership in east Belfast, which lists two properties on Airbnb, including the former family home of football legend George Best.
A former host himself, he believes the Airbnb experience enables tourists to sample life outside the city centre and immerse themselves in communities.
"The reason people are staying is that they want to do something a little bit more authentic in a local community," he said.
"I travel a lot, probably three or four times a year, and I always stay Airbnb, just because you can stay in different types of places and you can see more local culture, local communities and use the local shops and restaurants."
The partnership, which runs the new visitor centre on the Newtownards Road, also advises people in the area on how they can use their own properties to become hosts. But he said most are not motivated by financial gain.
"I know a lot of the people who do Airbnb in east Belfast and nearly all of them do it because they want to be hospitable and host people.
"It's not really a big money earner by the time you clean and change everything, unless you're doing it in volume."
Belfast may soon see a new hotel named in George Best's honour, but it's on Airbnb where visitors can actually sleep in his boyhood bedroom.
The house in Cregagh, where Best lived with his family from the age of two until 15, has been available to rent on Airbnb since 2013.
The second property offered by the Eastside Partnership is an apartment near CS Lewis Square.
Mr Kinkead said that the George Best house is quite peculiar, because visitors choose it because of what it is.
He said "The apartment always tends to be people who are looking to stay outside the city centre, just because they want to experience a local community."
In 2012, Mr Kinkead began letting out a room in his own Ballyhackamore apartment, something he classifies as "pure Airbnb".
"It was completely new to me. I actually had a couple of people that I knew from San Francisco staying with me, at no cost at all. It was them who told me about it.
"For me, the income was pretty irrelevant - it was about meeting interesting people who came from other parts of the world.
"Plus, I just always had an interest in tourism. So it was actually really useful to hear from visitors on why they had come to Belfast, what they wanted to do, and actually I made some long-term friendships with people I still keep in touch with."
But letting out a bedroom in your home in Northern Ireland is not straightforward.
It is a legal requirement for anyone offering accommodation to tourists here to be legally certified.
Earlier this year, Tourism NI initiated legal action against two people who advertised their properties on the web-based service as accommodation without the appropriate licence.
The cases were later dropped when the property owners opted to register.
While Tourism NI says the online process costs only £40, Mr Kinkead believes the regulations that come with certifications are currently too stringent.
He stopped advertising his room when he realised he had to register as tourist accommodation.
"The reason I couldn't register is because the room I was letting out didn't have an en-suite.
"I think registration is absolutely critical for things like health and safety, but I've just come back from Berlin, where I was staying in an Airbnb with no en-suite. I was using a shared bathroom.
"That, to me, is a consumer choice, so I think we should loosen that criteria."
Both Airbnb and Tourism NI say the onus remains on the person listing their accommodation to appraise themselves of the necessary legislation.
A spokesperson for Tourism NI said: "If it's brought to our attention that someone is operating without certification, we will contact them, advise them of the legal requirement and ask them to register for certification.
"In almost every case, the property will comply. We have the option to take court action against those who don't. This applies to everyone regardless of what marketing platform they use."
Airbnb told the Belfast Telegraph: "Airbnb has more than five million listings in 81,000 cities and 191 countries. We regularly remind hosts to check and follow local rules, and provide guidance about hosting in Northern Ireland to help them on our responsible hosting page."
While supporting a relaxation of the rules, Mr Kinkead is aware that Airbnb has impacted on the availability of housing in other parts of the world.
He said any expansion of Airbnb in Belfast should be balanced.
"I think it's great for the whole of east Belfast that there are visitors coming and staying in local communities and they're buying stuff in local shops, going to local restaurants and mixing with local people.
"I think that's really positive," he said.