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Tourism watchdog beefs up task force to clamp down on unlicensed hosts

Tourism reform proposals will require hosts to meet safety and comfort conditions before renting rooms to tourists

tim_diacono
Tim Diacono
28 February 2016, 8:50am
The Malta Tourism Authority has hired 10 new enforcement officers in recent months in an attempt to clamp down on unlicensed touristic accommodation. 

MTA communications director Michael Piscopo told MaltaToday that the tourism watchdog’s enforcement section had until recently only employed eight officers. 

“They were tasked with inspecting complaints, pro-actively monitoring online booking websites, and conducting annual inspections on licensed hosts,” he said. “This is time-consuming work, which is why we decided to significantly beef up the enforcement ranks.” 

A 2014 report by George Micallef, former president of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, claimed that as many as 10% of all guest nights spent in Malta are in unlicensed accommodation.

This would translate to around 5,500 people a year, on each of whom the government would be losing the 7% applicable VAT rate on tourist rentals. 

Unlicensed hosts are liable to fines ranging between €1,164 and €23,293, but Piscopo admitted that only 54 such fines have been issued since 2010. 

“I will not venture a guess as to how many unlicensed hosts are out there, but it’s a matter of principle – nobody should be allowed to host tourists without an MTA licence.” 

Fresh conditions in pipeline for tourist hosts 

Apart from clamping down on unlicensed hosts, the government intends to regulate the phenomenon of shared accommodation, by requiring such hosts to meet certain safety and comfort requirements. 

It is a move that has long been demanded by Malta’s hoteliers, who fear the “threat” posed to their businesses by the rapid rise of websites such as Airbnb. 

Tourism reform proposals – drafted this month by a committee chaired by Micallef – call for the introduction of a new ‘bed and breakfast’ licence for people wishing to earn a quick euro by letting their rooms out to tourists. 

This will be in addition to the specific licences that are currently issued to hosts of English language students and homeowners letting out their entire properties. 

Shared accommodation will be subjected to minimum safety and comfort conditions, including the requirement that a responsible person is on site at least 12 hours daily. 

The guest bedroom – which will not be able to house more than four tourists – must come with a window or balcony, and be equipped with cooling and heating systems, a wardrobe, a dressing table, a chest of drawers, a mirror, curtains or blinds, individual bedside reading lights and a bedside table per two guests. Adults will not be allowed to be placed in bunk beds. 

Internet and a telephone line must be available to guests, breakfast must be provided, kitchen facilities be clean and functioning, and the host properly dressed, clean and well-mannered.  

The bathroom must be fitted with an internal lock, its wash-hand basin supplied with liquid soap, and its shower continuously supplied with cold and hot water. Hairdryers, sanitary bags and sanitary bins must also be readily available.  

Licences will be denied to hosts if they or their household members have been convicted of drug-related offences and crimes ‘against the good order of families’ such as rape, paedophilia, abduction and bigamy. 

“I understand that some tourists are willing to forfeit standards for a cheap room, but it doesn’t pay off in the long run,” Piscopo said. “It is all fine until something goes wrong, and the MTA is obliged to ensure comfort, safety and quality to tourists, and to ensure that they get value for their money.

“More and more tourists are seeking the unique experience that shared accommodation offers, and the growing trend is not going away.”

The current law does not cater for operators wishing to license such tourism operations and the time has come to adapt the law to reality, while ensuring a level-playing field for all tourism operators.  

The current reality certainly appears to be a surge in tourists seeking “authenticity” over luxury by opting to spend their vacation in private housing. 

Indeed, 500,284 tourists stayed in such places last year, a notable 18.2% increase over 2014. To put it in perspective, stays at collective accommodation only grew by 1.8%. 

Over 1,000 properties in Malta are currently listed on Airbnb, ranging from yachts to villas.