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Airbnb Looks to Latin America, Its Fastest-Growing Market

Published on May 16 2017 10:42 AM in Hotel tagged: China / Airbnb / Latin America / Mexico City

Airbnb Looks to Latin America, Its Fastest-Growing Market

As Airbnb turns its attention to Latin America, the often-combative company is taking an unusual approach. It's giving local governments what they want.

The home and apartment-rental company said it will collect and remit taxes in Mexico City, the first such arrangement in Latin America. Airbnb will provide 3 percent of revenue generated from its hosts' bookings in Mexico City to the city's government.

Hotels there also pay a 3 percent lodging tax to local officials. Airbnb said it intends to replicate the tax model throughout the region. Airbnb's policy efforts are increasingly global. On Thursday, the company announced additional agreements with local governments in China and India.

Latin America is now Airbnb's fastest-growing market, surpassing Japan. The company has 250,000 properties listed in the region, which encompasses Mexico, South America and parts of the Caribbean, including Cuba. Airbnb said bookings in Latin America have increased 148 percent in the past year. The privately held company declined to disclose revenue.

Airbnb is taking a cordial tact with officials in advance of major conflicts. While it has agreed to report taxes on behalf of its hosts in New York City, San Francisco and other cities, the company has also had long, drawn-out battles with officials, sometimes in court. Government officials and lobbying groups have argued the startup hurts urban housing supply by providing landlords with incentives to turn apartments into unlicensed hotels. This month, Airbnb settled a lawsuit with San Francisco and agreed to register New York hosts in a state database. But the company continues to fight officials in Barcelona, Miami, Southern California and elsewhere on housing-related issues.

Chris Lehane, the head of policy for Airbnb, said the company plans to take a friendly approach throughout Latin America. It's currently discussing agreements similar to the one in Mexico City with the governments of Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. "This is just the beginning," he said. "We're prepared to be flexible and experiment."

Airbnb has big plans for Latin America. It expects to double staff there by the end of the year and open offices in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Headcount will likely quadruple to 120 people within the next two years, Airbnb said. The plans echo those of Uber Technologies Inc., the only technology startup in the U.S. more richly valued than Airbnb. The ride-hailing company dedicated considerable resources to the region after losing more than $2 billion in China and selling its business there to a homegrown rival. Airbnb is currently trying to find a way to break into China.

Also like Uber, Airbnb faces competition everywhere it goes, including Latin America. Many Brazilians rely on local upstart Hotel Urbano, which is backed by at least $130 million from travel-booking giant Priceline Group Inc. and others, according to research firm CB Insights. Expedia Inc. owns AlugueTemporada, which operates a similar service but lists only 30,000 homes in Latin America.

To win over locals, Airbnb will need to navigate the complexities of the region's payment infrastructure. About half of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have bank accounts, according to data from the World Bank. Far fewer have credit or debit cards, which are the standard payment methods for booking on Airbnb around the globe. Payment practices vary widely from country to country, said Faquiry Diaz Cala, chief executive officer of Tres Mares Group, a venture firm that invests in Latin American startups. "Airbnb will need to connect its rails to the local payment ecosystems to be successful," he said.

In Brazil, Airbnb allows customers to pay for their stays in Boleto Bancário, a payment method offered at local banks, lottery stores or post offices. After booking a reservation on Airbnb, guests receive a code that they submit along with payment at a location that accepts boleto. The institution then pays Airbnb. The boleto became popular during Brazil's recession. Airbnb is experimenting with ways to accommodate other payment systems unique to Latin American countries, Lehane said. "We have to figure out how our product can be consistent with how people are used to working."

News by Bloomberg, edited by Hospitality Ireland

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