Properties in the Territory operating as accommodations on popular online booking platform AirBnB are now required to pay Hotel Accommodation tax. The decision to ensure that tax is collected from these properties was made by Cabinet.
Airbnb is an online marketplace and homestay network that enables people to list or rent short-term lodging in residential properties, with the cost of such accommodation set by the property owner; but previously accommodation tax revenue was not collected from such bookings.
It was stated that Cabinet granted permission for Government to enter into an Agreement with AirBnB for the collection of Hotel Accommodation Tax by AirBnB from properties in the Virgin Islands that use AirBnB to facilitate guest bookings at their properties. Cabinet also decided that the Minister of Finance declare the Inland Revenue Department as a department which may receive and process electronic records relative to the Hotel Accommodation (Taxation) Ordinance (Cap. 205) (“the Act”).
Last year Director of the BVI Tourist Board, Mrs. Sharon Flax-Brutus disclosed that a submission was made through the Premier’s Office to the Ministry of Finance to work with popular accommodation booking platform Airbnb to collect revenue for properties booked in the Territory. The Tourist Board Director estimated that the Territory is losing thousands of dollars to Airbnb bookings.
In 2018, the Tourist Board Director told the Standing Finance Committee that there are discussions with Airbnb to share data, work together and finalize an agreement in this regard. The Tourist Board Director stated that based on the information provided there was substantial estimated revenue to benefit the BVI.
In the not too distant past concerns were raised about Airbnb bookings here in the Territory as it was believed that way more revenue is being lost to that platform than is realized. The point was made last year by Junior Minister of Trade and Investment, Hon Marlon Penn while he was debating the Cruise Permit (Amendment) Act in the House of Assembly on 29 May, 2018.
Hon. Penn said: “I was scrolling through Airbnb. I said ‘let me look up the BVI,’ and here I see boats being advertised as rooms…in my very community of Hodges Creek close to my border constituency, I am sitting here looking at it right now. There is no mention of cruising permits; there is no mention of accommodation tax; there is no mention of none of these things. So they are using these things to circumvent the tax regime…” Exactly!
The Junior Trade Minister said that he is concerned that some of these boat owners that are offering their vessel for accommodation via the site don’t have the business licenses to venture into this line of trade. He noted that these vessel owners don’t pay BVI accommodation tax and don’t have trade licenses.
What’s worst, Hon. Penn stated is that these vessel owners are competing directly with villas operating legitimately: “They are competing with our villas in the market – avoiding paying accommodation tax, charging really hefty per night rates; some as high as $800 per night. All of these things are happening very much in plain sight.”
The Legislator who is also the Eighth District Minister called on his colleagues to look into the Airbnb boating accommodation practice: “It’s wrong and we need to really secure and ensure that those things are addressed…”
In suggesting how the matter might be addressed Hon. Penn said: “We need to really look at not just the fee structure, but the support that we need to give to Customs and other agencies as far as regulation. We need to have the mechanisms in place to sort of police this activity that is happening right underneath our noses…”
Further the then Junior Minister repeated a call he made earlier in his legislative career for cyber patrolling. This is becoming necessary since it is noted that a great number of the contraventions are internet based these days: “I came into this House some time ago when we did the Cybercrime Bill, and I mentioned that we need cyber soldiers. Everybody laughed. But it’s a serious issue. A lot of the things that are happening now are happening on the internet – happening on the web.”