Guides react to new cyber tourism site

On May 30, the Internet booking company Airbnb announced their partnership with the Utah Office of Tourism to debut “Experiences,” a platform for locally guided experiences. Local guides expressed optimism for the business opportunities offered by the platform but remain concerned about “pirate guiding,” the practice of guiding without proper insurance or permits.

Carl Dec is the owner of Red River Adventures, a company that guides rafting, rock climbing, canyoneering and other activities around Utah.

“I do think that it opens up the door for guiding or people putting together experiences that will run afoul of permitting issues and liability issues and those things. Essentially you’re asking people to open up guide services or sell experiences or activities, and that is an industry. There are very clear rules about access to public lands, access to private lands, liability insurances, licensing, all those things,” Dec said. “If someone goes on Airbnb Experiences and says, ‘I’ve got a raft. I’ll take you rafting,’ they need to have a permit from the Moab [Bureau of Land Management] and insurance. They’re subject to state waterway laws. They’re subject to Department of Natural Resources licensing. You’ve got to have a guide license and pass tests and then there are first aid requirements.”

Brett Sutteer of Moab Cliffs and Canyons also weighed in on the issue.

“My big concern is that there might be a safety issue involved with some of the stuff because it seems like anybody can post any experience there without any type of verifiable credentials or permits,” Sutteer said.

Vicki Varela, the director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said that they chose to partner with Airbnb partly because of the level of work that Airbnb puts into making sure Experiences are safe. “They were so scrupulous in making sure the guides and outfitters have their permits and that it’s a safe experience for visitors. That also helps our guides and outfitters because that’s a lot of back end work that Airbnb Experiences is willing to do that enables the guides and outfitters to focus on their core businesses. Airbnb Experiences does the checking about permits, the checking for safety, the marketing,” Varela said.

The Utah Office of Tourism was “ambitious in pursuing a partnership with Airbnb,” Varela said, because the Airbnb Experiences platform fits well into the Office of Tourism’s current business strategy, which they sum up in their Red Emerald Initiative. That business strategy involves getting people off the beaten path and getting visitors to stay longer, Varela said.

“We’re very aware of the constraints that the City of Moab is feeling,” Varela said. “Because the tourism economy has grown so big so fast, there are genuine problems that the community is trying to work their way through … We’ll never measure our success in terms of the number of visitors. We’re not trying to drag up the volume of visitors. We’re trying to get the visitors who come here to stay longer, immerse themselves more deeply in the Utah community, spend more money and come back over and over because repeat customers are the best customers. They’re people who understand our offerings and will experience it in the way that’s most respectful of our environment and our community … Airbnb Experiences fits exactly into our business strategy because it’s basically giving local entrepreneurs all over the state a chance to build out their guide and outfitter or hosting business in the way that they want to on their terms.”

Mike Stimola, the owner of Moab Canyon Tours, has posted his canyoneering services on the new Experiences platform. “I like Airbnb’s idea of offering recommended experiences to guests in places around the country, however, many of the rules that apply in a major city do not apply in a place like Moab, Utah. For example, we provide guiding services on public land, but to be able to do so, we have gone through an extensive permitting process with the Bureau of Land Management. ‘Pirate guiding’ is known to exist and how can Airbnb be certain they are not offering ‘Experiences’ to people offering this illegal guiding activity? … I do not believe that it should be up to the BLM, who already have limited resources, to have to be the ones to catch illegal guiding, but rather Airbnb should prevent the opportunity for people to facilitate it. Moab Canyon Tours has chosen to advertise on Airbnb, offering experiences to clients in a legal and professional manner, however, I see a lot of loopholes that individuals claiming to be a guide could use to their advantage,” Stimola said

He added that Airbnb did a thorough background check when he posted his company’s tours on the site but “no check of appropriate permitting was requested.” There was also not a request for staff training or business licensing.

“Airbnb may be recommending other people who are claiming to be a guide that are not qualified or do not meet a proper standard of offering these types of ‘experiences’ to Airbnb guests,” Stimola said.

Airbnb Public Affairs spokesperson Jasmine Mora said that Airbnb has rules in place to ensure responsible hosting. “Different rules apply to different ‘Experiences’ and hosts must comply with the rules applicable to their ‘Experience.’ We have a responsible hosting page that reminds people to check their local laws and regulations and includes additional information and resources. As part of our partnership, the Utah Office of Tourism is helping potential hosts clarify the process for obtaining permits.”

Furthermore, Mora said, Airbnb offers a $1 million liability insurance program for eligible ‘Experience’ hosts. However, “in instances where hosts are required to name a national park or public land in the insurance policy, hosts must maintain their own separate insurance,” Mora said.

The BLM encourages anyone thinking of obtaining a permit to visit the local BLM office and speak with a recreation specialist or a manager.

“Permitted outfitters and guides are really our partners. They help connect visitors to public lands, providing fun, safe, and educational experiences, and they help promote responsible recreation and good stewardship,” said Jennifer Jones, BLM-Moab assistant field manager.

“A key priority for the BLM is to provide access and expand recreation opportunities, which in turn, provides jobs and connects visitors to public lands,” added Lisa Bryant, public affairs specialist for the BLM. “Taking advantage of economic opportunities like the Airbnb Experience program means also being responsible, obtaining necessary permits, and helping to protect natural resources so public lands can continue to support job growth and excellent visitor experiences. Anyone advertising guide services on public lands, even informally through social media or website platforms, is required to obtain a special recreation permit.”

ByBy Rose Egelhoff

The Times-Independent