LCQ13: Electronic platforms of unlicensed guesthouses
It has been reported that property owners renting out their residential units or rooms as home-stay lodgings through electronic platforms such as Airbnb has become increasingly popular. If the operators have not obtained a guesthouse licence in accordance with the Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance (Cap. 349) (HAGAO), such home-stay lodgings are unlicensed guesthouses. Some residents of private housing estates have relayed that some operators provide guests of their home-stay lodgings with resident cards so that the guests may use the facilities of the estate clubhouses, which undermines the interests of the residents. These residents have also pointed out that such home-stay lodgings cause security problems to the buildings where the lodgings are located, and the guests lodging there are unprotected. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) whether it will step up its efforts to eradicate unlicensed guesthouses which let out sleeping accommodation through electronic platforms; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;
(2) since there are comments that unlicensed guesthouses letting out sleeping accommodation only through electronic platforms has rendered it difficult for law enforcement officers to collect direct evidence relating to the operation of unlicensed guesthouses, and circumstantial evidence alone, such as advertisements and price lists, is insufficient for the conviction of the operators concerned, whether the review of HAGAO currently conducted by the Government has included exploring ways to resolve the difficulties of adducing evidence when instituting prosecutions against operators of unlicensed guesthouses; if so, of the details of the relevant proposals on legislative amendments and the implementation timetable; if not, the reasons for that;
(3) whether it has plans, by making reference to overseas practices, to regulate electronic platforms which provide matching service for sleeping accommodation being let out and introduce a regulatory regime for home-stay lodgings; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;
(4) whether it will step up its publicity efforts to appeal to members of the public to report to the authorities when they suspect that some people are operating an unlicensed guesthouse in a residential unit; and
(5) whether it will step up its publicity efforts to remind property owners of the licensing requirements for operating a guesthouse and the possible legal consequences of operating an unlicensed guesthouse; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?
Operation of hotels and guesthouses in Hong Kong is regulated by the Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance (Cap. 349) (the Ordinance). The purpose is to ensure that premises intended to be used as hotels/guesthouses comply with the statutory standards in respect of building structure and fire safety in order to safeguard lodgers and members of the public. The Office of the Licensing Authority (OLA) under the Home Affairs Department (HAD) is responsible for administering the Ordinance, including issuing licences and performing enforcement duties.
My reply to the Dr Hon Quat's question is as follows:
(1) In order to enhance efforts in combating and raiding unlicensed hotels/guesthouses soliciting lodgers via online platforms, OLA has strengthened intelligence collection by forming a dedicated team to search information and intelligence on suspected unlicensed hotels/guesthouses through browsing webpages, mobile applications, social media, discussion fora, blogs, etc. Law enforcement officers of OLA will initiate follow-up investigation when information on unlicensed hotels/guesthouses is found. Prosecution will be instituted immediately if there is sufficient evidence that the premises concerned are involved in operation of unlicensed hotels/guesthouses.
OLA will continue its work in carrying out proactive inspections, web browsing and instituting prosecutions, including conducting inspections and surprise checks during and outside office hours (e.g. at nights, during and before holidays) and collecting evidence by posing as clients (commonly known as "snaking") when necessary. It will also mount inter-departmental joint operations with other relevant departments to combat unlicensed hotels/guesthouses effectively.
OLA will also write to the websites concerned from time to time to state clearly that a licence is required for operating a hotel/guesthouse in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong, and urge responsible persons of such websites not to post information of unlicensed hotels/guesthouses. As the Ordinance aims to ensure that the relevant premises comply with the statutory standards in respect of building structure and fire safety, electronic platforms which provide matching service for sleeping accommodation for lease are not the targets for regulation under the Ordinance. That said, OLA has strengthened its intelligence collection and enforcement actions against unlicensed hotels/guesthouses letting out sleeping accommodation through electronic platforms.
In addition, through extensive publicity, including posting messages on platforms such as the Internet, OLA urges visitors to patronise licensed hotels/guesthouses to safeguard personal safety, and remind them that travel insurance may not cover incidents relating to patronisation at unlicensed hotels/guesthouses. To encourage visitors' patronage of licensed hotels/guesthouses, OLA has uploaded the full list of licensed hotels/guesthouses onto its webpage (www.hadla.gov.hk) and the mobile application named Hong Kong Licensed Hotels and Guesthouses to facilitate the search by visitors and members of the public for the latest details and locations of licensed hotels/guesthouses and report suspected unlicensed hotels/guesthouses to OLA.
(2) In view of OLA's current difficulty in collecting evidence, HAD has completed the review of the Ordinance and proposed to introduce a "strict liability" offence. The new provision will specify that any premises without a valid licence must not be used as a hotel/guesthouse. If there is sufficient evidence, including circumstantial evidence, showing that any premises are used as an unlicensed hotel/guesthouse, the owner or tenant will be criminally liable. A statutory defence will be provided for innocent parties that do not have control over the use of the premises. The proposal has received support at the Legislative Council Panel on Home Affairs. We hope to submit the details of the proposed legislative amendments to the Legislative Council in 2018. HAD hopes that the new provision will effectively relieve OLA's burden of proof, so that it may instigate prosecution against the genuine owners and operators of unlicensed hotels/guesthouses.
(3) According to the existing licensing regime, if a "home-stay lodging" offers temporary accommodation which falls within the definition of "hotel" and "guesthouse" under the Ordinance, that is, any premises which provide accommodation at a fee with a tenancy term of less than 28 continuous days, a licence must be obtained.
Regarding application for a hotel/guesthouse licence, OLA has promulgated A Layman's Guide to Licence Applications. Upon receipt of licence applications, OLA will send officers to conduct site visits for assessment and examination of building structure and fire safety. As regards village-type houses in the New Territories, they can all along apply for licences under the Ordinance to operate holiday flats or "home-stay lodgings". As at September 30, 2017, 143 village-type houses in the New Territories have successfully obtained licences for lawful operation.
As mentioned above, the Ordinance aims to ensure that the relevant premises comply with the statutory standards in respect of building structure and fire safety, and therefore electronic platforms which provide matching service for sleeping accommodation for lease are not the targets for regulation under the Ordinance. That said, OLA has strengthened intelligence collection and enforcement actions against unlicensed hotels/guesthouses letting out sleeping accommodation through electronic platforms. Please see Part (1) for details.
(4) and (5) OLA has been stepping up publicity through different channels, including broadcast of Announcements in Public Interest (APIs) on television and online platforms, as well as distribution of promotional leaflets, to remind the public of the possible legal consequences of operating unlicensed hotels/guesthouses and to urge visitors and members of the public to patronise licensed hotels/guesthouses. To facilitate the reporting of suspected unlicensed hotels/guesthouses by the public, OLA also operates a hotline (Tel: 2881 7498) and an email address (email@example.com), and has uploaded a reporting form at its webpage, and provided a reporting function in the mobile application Hong Kong Licensed Hotels and Guesthouses developed by OLA.
Ends/Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Issued at HKT 14:04
Issued at HKT 14:04