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Vacation rental services provide positives, while posing challenges for local tourism

January 2, 2019

SCOTTSBLUFF — As the travel and tourism industry evolves, vacation rental services are a growing sector that both create revenue and welcome travelers to see the community.

Airbnb, which allows travelers to pay to stay in local residents’ homes for one or more nights, is a leader in vacation rental services.

Property owners can sign up as hosts to make their homes lodging options for travelers. Owners are in full control of availability, prices, house rules and how they will interact with guests.

According to Airbnb, Nebraska hosts had earned $7.6 million in 2018, welcoming 82,000 guests. The service appears to be complementing, rather than competing, with the state’s hotel industry, which also continues to grow, according to local tourism officials and hosts.

For Scotts Bluff County, host income totaled $86,000 with 800 guests arriving in 2018.

Ce Merrigan of Scottsbluff owns and resides in a house she offers to visitors on Airbnb. When visitors book a stay, she vacates the house, allowing the guests to enjoy the home.

“I’ve hosted guests from around the country,” Merrigan said. “People come for high school reunions, weddings, birthday celebrations and more. A home environment is great for visiting families to be together and feel comfortable.”

Merrigan said she thinks services like Airbnb complement the hotel industry.

“When we have huge events like the Balloon Fest, Oregon Trail Days and the recent eclipse, hotels are usually full,” she said. “Airbnb is a great alternative to continue to draw people to the area.”

Airbnb and other rental service can pose problems for communities that rely on the occupational taxes and sales taxes paid by traditional hotels and motels.

An occupational tax is imposed by a city on an occupation or business activity. The funds are used by the state or local tourism commissions to market the area to potential visitors and also for tourism-related venue construction.

However, those monies are lost when travelers directly pay property owners for their lodging, some say.

Merrigan disagrees, saying Airbnb and similar services are not a threat to the hotel industry. In fact, dollars from the big hotel chains benefit the corporations, not western Nebraska, she says.

Local Airbnb dollars stay in the local area.

“Airbnb hosts are entrepreneurs, some of whom are retired and could use bit of extra income,” Merrigan said. “We already pay tax on income from Airbnb and also property taxes.”

Area tourism professionals see the positives and negatives for the area from the Airbnb industry.

Karla Niedan-Streeks, executive director of the Gering Visitors Bureau, said they used the service to lodge many of the visitors during the total solar eclipse in August 2017.

“It was beneficial for people coming from outside the area to stay for an extended period of time,” Niedan-Streeks said. “Some homeowners who have never thought of sharing their homes or apartments tried it out and it was very successful.”

She said the lodging tax is essential for the state to market its tourism industry.

“I think there will be legislation in the future so those lodging stays will be assessed and collected for each county’s lodging taxes,” Niedan-Streeks said. “It’s a user tax and visitors are used to paying it. As Airbnb services become more popular, I’m sure there will be more discussion about that.”

She said there will continue to be changes in the travel and tourism industry and visitors will continue to seek a variety of amenities. Any community that wants to remain competitive in the tourism market will need to provide the services visitors are seeking.

Brenda Leisy, director of the Scotts Bluff Area Visitors Bureau, said Airbnb options in the county are still low, but that could change. One of the high points was during the 2017 solar eclipse.

“The state is missing out on a lot of lodging taxes,” Leisy said. “That’s important because a million dollars was cut from the Nebraska Tourism Commission budget just last year. Tourism is the state’s third largest industry so we need all the money we can get so we can continue to market the state.”

Leisy said it’s important to update existing legislation to include Airbnb type services in the lodging tax.

“Those services are still necessary,” she said. “We never could have pulled off an event like the eclipse without them. We just need a way for them to contribute into the tourism fund. It might not be that difficult to develop the necessary legislation.”

Merrigan said the service offers a welcome alternative for families and also for more lodging during big events in the area.

“If occupancy taxes exist, there will be a ton of paperwork for hosts who simply want to provide a nice environment for guests who will then spend money in local restaurants and at other venues,” she said.

jpurvis@starherald.com

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