“People still go to hotels?” Somebody joked when the debate about accommodation when travelling came up among a group of friends.
The debate was that in this era of endless options, hotels are taking a hit, with more travellers opting for homestay as opposed to good-old hotel service.
“Travelling is so impersonal now. You choose a destination and book your tickets, mostly online. You check in at a hotel where the staff is courteous, sure, but distant. There just isn’t any zing there. It’s all so regular, so bland,” writes a blogger on triphobo.com.
The days when tourists and other types of travellers looked up to only hotels, motels, inns and guesthouses for all their accommodation needs are behind us.
Increasingly, more people are ditching these conventional options in favour of homestays, which provide an alternative to the hotel experience. Under this arrangement, people rent out extra space in their homes to visitors and tourists. Such space could be in ordinary homes, apartments, or even public spaces like art galleries.
Duration and terms of stay may vary significantly from host to host, for instance, while one guest may book an overnight stay, another could stretch their stay to a year.
The house owner usually states the terms of stay, which may cover things like meals, house chores, sharing of facilities, to things like pets and smoking policy.
Homestays have been informally complimenting conventional hotel stay since time immemorial, but the trend gained prominence with the rise of online portals that link homeowners to potential clients looking for homestay options.
Airbnb, an American company established in 2008 started the trend. As of today, the company has over 4 million lodging listings in 65,000 cities and 191 countries across the globe, Rwanda inclusive.
Other online portals like homestay.com, tripadvisor.com, and booking.com also provide a similar service. Typically, Airbnb takes three per cent commission of every booking from the host, and between six to 12 per cent from the guest.
Airbnb started out when roommates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky set out to make an extra buck out of their shared apartment by renting it out to visiting conference guests. They christened the move “Air Bed and Bedfast”, the “Air” a reference to the air mattresses they offered their first guests.
Today, the company operates out of more than 190 countries.
In Kigali, the fever is steadily catching on, with many home owners advertising their houses for rent on the platform.
“Hi. I’m Tony, and I’m excited to be part of AirBnB’s community and to be able to help people feel at home in my city. I love meeting new people during my travels and here at home. I am looking forward to making new friendships with people from around the globe. I am an artiste who loves to sing Rwandan traditional folk songs and I promise to sing a ballad for you during your stay,” reads one listing on Airbnb Rwanda.
A quick look at online listings for Airbnb Rwanda reveals a sharp discrepancy between hotel fares and those for homestays.
While Radisson Blu and Convention Centre, and Five To Five Hotel go for USD300 and Rwf 70, 000 a room respectively, an Airbnb room at Kigali Art Gallery in Kacyiru goes for just Rwf 21,000, while a room at EMB House in Kabeza goes for USD25.
On average, a hotel room in Kigali goes for USD70, while a room on Airbnb goes for as low as USD20. As if that is not enough, hotel stay usually comes with some hidden costs and taxes which may further push the cost of one’s experience.
Asked what her choice would be between hotel and homestay, Florence Mwashimba, the founder of Kigali Farmers and Artisans Market says, “It depends. I like my privacy, so if money is not an issue, I’d go to a hotel. If I’m in a foreign country I don’t have to worry about food, electricity, water, and laundry bills. If on a budget, house-sharing would be the way to go. Apartments here are still too expensive. On top of that, house-sharing still has the advantage of being able to get a very good house in a good neighborhood without paying an arm and a leg for it.”
In conclusion, she describes homestay as “cost effective, more personal, easier to make friends, and they go the extra mile to help you fit in while in the country.”
But it’s not all about the money. For Janvier Noli, it’s all about the opportunity that opening up his home to “strangers” presents.
Usually, he prefers to work out a barter arrangement, hosting people who might in future return the favur and host him to their home. “Other times, I just do it for companionship and to share chores. In the end, all the homestays I have arranged have ended in fruitful long-term friendships,” he says proudly.
For other people, the lure of homestay comes from the informal aspect that comes with it, as opposed to the fixed rules in a hotel. Such people enjoy the customised and tailor-made service in a homely environment as opposed to hotel stay. Rather than depend on maps and guide books that all recycle the same story, many prefer the intimacy of the local community.
Some people feel the need to give back directly and contribute to the livelihood of the host family/ local communities where they visit — it is called responsible tourism.
“I prefer home-sharing because it’s more personal. I like to be close to the common man, see how they live, learn about the culture and tradition. I like to help out and do stuff myself,” explains Hilde Vanacker, a Belgian national who travels to Rwanda regularly.
“Sharing a house teaches you new skills from the people you live with. You exchange knowledge; you learn how to be humble, to be grateful. I love interacting with people. You learn how to live together; you learn to value other people, culture, opinions. It makes you grow as a person. You keep your humanity because a lot of people don’t have that anymore,” she adds.
“Being in a hotel or guesthouse doesn’t give you the opportunity to prepare meals for yourself. It’s not that I don’t appreciate other people cooking for me, it’s just that I try to eat healthy and I can’t always do that in a hotel.”
Downside to homestay
To many, the biggest challenge arises from the very fact of having to literally move in with a stranger. For the guest, how do you know that the information provided by the host is accurate before moving in?
For those that prioritise their privacy, this might not be the best option, seeing as you are likely to share some facilities with your host and perhaps other guests as well.
Then there is the question of where to seek redress in case things to wrong.
“As Rwanda becomes a popular destination for tourists and travellers, demand for accommodation is rising. More people are trying to earn a few extra pennies by renting out their rooms through Airbnb,” explains Hilde Cannoodt, a dancer from the UK and regular traveller to Kigali.
“However I’ve noticed that there’s now a new trend happening. Rooms are getting more expensive on Airbnb and are not far off from expensive hotel fare, with rooms going for USD30 to 60 per night, even when there’s not much luxury to expect. I’m not sure if the demand is that big to attract those charges, however, I’m predicting a rise in that type of accommodation, which will eventually bring the prices down again. That said, I’ve always preferred staying at a house as opposed to a hotel everywhere I go.”