TOKYO -- As hotels and home rental businesses face huge hits to their business from travel restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, some hotel operators and homeowners in the Asia-Pacific region are helping to battle the outbreak by offering rooms to medical workers or patients with mild symptoms.
For those with room to spare, it is an opportunity to put space to productive use, while also fulfilling what many see as a social responsibility. But the moves are not always welcomed by employees, who are concerned they may become ill themselves.
Chris Byrne, an Airbnb host in Melbourne, signed up for the Airbnb Frontline Stays program to accommodate medical and health professionals at his second home, which is listed on the platform. The house was being rented to an American doctor and his family for three months, but the pandemic led them to return home early. Most of Byrne's bookings for the next six months have been canceled.
"I wanted to do my bit to assist and make life a little less stressful for these people on the front line and battling the COVID-19 pandemic," Byrne told the Nikkei Asian Review. "These people require a place to rest or self-isolate. My property is the perfect place for them to do this, and not impact on their family and friends." Byrne said he is willing to make his property available for free.
Airbnb launched the Frontline program at the end of March. Worldwide, there are more than 100,000 listings for people responding to the pandemic, including more than 6,500 listings in Australia and others in New Zealand, Thailand and Malaysia. Hosts can charge a fee, but they are encouraged to offer properties for free or at a discount. Airbnb is waiving fees on the first 100,000 stays.
Airbnb also offers safety guidelines for cleaning a property after a stay and taking other measures. The program is open to government agencies and charities as well as individual workers. "We want to continue to remain responsive to Australia's evolving needs to help connect COVID-19 medical professionals with Frontline Stays," said Susan Wheeldon, Airbnb country manager for Australia and New Zealand.
Indian budget hotel operator Oyo Hotels and Homes is offering free or discounted rooms to medical staff in countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia. In Indonesia, it has opened a hotel close to a hospital in Jakarta that takes COVID-19 patients. It will offer rooms free of charge to hospital workers. "Not only will [our medical staff] face physical and mental strains, but their accommodations usually are far from our hospital. We need support from others so we can focus on the task at hand," one doctor said in a statement.
In Japan, APA Group, one of the largest hotel networks in the country, said it will open a hotel in Yokohama to coronavirus patients who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. The property, which has over 2,300 rooms, will be open to these patients from April 20 to the end of August. The move is part of an agreement with Kanagawa Prefecture, next to Tokyo, the company said.
The hotel operator had previously decided to open rooms in the Tokyo area, Osaka and Nagoya -- nearly 5,000 in all -- to such patients. The decision follows a request from the government, which wants to reserve hospital beds for patients with severe symptoms.
APA will lease entire hotels, which typically have hundreds of rooms, so as not to increase the risk to other guests. It is in talks with other local authorities on locations, costs and the time frame for accommodating patients. "The new coronavirus has become the largest national crisis since the war," the company said. "We hope our cooperation can be a help to terminate the spread."
APA hotels have guest rooms and reception desks but no restaurants or banquet halls, making them easier to use for quarantines and to disinfect after patients leave.
Masato Takamatsu, an independent consultant specializing in crisis management in tourism, said hotel chains are weighing whether to offer their rooms to those who need them. But he cautions that efforts to make a "social contribution" also carry "multiple risks," including the possibility that employees may become infected.
"Many hotels are temporarily shutting down as Tokyo and other cities are in a state of emergency. They think closing would make it simpler to receive a subsidy from the government, rather than remaining open and having 10% occupancy," Takamatsu said.
Toyoko Inn, another Japanese hotel chain focused on business travelers, began accommodating patients and those who are waiting for their diagnostic test results at five of its properties as of Friday, under agreements with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and local authorities. The hotel has a smaller-than-usual staff and does not serve breakfast or offer maid service, said a company representative.
Some hotel workers have raised concerns about the moves to accommodate coronavirus patients. The Japan Federation of Service & Tourism Industries Workers' Unions, which counts staff at many large hotels among its members, told reporters on Tuesday that it is opposed in principle, fearing the health of employees could be endangered.
"Employees have no knowledge of how to care for patients. There is also a shortage of masks, with growing risks of infection," said Tsuneyasu Goto, the federation's chairman, at a news conference, adding that patients should be accommodated only if the safety and health of staff can be fully protected.
APA said it is drawing up safety guidelines for its employees.