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Bed and Breakfast offers alternative accommodation for visitors to Hong Kong

By Lindy Wong and Derek Li

On a street packed with three-storey village houses and small stalls selling salty fish and shrimp paste in the village of Tai O, stands a house that has been elegantly re-styled in industrial concrete, wood and stone finishes. Guest accommodation is offered at this coolly contemporary house and you could easily imagine it as a boutique hotel, complete with restaurant and rooftop spa.

But owner Veronica Chan prefers to call it a B&B. B&B stands for bed and breakfast, a type of lodging establishment offering overnight accommodation and breakfast to travellers that first emerged in Europe and America.

Interior of Espace Elastique

In recent years, this kind of accommodation has also taken off in Asia. In Taiwan, travellers find B&Bs or homestays (民宿) provide a common and popular alternative to hotels and hostels. In both Taiwan and Japan, B&Bs are recognized and regulated businesses.

This is very different to Hong Kong. B&Bs do exist here but in very varied forms and price ranges. In general, they are accommodation units with basic utilities, furniture and an internet connection that are rented out on a daily basis.

Veronica Chan launched Espace Elastique, which offers three rooms, in December 2009 and has been running it as a B&B ever since. It used to be her family house and was later rented to locals. Chan turned it into a B&B after her father became too old to manage it.

Chan enjoys interacting with her guests. She thinks communication is what distinguishes B&Bs from other accommodation. “In hotels you just check-in and go straight to your room. It is very robotic,” she says.

In order to ensure the quality of service, Chan insists on being personally involved in daily operations. Not only is she engaged in duties like serving the visitors, cooking and cleaning, but she also takes time to sit down and have a cup of tea with them.

One visitor from the UK, Kam Sanghera, chose to stay at Espace Elastique for a two-day break after his two-week business trip. He has travelled extensively and stayed in various types of accommodation around the world, but he finds the personal interaction with the host is what makes him prefer B&Bs over business hotels.

“It’s hard for the big businesses of hotels to get beyond just the services. They are very good for facilities, but they are not as friendly or personal as B&B.”

Apart from bonding with the visitors, Chan also regularly organizes local tours in Tai O and workshops making shrimp paste and steamed buns so that they can experience the local culture.

Sanghera values the travelling experience and thinks staying in a B&B completes his trip. “I like to go somewhere you get to meet people who live here, and somewhere where I can actually get closer to where I stay.”

While Chan is offering boutique hotel style accommodation with a personal touch, Joe, who does not want to disclose his full name, is running a very different type of operation.

Joe has been running two B&Bs located in the New Territories since last year. It did not start off as a business. Joe was hosting couch surfers just out of interest, when he realized he could turn it into a profitable business. He started renting out his extra room on Airbnb, an online service that matches people seeking accommodation with those with rooms to rent. Later, he rented another apartment to run as a B&B. The business is doing so well that he quit his job in an engineering company and is now considering the possibility of starting a third B&B.

Joe agrees the personal touch is what makes B&B stand out from hotels and hostels. “I would rather wait (for my guests) at the bus stop and bring them up to my flat myself than simply leave the key at the front desk like ordinary hotels do,” he says.

On top of that, Joe loves to show his guests around personally. He has taken visitors to the wet market and to try hotpot and noodles. “Sometimes the visitors and I will go hiking or cycling together if we get along,” adds Joe.

Rachel Patterson and Jeff Bergemann, a couple from America, chose to stay in Joe’s apartment during their Hong Kong visit. They appreciate how Joe helped them to explore the city.

“Joe took us to a restaurant downstairs and we had siu-mei (roasted meat) rice for lunch yesterday. He ordered for us, which is good because I don’t speak Chinese,” laughs Patterson.

But while guests at B&Bs may be impressed by the personal service, they may or may not be aware of whether the accommodation is licensed.

Guests write comments on Joe's wall

In Taiwan and Japan, B&Bs are clearly defined. They have to obtain registration certificates specifically for B&Bs and satisfy requirements such as fire safety, plumbing, sanitation, space, light and ventilation. But Hong Kong has no system to regulate or licence them.

Instead, any accommodation with a rental period of less than 28 continuous days and the rent settled on a daily basis is required to obtain a guesthouse licence under the Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance. That means anyone running a B&B would have to meet the standards required of a hotel.

Sidney Lee Chi-hang, a solicitor and district councillor for Central and Western District, points out that operating a B&B is a money-making business and should not be an exception to the law.

“The major difference between a B&B and guesthouse is whether you see it as a business,” says Lee. “If you treat it as a business and make a living with it, then you ought to obtain a guesthouse licence,” he says.

According to the Home Affairs Department, premises intended to be used as a guesthouse or bedspace apartment must comply with the building and fire safety requirements in order to obtain a licence. To fulfill such requirements, operators have installed fire extinguishers or auto-water sprays. The building materials used must all be fireproofed. There are also guidelines on the width of hallways and exits.

Veronica Chan of Espace Elastique in Tai O, did manage to get a guesthouse licence. She says it was not an easy process.

“As owners of B&Bs, we have to meet requirements originally imposed on hotels or guesthouses. It involves a relatively heavy investment,” says Chan, who invested her own savings to fit out the building so that it could get a licence. Still, she insisted on applying for it as she regards this as necessary to ensure the confidence of customers in her establishment.

Chan’s B&B is one of the few in Hong Kong that is licensed. Due to the regulation system here, most B&Bs are not in a position to apply for one at all. Most remain unlicensed.

Joe operates his two B&Bs without a licence, and is sure that he would not be able to obtain one. There are three reasons for this: first, one of the flats is not his personal asset; second, his flat is situated in a residential building which does not allow commercial use without the consent of the Owners’ Corporation; third, he cannot afford the cost of meeting the fire safety requirements of a guesthouse.

Joe knows that he will not be able to apply for a licence given the current policy towards B&Bs. He just hopes the government will leave him alone. “If [the government] exempts B&Bs, many people will make use of this loophole, such as brothels,” says Joe, “It is not practical.”

In fact, unlicensed B&Bs exist and are found in different parts of Hong Kong. Wan Chai district councillor Peggy Lee Pik-yee has received complaints from representatives of buildings about the disturbance caused by guesthouses and B&Bs.

“There is an endless flow of tourists entering the building which adds weight and pressure to the lifts. Strangers can also get easy access to the building, making the residents feel insecure,” she says.

She says the problem is worse in older buildings where visitor registration is not required. When any incidents happen, no one can be held to account because the visitors have already left and the host never shows up.

Lee has referred suspected cases of unlicensed B&Bs to the Home Affairs Department, but she complains the response has been unsatisfactory. Despite the information provided by residents, such as the peak times for tourists to check-in, there has not been a single prosecution.

Apart from concerns that unlicensed B&Bs might disturb neighbours, there is also the question of safety. But Mr Lo, who works for Hong Kong Lodge, a local online platform to search for B&Bs, takes a different view. Lo, who did not want to give his full name, argues that the flats used for B&Bs are mainly located in residential premises which are already in good condition.

“A paradox exists,” says Lo, “If a B&B without the equipment [required under the licensing requirements for guesthouses] is said to be dangerous to live in, then all the housing units in Hong Kong face the same danger.”

He says that with daily rental rates in the range of HK$400 – $800, B&Bs offer visitors a reasonable and decent alternative type of accommodation to hotels. This has led to a surge in demand for B&Bs in Hong Kong, especially during the peak seasons for visitors. During Varsity’s 45-minute phone interview with Lo, he received 20 enquiries asking about B&B vacancies as the Mid-autumn Festival and the National Day Golden Week holiday were approaching.

Joe’s guests, the American visitors Rachel Patterson and Jeff Bergemann, who chose to stay at Joe’s B&B in the New Territories say the high prices of hotels and hostels in Hong Kong made it very hard for them to find suitable accommodation.

They were on a tight budget, so they considered the guesthouses in Chungking Mansions but they were worried about the notoriety of the location. So when they found Joe’s place on Airbnb, with an affordable rent of $300 per night, they decided to book it straight away.

As for Veronica Chan of Espace Elastique in Tai O, she hopes there can be a more flexible registration system or even better, a licence specifically for B&Bs. Chan believes B&B accommodation offers a unique experience and there is a need for what they offer. “Travelling is not only about pure enjoyment,” she says. “It is who you meet and the stories you come across that matter.”