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Double whammy: Forced to cancel, Airbnb guests denied full refunds

Customers complain about global platform operator’s refund policy

Popular Jeju Island tourist site Seongsan Ilchulbong is closed from Dec. 24 to Jan. 3 to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. (Yonhap)
Popular Jeju Island tourist site Seongsan Ilchulbong is closed from Dec. 24 to Jan. 3 to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. (Yonhap)

One of the most popular travel destinations for South Koreans in 2020 was Jeju Island, known for its wide-open spaces and natural surroundings, as an alternative to overseas travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Jeju Tourism Association, the number of visitors to Jeju Island dropped to around 500,000 in February and March, but soon began to rebound in April.

Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk said in an interview with the local daily Chosun Ilbo in June that Jeju Island was one of the top five locations in the world for Airbnb travel in May.

Fast-forward to November, and people planning year-end visits to the island had to cancel their plans.

“When the Jeju governor announced that he was considering mandatory coronavirus tests for everyone before they are permitted to enter the island, we finally decided to cancel our plans. We are obviously not welcome,” an Airbnb user who wished to be identified by her surname, Song, told The Korea Herald. She canceled her Christmas weekend trip to Jeju Island in early December.

Making matters worse, she didn’t get a full refund. Under the current Airbnb policy on refunds, hosts can decide how much to refund guests.

Song turned to Airbnb for help, but the platform operator said it could not intervene.

“They told me to understand the situation as the hosts are operating the accommodations for a living,” she said. “Airbnb also recommended that I ask the host again for the refund since there are some hosts that allow a full refund.”

Song received 280,000 won ($255) out of the 500,000 won she and her friend had paid for their accommodations.

“We found out that in our circumstances, a full refund is possible on the Airbnb platform only if the host or the guest were a confirmed COVID-19 patient,” she said.

Another Airbnb user, who would like to be identified by her surname, Lim, said she could not obtain a full refund when she canceled a New Year’s Day trip to Jeju Island two weeks ago due to COVID-19.

Asking for her money back, Lim pointed out to the host that her reservations were for 10 people, which would be in violation of the latest social distancing rules. Gatherings of five people or more are prohibited during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season.

“But the host said no,” Lim said. Lim, who had paid 920,000 won in advance, got 540,000 won back. She was also told by the platform operator there was nothing they could do.

Airbnb says it is not in a position to force any refund policy on its hosts under the current law.

“We are actively guiding hosts about the government’s social distancing rules and asking them to follow them. Regarding the refund issue, we are working hard to help hosts and guests reach an agreement,” Airbnb Korea spokesperson Eum Sung-won told The Korea Herald. 

Hallasan, on Jeju Island, is seen on Dec. 18. (Yonhap)
Hallasan, on Jeju Island, is seen on Dec. 18. (Yonhap)

People who lost money said they were surprised to discover that there was no minimum protection for users of the global platform.

“I understand that Airbnb is a platform and a full refund might be difficult for some of the hosts who are operating the facilities for a living,” Lim said. “But in this exceptional pandemic situation, they should not allow hosts to refund only around 50 percent of the total amount.”

Airbnb appears to be struggling to handle the flood of complaints.

In March, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Airbnb decided to guarantee full refunds for cancellations globally. But the platform operator abandoned the policy after hosts complained it was unfair and open to abuse, saying Airbnb didn’t verify whether cancellations were really due to the coronavirus.

Asked to explain its earlier refund policy, the Airbnb Korea spokesperson declined to comment, saying it was irrelevant to users now.

Airbnb currently does not disclose the updated number of hosts or accommodations in Korea that are on its platform.

Meanwhile, the Fair Trade Commission currently recommends that accommodation providers charge no more than 50 percent of their usual cancellation fees. If the government toughens its social distancing guidelines to Level 3, the highest in its five-tier system, full refunds will be recommended.

By Song Seung-hyun (ssh@heraldcorp.com):
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