Barcelona struggles to achieve balance between benefits of tourism and complaints about illegal apartments
CNA / Marina Force
Barcelona (CNA).- Barcelona receives up to 30 million visitors each year. In times of crisis, it could be thought that the revenue generated by tourism would be welcomed. However, the increasing number of reported incidents of noise, public urination and nudity in some spots of the city centre is too much to handle. Locals are blaming illegal apartment rentals, which are believed to be pulling tourists into central parts of Barcelona, and consequently harming neighbours’ well-being. With this in mind, city hall launched last July an action plan against illegal tourist accommodation. This measure puts platforms such as Airbnb and HomeAway under the looking glass for offering sublets on their platforms. The City Council has threatened to fine the websites €600,000 each. Since last Thursday, the battle has gotten even more complicated as a new front has been opened: the European Holiday Home Association (EHHA) has filed a formal complaint with the European Commission against the “restrictions” on the renting of apartments for tourists in Barcelona.
Barcelona is struggling with the rising tide of tourists. Catalonia registered last August a record hotel occupancy. The number of tourists who stayed in Catalonia’s hotels stood at 2,471,133 people, a 4.47% increase in comparison to last year, which constitutes the highest figure ever registered for this month of the year. This surge is benefiting Catalonia’s economy, as tourism accounts for 15% of Catalonia’s GDP. However, is it tarnishing some cities’ reputation and causing negative social impacts?
Many Barcelona citizens would agree with this statement. Indeed, even the city’s Mayor, Ada Colau, has said on several occasions that the rentals cause coexistence problems, boost speculation, raise the price of property and exclude neighbours. In this context, the local government launched last July a raid against illegal apartments for tourists.
Politicians asked for neighbours’ collaboration to detect sublets without a permit and even implemented the so-called ‘flat scouts’, inspectors that confirms in situ if there is any illegal activity in a house. In just two months, they found 418 of the total 615 illegal apartments detected. The City Council has opened 1,290 cases for irregularities in places of accommodation and the website where residents can report irregularities and check the legality of tourist apartments has received 1,123 citizen complaints, 125 of them issued by tourists.
Barcelona’s tourism crackdown puts Airbnb in the firing line
Barcelona City Council is sparing no one and is committed to fighting illegal apartments. It even dares to approach large companies such as Airbnb or HomeAway and has threatened them with a €600,000 fine each for offering illegal sublets to tourists. This would be added to the €30,000 fine already issued to each of them. Colau, a left-wing former housing activist elected in May of last year, also wants rental websites to hand over information on property owners. “There is no collector desire. The aim is that these platforms stop advertising illegal tourist apartments", said Ciutat Vella Councillor, Gala Pin.
Such is the Government’s determination to achieve a tourist model compatible with sustainability and civil values, it even ignores the fact that in 2015 Airbnb contributed €740 million to Barcelona´s revenue. This number came from 889,000 guests staying in lodgings rented out by 9,200 hosts. The Catalan capital is, indeed, the fifth more important city in the world for the company.
“Everyone must comply with the rules of the game", Colau said in an interview with Reuters. "It is not fair that an Internet platform becomes a way to evade regulations and protect illegal tourist apartments as is happening here. Hence, we have to intervene with all this forcefulness", the Barcelona Mayor said.
The CEO of the American home-sharing website Airbnb in Spain and Portugal, Arnau Muñoz, stated last Wednesday that the company considers it “atypical” not to have a “constructive relationshiwith Barcelona City Council. In regards to ads on the website for illegal apartments, Muñoz agreed that the administration has to inspect and punish in case there is any irregularity. "If there is a breach by someone who is, by law, required to have a licence, we will be happy to remove the ad", he added, while clarifying that the company has no problem with the administration doing their job.
European Holiday Home Association, a new actor joining the battle
Barcelona City Hall’s fight against illegal apartments has recently taken a new turn due to European Holiday Home Association (EHHA) intervention. The association filed on Thursday a formal complaint with the European Commission against the “restrictions” on the renting of apartments for tourists in Barcelona. The complaint, which also affects Paris, Brussels and Berlin, criticises the "restrictive and contradictory municipal regulations” and the "bureaucracy" that must be faced by the owners who want to rent their flats on collaborative economy platforms like Airbnb.
The Secretary General of the EHHA, Carlos Villaro Lassen, said that "the EU must intervene" because councils are "strangling a vibrant part of the economy" and warned that the EU legislation is being infringed. According to the EHHA, Barcelona has applied the regulations of the traditional tourism sector to the collaborative economy. "The owners who want to rent their property, who are prohibited to rent a single room, must meet a long list of technical and quality requirements" said the association in a statement. "Even minor infringements, such as not having complaint forms, can result in fines of up to €3,000", stressed the EHHA.
Nothing indicates, though, that this complaint will put the brakes on Barcelona’s crackdown on illegal apartments, at least for now. The City Council has already announced that more fines will be executed. There will be nine more online platforms affected, such as Rent4days, TripAdvisor and Fotocasa.