by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street:
It is about protecting its own racket.
I live in Barcelona, Spain, and two days ago, the strangest thing arrived in the mail: a sealed, unaddressed envelope bearing the blue stamp of the Barcelona city authorities. Inside was a sheet of paper with five shortish paragraphs explaining the Council’s decision to intensify its crackdown on “illegal” tourist apartments in the city.
Under a 2012 regional law, any apartment rented to visitors in Catalonia must be logged in the province’s Tourism Registry and have a permit. Unlicensed apartments “promote speculation, the underground economy, and could even threaten the harmonious and coexistence of resident communities” in the city, the letter warns.
In the last paragraph, the council urges local Barcelona residents to snitch on any neighbors who they believe are running illegal tourist accommodation operations in their buildings. Residents are invited to cross-check their neighbors’ apartments against an open-access database of the city’s registered tourist flats, and if their suspicions are confirmed, they can denounce their neighbors on a free, around-the-clock hot line.
Judging by how many of my friends and acquaintances have received the same letter, it’s safe to assume that it was sent out across the city. In other words, hundreds of thousands of Barcelona residents have just been asked to rat on their neighbors.
Raising the Stakes
This latest incendiary move significantly raises the stakes in a bitter war of words, threats, and actions between Barcelona City Council, headed by Ada Colau, the world’s “most radical mayor” (according to The Guardian), and the world’s biggest accommodation provider, Airbnb. In August last year, the Council warned that people caught running unlicensed apartments through websites would be offered the chance to have 80% of their fine cancelled if they allowed the city council to use the apartment as social accommodation for three years.
Since then, the Council has closed down 256 apartments that were being used as unlicensed tourist accommodation. The owners could face fines as high as €30,000. The Council also imposed a 20-fold hike in the maximum fine that can be levied on home rental sites to €600,000, after Airbnb and its rival Homeaway continued to advertise holiday apartments that did not have permits.
This is a frequent complaint across myriad jurisdictions, from New York to Amsterdam, to Stockholm and Berlin. For Airbnb, any further damage to its Barcelona market could be very costly. With 15,000 registered dwellings, the city is far and away the most popular Spanish destination for the platform’s users and is the fifth most popular global destination with guests.
But the San Francisco-based company faces an uphill challenge trying to charm Barcelona’s local populace. So incensed are residents that a recent city government poll found that respondents consider tourism a worse problem than poverty. Only unemployment and traffic ranked higher on their list of grievances.
And 2016 is a bumper year for tourism, as millions of international visitors shun destinations where security is a concern, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey and even France. As such, the industry’s benefits and externalities are being felt even more sharply and more widely than ever before.
Over the Limit
A common complaint among residents is that the Barcelona they know and love has become a theme-parked city that is reaching the outer limits of its physical capacity — just as has happened with Venice, whose population has shrunk from 180,000 in the 1960s to less than 60,000 today, as more than 2 million visitors flood the city every year.
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