Barcelona mayor’s tourism crackdown puts Airbnb in the crosshairs
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Barcelona’s new mayor is battling with home rental websites as she tries to crack down on unchecked tourism which she says could drive out poor locals and spoil the charm of the Catalan capital.
Ada Colau threatens to impose fines on companies like Airbnb and Booking.com if they market tourist apartments without a number indicating that they are registered in the Catalan tourism register.
Colau, a former left-wing housing activist elected in May, also wants rental sites to pass on information about landlords.
“Everyone has to play by the same rules of the game,” Colau told Reuters at the Barcelona town hall.
“An internet platform cannot become a means of circumventing regulations and sheltering illegal tourist apartments. In this case, we must intervene with great force.
Colau, who led a coalition backed by Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos party, is among a new generation of local politicians who have come to power amid a backlash against mainstream parties.
The dispute with rental websites is an example of the friction created by the new online “sharing economy”, ranging from San Francisco and Santa Monica limiting short-term home rentals to court injunctions that have hit the service of Uber online taxi in a number of countries.
San Francisco-based Airbnb, which connects people looking to rent their homes or rooms to temporary guests, has been one of the fastest growing start-ups in recent years and is valued at over $20 billion.
Airbnb, which has around 18,600 listings in Barcelona, its third-highest in Europe, said landlords can add the tourism registry number to their listing and its users must comply with local rules.
An Airbnb spokesperson, asked if it would pass the owners’ information to City Hall, said it would not voluntarily.
Booking.com, operated by Priceline Group Inc, said it had “strict measures” in place to ensure all of its properties around the world complied with local laws.
Since hosting the Olympic Games in 1992, Barcelona has seen a stratospheric increase in tourist numbers, ranging from weekend bachelor parties to cruise passengers to culture vultures on the trail of paintings by Picasso or Gaudi buildings.
Tourism provides nearly 400,000 jobs in Catalonia, or 13% of the total, and accounts for 12% of Barcelona’s economic output.
But with 27 million visitors descending on the city from 1.6 million last year, the procession of tourists descending Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s most famous street, through the old town and harbor lined with luxury yachts becomes too much for some locals.
Residents of La Barceloneta, a working-class neighborhood next to the beach, hold regular demonstrations to protest against growing tourism pressure and bad tourist behavior, which they say includes drunkenness, urinating in the streets and making party until dawn.
One of the targets of their anger is the sharp increase in the number of people renting rooms or apartments using websites such as Airbnb.
“Tourist apartments make the area much more expensive. Apartments that could perfectly be rented for 300 or 400 euros (one month) are rented for 600 or 700,” said Oriol Casabella, spokesman for a group in the La Barceloneta district.
“If this doesn’t stop there will come a time when they will kick us out because there are a lot of people who cannot afford these apartments,” he told Reuters.
This is not the first problem encountered by Airbnb in the region. In July 2014, the Catalan regional government fined Airbnb 30,000 euros ($35,000) for breaking rules on people renting single rooms in their homes and threatened to block access to its website. from Catalonia if Airbnb did not change its habits.
Colau says there are thousands of unlicensed apartments in Barcelona that don’t pay the Catalan tourist tax of 0.65 euro ($0.76) per person per night.
Shortly after taking office, the council froze new hotel licenses and other tourist accommodation in Barcelona for up to a year.
The council will use the time to develop a new plan for tourism and to see “if there is still room for growth or if it is time to stabilize visitor numbers”, Colau said.
For years before the freeze, new tourist apartments were prohibited in the old town.
The Airbnb spokesperson said the rules applied to home sharing in Barcelona were designed for another era.
“Barcelona should introduce smart policies to support local residents – not act against them,” he said.
($1 = 0.8573 euros)
Additional reporting by Silvio Castellanos; Editing by Angus MacSwan