"We are not pretending that we can hold back this unstoppable tendency. It would be like trying to stem the tide. But we ask that there is regulation because it is big business."
These are words from a statement by Spain's national hotel federation (CEHAT). They are a coincidence. I used the tide analogy myself the other day. It was in the context of holiday lets and of the rise of P2P tourism, a phenomenon that, if you believe some commentators, threatens to overwhelm traditions in the tourism industry.
P2P, in its original internet incarnation, meant peer-to-peer and the sharing of computer files. In its tourism guise, it still means this, but it also means people-to-people. The internet is fundamental to its being. P2P websites act as intermediaries for putting customer in contact with supplier, tourist in touch with property owner. And the property could be anywhere and of any description. From a room in a flat to a villa, P2P can provide it.
The websites work on the basis of commissions on transactions. There are now many of them, but the first of them, and the best known, is Airbnb. On its site for Mallorca, there are more than 1,000 properties of various types. The growth in the number has been staggering. It could only have been a couple of years ago when I wrote about Airbnb and found that there were fewer than 50 properties.
P2P has helped to grow the number of foreigners renting tourist properties in Spain by an equally staggering amount: 44% in the past six years. While economic crisis has been cited as a reason for the rise in the number of properties being rented out, P2P, especially in the past two to three years, has been just as important. The size of the P2P market is growing so fast and is now so large that it is impossible to keep tabs on.
It is instructive to read the words of the national hoteliers. They are at least realistic in understanding the scale of P2P. They want regulation, but regulation is going to be extremely difficult. The very term "P2P" should offer a clue as to this difficulty. P2P has been with us for several years and it has been at the heart of illegal downloading and file sharing of music and films. Regulating this illegal activity has been and remains complex. Not all P2P rentals are illegal insofar as many properties will be registered with a local authority, but an awful lot are illegal. The Balearic government, which talks boldly about monitoring websites, hasn't a hope of stemming the tide. It may as well wise up, regulate apartments with its own legislation, and at least try and ensure some control.
Though authorities have had some success in curbing illegal downloading and in either banning, blocking or limiting the scope of websites, the P2P tourism sites aren't necessarily engaged in anything illegal. While the offer of a property may be illegal in one jurisdiction, it won't be in another. P2P is nigh on impossible to curb.
Nevertheless, efforts are being made, and Catalonia is to the fore in making them. This region, which has been pioneering in the way that it has regulated and permitted so many private apartments for tourism rental (there are some 200,000 different types of property now registered in Catalonia), is fully aware that, despite its permissiveness, there are still many property owners who want to flout the law. It is also aware of the problem posed by P2P. It has opened proceedings against 55 websites and works with the national government and the European Union in seeking some control of websites.
Those sites which argue that they are mere intermediaries and bear no responsibilities are, as far as Catalonia is concerned, contravening consumer and information laws in that they have to ensure that information is accurate and truthful, and an element of this is the provision of a property registration code issued by the Catalonian government. These codes are, by the way, also used in the Balearics, though not of course for apartments. If there isn't a code, then the property is deemed illegal.
P2P is seen within the tourism industry as being representative of a new generation of travellers who aren't interested in packaged tourism. The values system of the so-called Millenials has been much discussed, but is it really any different to previous generations? I have my doubts. But P2P does pose threats to traditional parts of the tourism industry. Travel agencies are clearly threatened, but then they need to embrace P2P, not fight it. By the same token, governments, such as the one in the Balearics, need to appreciate what P2P entails. This means control through local regulation, not bans. You can't hold back the tide.