Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The Muddled Ideology Of Holiday Rentals

Catalonia has a system whereby apartments for holiday rental can be openly marketed. It is a system that operates reasonably well, with accommodation subject to classification according to its standard (which has to meet set levels) and which is also transparent in terms of tax liabilities - revenue on the property, IVA (VAT) and tourist tax.

Despite this system, Catalonia still has a problem with accommodation that has not been registered and is therefore marketed illegally. One of the main means for this marketing is a P2P website, and two such websites - Airbnb and HomeAway - have been hit with fines totalling 120,000 euros by the Barcelona city administration because of what it calls the illegal advertising of tourist apartments.

For Airbnb, this is not the first time that it has fallen foul of a Catalonian administration: the government previously fined it 30,000 euros. But the Barcelona sanction is tougher as it also includes a sort of naming and shaming without actually naming. Plaques denoting legal accommodation have been appearing. If there is a property without one that is being rented out to tourists, then neighbours can readily identify it. 

HomeAway, for its part, has said that it will take legal action, insisting that the city administration's attitude is contrary to principles of free competition and also criticising the public announcement of sanctions without having been formally notified of them. Airbnb, in total disagreement with the fine, has attacked Barcelona for not supporting private individuals who wish, in the language of the P2P phenomenon, "to share" their homes, and adding that it should follow the example of European capitals and regulate in order that private individuals can share.

What Airbnb is getting at here is that the system should be like it now is in London, where new legislation, effective from May last year, allows anyone to rent out on a short-term basis. The previous restriction under the 1973 Greater London Council Act was considered "outdated" as well as a "bureaucratic headache".

Airbnb, by referring to support for private individuals, is also making a thinly veiled comment on the political ideology at Barcelona council. Ada Colau, who became mayor following the municipal election last spring, was a founder of Guanyem, a political party/movement not dissimilar to Podemos and one, therefore, with much the same advocacy of the rights of the citizens.

Barcelona, and especially its La Barceloneta area, has witnessed a massive increase in the availability of private apartments, and in the case of La Barceloneta, these have attracted a youth tourism of a (now former, perhaps) Magalluf style. It was an issue that demanded attention, but in going after Airbnb and HomeAway, while at the same also having an agenda that is not supportive of hotelier interests, Colau's administration appears to be behaving in a manner that is contrary to the rights of the citizens: a muddled ideology, therefore.

In Mallorca, these rights were once expressed by the former mayor of Santa Margalida, Toni Reus, who is from the Mallorcan socialist wing of Més, just as tourism minister Barceló is. Reus said that it was a human right for anyone to rent out property for whatever reason, and he was thinking of the town's resort, Can Picafort.

But while Barceló seems likely to introduce a more permissive system of regulation, he is also concerned about the sheer numbers of tourists coming into the islands in the summer and who are the result of the massive availability of private accommodation, much of it not registered. Airbnb has over 300 rentals in Mallorca (many of them without photos to avoid detection), but it is only one sharing website: there are many others, in addition to websites which are blatantly offering illegal holiday rentals.

One understands that the Balearic government isn't particularly interested in pursuing owners with single properties, but it is interested in the large-scale operators. In the case of Airbnb and others, it is hard to know which type of owner may be advertising and wishing to share.

The sanctions to be imposed in Barcelona, where there are also major concerns with overcrowding, could well cross the sea to Mallorca if administrations here were minded to adopt that city's example, but the same ideological muddle would follow in their wake. Podemos might be in less of a muddle if it follows the attitude of its counterparts in the Canaries who are opposed to anything that prevents tourist rental when it represents an important source of family income.

Ideologically, there shouldn't be restrictions (with the caveat of earnings being declared), but Barceló also has an eco-agenda to pursue as well as the proposal for rentals to be permitted only in certain parts of resorts or Palma. His new legislation is complicated enough, but it has been made more so because of the sharing economy and the rights of the citizen. Deny such sharing, and a basic right is denied.

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