Friday, November 11, 2016

The Pariah Status Of Airbnb

Among all the various exhibitors at London's World Travel Market this week, there was no sign of what is arguably the most important business in the travel market right at the moment. Airbnb was not there. Why would it be there? This is a business of the internet. That is its whole point of being. Why be physical in a promotional sense?

Being a web-based operation is not, though, a reason. All tourism businesses are web-based in one way or another. Some, like Airbnb, are exclusively so, such as the Palma-based Hotelbeds, which did exhibit in London and which took the opportunity to announce that it is planning on tripling sales of its transfer and activity bank division. There again, Hotelbeds is a different business to Airbnb. It works with hotels and others, and while it does offer tourist apartments, it has always made a virtue of these being properly regulated and legal. "We can't do things any other way," has said its managing director, Carlos Muñoz.

For Hotelbeds, therefore, travel fairs are perfect opportunities to forge deals with other businesses, which is what it is constantly doing in order to grow. Airbnb does make deals, as it broadens the scope of its operation, but the core business doesn't rely on other companies - or not directly. It is dependent on private individuals. But then there also also, because it can't be denied, businesses which have multiple units of accommodation to market, whether legally or illegally.

What was a name praised and synonymous with the shared (collaborative) economy and with a new style of accommodation has now acquired - where some are concerned - pariah status. Exhibiting might just seem like a red rag to a bull. And one of the bulls might have been Palma's normally all-smiles mayor, José Hila. Prior to travelling to London, Hila was in Barcelona for a meeting of mayors from various Spanish cities. The purpose of that meeting was to discuss Airbnb.

Cities are unlikely to all adopt the same policies, but the fact that they were gathering to share experiences was taken as a sign that they are getting their act together in seeking to put pressure on Airbnb; this pressure is mounting in cities outside Spain as well. The city authority in Paris announced earlier this week that it wants to avoid a situation like that in Barcelona, where rentals are pretty much out of control despite tough action by that city's authority, and will do so by obliging Airbnb (and others) to obtain the registration number of any property that is marketed.

Systems of registration exist in various cities and destinations. There is a system in the Balearics. Regulated properties for rent have a number. The problem is of course that regardless of insistence on registration proof, there are still illegal properties. The only attempted remedy has been, as in Barcelona, to slap large fines on operators like Airbnb. These in turn run up against legal challenges, while Spain's National Competition Commission is lurking in the background and taking a highly permissive stance on services like Airbnb.

Another city that has been facing problems, as reported by the BBC this week, is Amsterdam. Other towns and cities in the Netherlands are also affected, so the government has introduced regulations by which properties can be rented out for no more than two months and for a maximum of four people. Tourist tax is then paid at the same rate as hotels. Amsterdam city spokesperson, Sebastiaan Meijer, says that the downside of the sharing economy can now be seen: properties being bought and rented out all year as an "illegal hotel". He also wonders whether people want to end up with streets having more tourists than residents. This is something being asked in many cities, not least in Palma.

The regional government has to take tough and effective action against Airbnb and other such sites. It is increasingly evident just how damaging the so-called collaborative accommodation economy is. Were it restricted, it might not be, but restrictions which exist are wholly inadequate. This has led, for instance, to the speculative purchase of properties with a single aim in mind: Sebastiaan Meijer's illegal hotels. The social distortion is obvious, with local people unable to find or afford accommodation. 

The Majorca Hoteliers Federation took time at the World Travel Market to present a report to Biel Barceló about the harmful effects. The government has responded by saying that its legislation will impose "iron restrictions" on apartments for tourist rent: they will be authorised but under tough conditions. There will be more inspections and higher fines. But we've heard all this before. What needs to be heard is effective legislation. We await it with great anticipation.

No comments: