Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Aragon's Solution For Tourist Apartments

Aragon is a strange region of Spain. Historically, it vies with Castile in terms of importance. It was the fifteenth-century marriage between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile which brought about a union that created something approximating to a Spanish state, though it was to be over two hundred years before a truly centralised Spain was formed, and one that was formed at Aragon's expense.

This was a land that once upon a time had its own kingdom and more importantly crown. It was the Crown of Aragon under which Catalan-speaking regions - Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearics - were joined. It was a crown that was dismantled as a consequence of the War of the Spanish Succession and of the formation of a centralised and Castellano-speaking Spain.

Mallorca has a strong association with Aragon. It was Jaume I of Aragon who liberated Mallorca and the Balearics from their Islamic occupiers and Jaume who introduced Catalan to the islands. Yet despite its history, Aragon lacks things that Catalonia and the Balearics have. Politically and socially, there is not a strong Catalanism. Indeed there is only the one official language - Castellano - though there is a growing awareness of the Aragonese dialect. Economically, there is not a reliance on tourism. Aragon isn't terribly well known and it doesn't have a coastline.

Aragon is the fourth largest region of Spain but its population isn't vastly greater than that of the Balearics. It is a region dominated in its north and south by mountains. In its centre there is a semi-desert area. It was here that the Gran Scala, a tourism complex of hotels, casinos, theme parks and golf courses, was due to have been built. It won't be. In truth, it was probably never viable.

Gran Scala would, though, have placed Aragon on a tourism map in a way that it otherwise isn't. In its absence, the regional government set about initiating a plan for tourism earlier this year, one with the goal of forging a distinct identity and brand and with the intention of putting in place regulations for accommodation. Hotels, many of them in ski resorts, are one main aspect of this. The other is tourist apartments, otherwise known as holiday lets.

From a tourism point of view, Aragon is in no way comparable to Mallorca and the Balearics, but it shares one thing in common - a requirement to regulate the use of private accommodation for tourist use.

The legal reform by national government by which responsibility for regulation was farmed out to the regions was peculiar in one particular way. Nationally, residential tourism is considered to be a strength (it says so in the government's tourism plan). But Madrid was in an awkward position. It could not pass a law applicable nationwide because it knew full well that the strength it spoke of under the national plan drawn up a year before would have been compromised had it simply complied with the demands of the strongest hotel lobby groups, most obviously the one in the Balearics.

Instead, it placed regulatory onus on the regions, no doubt aware that some regions would institute legislation which did indeed compromise this "strength". The Balearics had already done so. Other regions, without similar laws to the Balearics, are now catching up, and one of them is Aragon.

The mere mention of "regulation" may be taken as implying a tightening-up and a restriction. But it doesn't have to. Tightening-up has occurred, as in Catalonia, in respect of standards, but regulation has meant permission not prohibition. Aragon's own law that regulates tourist apartments was passed on 22 October. It is a comprehensive piece of legislation but it is not overly proscriptive. Indeed, what it does is to establish four categories of apartment with specific requirements that have to be registered with the regional tourism ministry. And importantly, the Aragon law outlines minimum services that these apartments must have. This is important because, by comparison with the Balearics, as soon as services are offered here a private tourist apartment becomes in effect illegal.

It has been noted in a report by La Caixa bank that the level of tourist stays in unregulated apartments in Aragon is almost three times as great as those in regulated accommodation. The importance of these tourist apartments is therefore undeniable. And the Aragon government has recognised this importance.

Aragon is very different to Mallorca and so it has adopted regulation very different to Mallorca's. But it is regulation which goes to reinforce the incoherence and confusion that national government has brought about. Residential tourism is a strength but only if a particular region agrees that it is.

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