Saturday, March 12, 2016

Podemos Takes Aim At Hoteliers Over Holiday Rentals

Laura Camargo, the Podemos number two in the Balearic parliament, certainly knows how to win friends and influence people. Or rather, she knows how not to win friends because she isn't particularly interested in their being her friends.

We are talking Mallorca's hoteliers and indeed the hoteliers on the other islands. They, says Laura, consider the islands to be their "cortijos", which literally means farmhouses or farm cottages but in a broader sense can be taken as meaning their domains. The hoteliers treat the Balearics like they own them but there are, as Laura has been at pains to point out this week, "many more people who have the right to offer accommodation to the tourists that we receive each year". Podemos has confirmed that it will be taking part in dialogue to arrive at the best possible agreements on the regulation of holiday rentals. And if the tourist tax is anything to go by, then this probably translates as what Podemos wants on holiday rentals will be what the legislation ultimately contains.

As mentioned in this column last week, it is the government's intention to have legislation signed, sealed and delivered within six months. Whether this schedule takes account of all the haggling with Podemos is not known. But legislation is on its way. What it will look like, no one can say with much certainty at this point. Of elements of the law that have been creeping out, we understand that town halls will be able to determine areas which cannot be used for tourist rental (a different emphasis to saying which ones can be used), that there will be a set of quality standards introduced for accommodation, that a maximum number of places will be imposed according to the type of property and that any property has to be five years old in order to be eligible for tourist rental.

The thinking behind this latter point is to prevent speculative developments with tourist rental alone in mind. It isn't one that the Partido Popular is wholly in agreement with. It doesn't want this provision but nor does it want more supply of accommodation. Which sounds as if it remains inherently opposed to a form of regulation which would facilitate greater supply, as in it remains opposed to apartments being openly marketed as tourist rentals.

All will be revealed over the coming months, but in the meantime there have been a couple of revelations this week that make one wonder as to how permissive any holiday rental regulation might be and also make one wonder as to the veracity of the notion that Podemos is behind what are two inextricably linked pieces of legislation: those for the tourist tax and holiday rentals.

The first of these was the lesser of the revelations, as we have known for some time that the tourism minister, Biel Barceló, has concerns about overcrowding because of the sheer volume of tourists in peak season. He said on Monday that "we have to get used to there being limits on beaches and other natural spaces, just like at a cinema or a football stadium". He made much of the fact that the current tourist model generates inequalities, pointing to the time in the 1980s when the Balearics had the highest per capita income in Spain courtesy of six million tourists. With more than double this number now, the Balearics have slipped to seventh in the income stakes.

The problem for Barceló is being able to define the type of limits that might be suitable. The second problem is how such limits might be enforced. But inherent to both these problems, in the immediate short term, is the issue of holiday rentals. More permissive regulation doesn't per se crank up the volume of accommodation to unsustainable levels, but it has to be reasonably permissive in order to tackle the blatant abuses that are being perpetrated and will continue to be without highly effective enforcement. It is this illegal supply that is a contributor to the overcrowding, but so it might be said is the legitimate supply. Barceló was not looking at the immediate short term, rather at five, ten, twenty years from now, but does one conclude that there is to be a strategic objective to cut hotel places?

The third problem for Barceló is that drawing on what was the situation thirty years ago is not a solid argument for basing decisions on in the current day. Apart from anything else, it may be that other regions have caught up rather than the Balearics going backwards. His analysis may well be simplistic.

The second revelation came from "Preferente" on Tuesday this week. An article said that three weeks before the general election in December, Barceló and President Armengol met with the grand hoteliers of the Balearics. They included apparently Fluxá, Escarrer and Barceló (Simón, that is). What was said at this gathering, according to the article, was that Podemos had the government (PSOE and Més) by the short and curlies over the tourist tax, intimating that it was basically Podemos who were driving it.

The hoteliers, it would appear, bought this, though one finds it difficult to believe that they, given who they are, would simply swallow the argument. The implication, though, was that both PSOE and Més were less evangelistic about the tourist tax than may have been thought. PSOE perhaps, but Més? The article then said that Armengol had been lying to the hoteliers and pointed, rightly enough, to the fact that it was PSOE and Més who between them had brought the tourist tax legislation before parliament. Podemos, it shouldn't be forgotten, abstained on the first pass at legislative approval because its demands were not being met in respect of, for instance, geographical distribution of the tax revenue and its sole use for environmental purposes. This isn't to deny that Podemos is highly influential in the drafting of the tax legislation, but for PSOE and Més to have apparently sought to distance themselves from it at that meeting does take some believing.

If nothing else, and if what was said at that meeting is indeed accurate, then it exposes the purely political nature of current tourism decision-making. The tax is one thing, and the holiday rentals will doubtless be another. In truth, this is no way to be running or legislating for Mallorca's principal industry. But then we probably already knew this.

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