Saturday, August 13, 2016

Accommodation Regulation: The Devil's Own Job

Biel Barceló has again been talking about limits being placed on the number of tourist places. He was doing so in the context of the launch of the campaign to make Balearic residents understand what sustainable tourism is all about (a useful exercise, it must be said) and to sensitise these same residents to the value of tourism and tourists (even more useful).

The timing of the launch of this campaign and the talk of limits is surely no coincidence. Although the figure is not usually given for several months, there will at some point be an announcement as to the day in high summer when the total population of the Balearics (residents, tourists and any others) was at its peak. The day is always around this time in August. On the tenth of the month last year, the figure topped the two million mark for the first time.

The tourism minister mainly has holiday rentals in his sights. Hotel places, though not totally subject to a ceiling, cannot increase significantly without there being permissive regulation. The "saturation" to which Barceló and others regularly refer stems from the non-hotel sector. He says that when regulation comes along it will not be "total prohibition". The choice of words can seem a little odd. While he implies that there has been such prohibition until now and that it hasn't solved anything (which is true), it has never been total. The prohibition has been for the open marketing of apartments as holiday accommodation and so for the registration of apartments to be advertised as holiday, tourist or vacation rental.

The Barceló remedy will be to legalise some of these apartments (it's easier to talk in terms of legalise, as regulate can be taken different ways). But certainly not all. There is to be no carte blanche for anyone to commercialise an apartment for tourist rental. And nor should there be.

But he has the devil's own job in drawing up this legislation. Apart from the market dynamics, such as with the online accommodation providers, there are the institutional issues in the Balearics. These are the varying responsibilities for tourism organisation and urban planning, ones that reside with island councils and town halls.

There is the possibility that whatever parameters the government seeks to establish for private tourist accommodation, the actual implementation of regulation will not be universal. For example, the councils of Ibiza and Formentera will be loathe to allow greater permissiveness. In Menorca, there may be greater willingness. The council there attempted to get the previous government to relax regulations, a plea that was ignored when it came to drafting the 2012 tourism law. As for Mallorca, the council has yet to assume full responsibilities for tourism, so no one can tell.

At town hall level there will be different needs. As yet, however, it would seem the government is not engaging in active discussions as to what these might be. Councillors in Alcudia and Pollensa have told me that they don't really know what Barceló has in mind. If the new law on holiday rentals is indeed to be ready for parliament before the end of the year, then the government needs to get a move on and consult.

The talk has been that there will be a system of zoning, with apartment rentals capable of being legitimately marketed for holiday purposes in some areas and not others. It sounds like a recipe for legal challenge, while even within the zones there is the not insignificant issue of how communities react. The government, stressing the need for "coexistence" and therefore hinting at community administrators vetoing holiday rentals, has nevertheless admitted that such vetoes may well not stand up in court.

But whatever the government decides, there will remain the question of enforcement. The experience in Catalonia is instructive in this regard. Although there has been greater permissiveness than the Balearics for a few years, this hasn't stemmed the supply of illegal accommodation. In seeking to combat this, the town hall in Barcelona has this week announced a system whereby neighbours can rat on others. Also this week it said that 256 properties were "closed" during July, a process enabled by a specific search engine created to detect illegal properties. Moreover, nine accommodation websites are facing sanctions.

While Barceló says that the Balearics can take no more additional tourists in high summer and he seeks legislative remedy, we can probably anticipate he'll be saying the same things about "saturation" this time next year. And the year after.

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