Sunday, December 18, 2016

Bringing Harmony To Holiday Rentals' Regulations

The new secretary-of-state for tourism, Matilde Asián, has hit the ground running. In so doing, she has left her predecessors, notably the immediate one, trailing well in her wake. Of course it may only be an impression - and one that will come to nothing, as these things have a habit of doing - but at least she appears to be proactive. Or proactive in a reactive sense, seeking to undo a mess of inactivity and governmental buck-passing and head-in-sand-burying that she has inherited.

As noted a few days ago, Asián wants to get together with the regional governments and try and find a way of harmonising holiday rental legislation. This would be, again as noted, a volte-face by Madrid. It had directed the regions to take responsibility for the matter, arguing - with some justification - that each region's needs are different.

The needs do differ, but the principles do not, and when Madrid abrogated its legislative responsibility, it hadn't considered the impact of the so-called collaborative economy. One might argue that it lacked foresight in not having taken Airbnb and others into account, but for the past four years it has shown no sign of adopting a proactive stance in reacting to changed - and greatly changed - market circumstances. Until now.

There is to be a tourism sector conference at which the regions will be represented. Asián is hoping that harmonised regulation can be arrived at and be based on "equity (i.e. fairness), taxation and security". In respect of the latter, she has referred to the security which Spain offers tourists (a key factor of course in having contributed to so-called saturation, a further product of which is the holiday let). There has been some alarm expressed about the lack of control and information when it comes to people renting accommodation; hotels, on the other hand, know who they have staying with them.

Asián announced her initiative during the tourism forum in Maspalomas (Gran Canaria). One of those attending, Antonio Mayor, the president of the hoteliers in Benidorm and the Costa Blanca, said that "all administrations" had until now demonstrated passivity and/or permissiveness. There has to be proactivity, he stressed, in combating the black economy and the momentum towards a style of accommodation which threatens to "blow apart" the tourism economic model.

He would of course say this, as have others from the hotelier sector (and also their political supporters, principally the Partido Popular). But while the hoteliers may be devils in the eyes of some on the left-wing, the attitudes of the left, such as with the Balearic government, are being shaped by their anxieties regarding excessive tourist numbers and tax evasion. The passivity in the Balearics, amply demonstrated by the PP government under José Ramón Bauzá, is being discarded, even if Biel Barceló is scrambling around trying to cobble together coherent legislation.

The greatest single barrier to this legislation, as I also mentioned previously, is the Ley de Arrendamientos Urbanos (LAU), national law that doubles - where some are concerned - as a fraudster's charter. Barceló has admitted that this is an obstacle, which is why he wants Madrid to change the law and to exclude short-term rentals under the LAU. He also said that the government intends treating such rentals as being touristic, even if they are not advertised as such. Quite how it will proceed with this is difficult to understand, unless Madrid amends the law. The government can always send in the inspectors, but there are only so few of these.

Barceló and also Asián face other obstacles. One is that the LAU is not a matter for Asián's energy, tourism and digital agenda ministry; housing matters come under the development ministry. The Spanish competition commission may well be another - its attitudes are generally permissive - while EU criteria would also need to be taken into account. Then there is the principle of "family and friends". While this is itself open to abuse, there are owners who genuinely do let family members use apartments without any payment. How might this square with Barceló's desire to eliminate LAU short-term rentals?

Having a national law on holiday rentals would make obvious sense, but although Barceló (and other regional tourism ministers) might welcome some intervention by Madrid, they would jealously guard their powers for tourism affairs, even if they don't really know what to do on the vexed issue of holiday rentals. With Barceló, he does seem to have some idea, but then what does one make of this business of him saying that holidaymakers would have to abide by communities' rules? Who would enforce such rules and how? Communities already tend to have such rules anyway. And fat lot of use it does them, if people choose not to observe them. Just like others choose to bend rules or abuse loopholes, such as with laws on rentals.

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