Tuesday, March 28, 2017

In Praise Of Terraferida

Not everyone likes or will like Terraferida. I don't know that I like them, but that's down to the choice of word. Admire is more appropriate. When they have something to say, they do so with impact. People sit up and take notice. Attention was paid when Terraferida exposed the sewage spill in Albufera, just as it was only some three weeks later when Terraferida highlighted the "occupation" of the Cabrera beach.

The information the group has released about unlicensed rental property in Mallorca that is offered via Airbnb isn't necessarily shocking or revelatory. It is more a confirmation. Some fourteen months ago, the data Terraferida has analysed showed that there were over 11,000 properties which were capable - at a stretch - of providing places for almost 80,000 people. Not all of these properties may still be available. Some may have even acquired a licence in the meantime. But you can be sure that more will have been added.

Setting aside the more bizarre accommodation on offer - caves, a tree house, an igloo, for instance - the bulk of it was apartments or houses. In the case of detached houses, there is nothing stopping an owner, as it stands under existing law, from applying for a tourist rental. Apartments are of course a different matter. They are only legal if there is pretence - the absurd shield that is raised by the tenancy act. This is, as has been suggested by legal minds at the university, a fraud in law. And how many tenancy act contracts are ever actually raised and signed?

Not everyone of course pretends. But many do, and Airbnb, courtesy of its colossal disingenuousness, provides the perfect platform. It doesn't trade in "tourist" accommodation. It is merely a go-between. And its insouciance is laughable. Why should it worry? It doesn't. Technicalities in law mean little, and so users exploit loopholes for all their worth. Some do so and are fully aware of the law - many, if not all Mallorcans, one would suggest. Others, foreigners being among them, are just ignorant of the law or stupid.

A thing with Airbnb, it being a product not only of the "collaborative" economy but also of social media information sharing, is that it is very easy to identify what's going on, if someone cares to look. The tourism ministry may, for example, be interested in what a guest of a certain "property" had to say about being collected from the airport by the owner. The transport ministry may also be interested, to say nothing of the tax agency. Is there a transport licence? Almost certainly not. Does this constitute a service? Yes. Does this service contravene the tenancy act loophole? Yes. Has any of this been declared to the tax agency? Who can say. And who can say whether this tourist service - property and transfer - is the result of blatant thumbing of the nose in the direction of the law, of ignorance of the law or of simple stupidity. The law, though, does not accept ignorance or stupidity as a defence.

Terraferida, somewhat like politicians, makes the point that it is less worried about the small owner: someone with just the single property. It is more concerned, as is the government, with the multiple owner. It cites the example of someone with 632 properties. This again is no real revelation. The government knows that there are such cases. It will now be interesting to learn how the government reacts to the Terraferida information. The group will send it all to the tourism ministry: property locations, property type, names.

The ministry, meanwhile, has its own map. It will make it public. It will show legally registered holiday rentals. While it seems to be at pains to say that this isn't some means of providing a "dobbers' charter", it - and the tax agency - are more than happy for members of the public to provide evidence of fraud. The ministry needs the public. It only has fifteen inspectors, and these inspectors are involved in matters other than holiday rentals.

There are any number of people who will defend the right of rental, even if it flouts the law. Tourists using rented accommodation spend money, unlike all those in all-inclusives. This much is surely true, despite what the Exceltur alliance for touristic excellence (members of which include leading Mallorcan hoteliers) says. Its reports showing lower spend than hotel guests are counter-intuitive. There has to be scope for rentals - legally registered ones, including apartments - but not on the scale that is being witnessed and not with the abuses that are being committed.

Airbnb and other such websites are businesses. Despite their good words and PR, they have facilitated property market distortion and fraud. This comes at a social cost, thus - at best - neutering economic gains. Terraferida should be thanked. The government has some very important legislation to pass. The most important of this administration.

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