Thursday, November 02, 2017

The Spanish Problem Of Rentals

"We have an obligation to put order into the tourist offer, the sector and coexistence. These concepts are very clear in, for example, municipality's urban plans."

This quote, translated pretty much literally, disguises - thanks to Spanish usage - the target for this "order". The tourist offer means accommodation, and specifically rented accommodation. The sector is the business of this accommodation. The coexistence is the balance between tourists and residents. The words were spoken not by a Balearic politician but by the director-general for tourism in Extremadura, a region hardly noted for its mass tourism and one without any "sun and beach". There's plenty of sun, very hot sun at that, but Extremadura's tourism is predicated on beach alternatives - the reason why it doesn't have mass tourism.

Francisco Martín Simón, the director-general, explains that the obligation extends to fighting unfair competition that undermines businesses which pay taxes and create jobs. In the region of Castile and León, likewise without any beach tourism, his counterpart speaks of tackling the problem through inspection, agreements with town halls, information and a "register of transgressors". She, Blanca Arévalo, was participating in a conference on interior tourism along with other regional representatives. The messages were basically the same in fighting illegal accommodation.

In Extremadura there are said to be 608 illegal holiday rentals. This is for a region which covers almost 42,000 square kilometres. Mallorca's land size is less than one tenth of this - 3,640 square kilometres. The total land area of the Balearics only barely manages to be above one tenth (it's just under 5,000 square kilometres). The islands' official resident population is almost identical to that of Extremadura.

In terms of tourism, one isn't by any stretch of the imagination comparing like with like. But in population terms one is. The density of population in the Balearics is massive even without tourists adding to it. The 608 illegal rentals in Extremadura are a drop in the Balearic Sea by comparison. You could count that many just by spending an afternoon walking around parts of resorts in Mallorca.

The exact number for Mallorca and the Balearics is hard to know, given the conflicting figures that are issued; or at least were before the rentals' legislation began to have a real impact. Earlier this year, though, the number of properties in the Balearics on Airbnb was 22,000. On HomeAway it was 24,000. Many of these will probably have been duplicates and certainly not all will have been illegal, but even Aptur, the association for holiday rentals, was recognising the scale - more than 40,000 apartments being rented out in an illegal manner, it reported in May this year. Extremadura is roughly ten times the size of the Balearics; the number of illegal rentals in the Balearics wasn't ten times the number in Extremadura, it was heading towards one hundred times as many.

In Castile and León, more than twice the size of Extremadura and with a regular population just over 100% greater, they haven't been able to come up with an exact figure of illegal rentals, but an estimate offered in May this year suggested some 2,000: one for every 1,200 people in the region. In the Balearics the ratio was around one for every 27. The regional government there has introduced fines of up to 90,000 euros, and that is the maximum for individuals, more than twice the Balearic maximum.

Andalusia was also represented at the conference. It does of course have very significant sun-and-beach tourism. It also has a vast interior. The approach in that region has been to enable legal registration. More than 20,000 properties were registered within the first ten months of the law coming into force in 2016. It is reckoned that there were at least 80,000 illegal properties, but even having introduced a relatively permissive regime (not totally unlike Catalonia), the number isn't going down markedly. In Andalusia, where the maximum fine can be as high as 150,000 euros, they want the state to step in, convinced that only national law, and a harmonised one at that, can really get to the bottom of the matter.

Whatever one thinks about the Balearic legislation, the fact is that the Balearics most certainly isn't alone in addressing the rentals' question. Whatever the motive for adopting legislation - to deal with tax fraud, the underground economy, unfair competition, pressures on housing, "saturation" and coexistence - the regions of Spain are all confronted with the issues. When one makes a comparison between two extremes (tourism in the Balearics and Extremadura), one can see how just much pressure there is in the Balearics. But Extremadura, as with Castile and León, Andalusia and other regions, share one undeniable factor in common - the Airbnb effect.

The Balearic government, rightly or wrongly, is castigated for its legislation, but the government, like other regions, is legislating against symptoms. It isn't the cause.

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